Bear Pond Books – Orangutan Houdini & Creating Global Connections

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Laurel Neme – Orangutan Houdini & Creating Global Connections


Laurel Neme travels around the world to learn about, and write about, animals. She is a contributor to National Geographic, host of “The WildLife” podcast, and author of the book Animal Investigators about the world’s first wildlife forensics lab to investigate poaching, smuggling and other wildlife crimes. In 2014, Bunker Hill published her first picture book Orangutan Houdini. On January 24th, she will be at Bear Pond Books at 11:00 am speaking to educations about animals, conservation, and making global connections from Vermont classrooms.

In preparation for her workshop, we sent Laurel some interview questions, which are answered below. She also gave us a list of her favorite wildlife-related books for kids, which are linked here (with some added ideas from us).

Come join us on Saturday, January 24th. As always, this workshop is free, open to the public, and coffee and snacks will be served. We have certificates of attendance available for educators who can use these workshops towards continuing education credits.

How did you first get interested in wildlife and wildlife protection?
I suspect it was a confluence of people and books that first got me interested in animals. My mother was a science teacher (and later a writer), and as a kid we’d watch Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau television specials. In third or fourth grade (it was a multi-age class), my teacher, Mrs. Savitt, fostered that love through reading and writing. She “published” her students’ stories. Mine was “Zeebie the Zebra”.  She also encouraged us to read fun books. My favorites were Doctor Doolittle and James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, which allowed me to dream about a career helping animals.

You’ve written about many animals, what stood out about orangutans that made you choose them for your first picture book?

Their intelligence and similarity to humans. They’re problem solvers, like us, and they thrive on challenging themselves. Fu Manchu is probably the most famous orangutan escape artist, but there are several others who easily could have been the subject of this story. They also have a sense of humor. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some very special, and devious, orangutan individuals myself – and the more I get to know them, the more I’m enchanted.

I’ve always been interested in primates. Like many young women, I wanted to be the next Jane Goodall, and even studied primatology in college. But while researching my first book, ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS (on wildlife forensics), I discovered the prevalence of orangutans in the illegal pet trade. They’re incredibly cute when young, so people want them. But because mothers won’t relinquish their infants, poachers typically kill them to get the babies. It’s a sad story. Even worse, their forest habitat is being cut down to make way for palm oil. That has two impacts: it’s easier to find them (for pets) and they no longer have their homes.

While orangutans are endangered, there is a lot we can do to help them. However, the first step is to care. I wrote ORANGUTAN HOUDINI not only because it’s a funny story but also because when a reader gets to know an individual animal, they start to care. I hope that when children and their parents meet Fu (admittedly, one very special ape), they’ll come away with a love of orangutans.

What are some ways that you’ve seen kids and / or teachers get involved in conservation? Any examples from Vermont?

There are many things kids and their parents can do to help protect orangutans and other endangered species. Most important is to create awareness.

There are many ways you can do that: school projects, sharing articles on social media, or writing letters to local newspapers. You may have heard of Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, two young women I know and admire who, when they were in middle school, gained national media attention for trying to get Girl Scouts cookies to use more sustainable palm oil in their cookies. What’s interesting is that their campaign started very small, with a school project and sharing information with friends.

Another girl I know, Allie Boyer from California, started raising awareness when she was just 9-years-old. She created “Borneo Bob”, a flat cutout of an orangutan that she sent to friends along with a letter explaining the plight of orangutans, similar to Flat Stanley.

You can get creative. For instance, after I spoke at Moretown Elementary School in central Vermont, a group of third graders decided to wear orange to show how much they loved orangutans.

You can also write to policy makers or companies, or raise money to support specific organizations. But remember, it doesn’t have to be about orangutans. You can have an impact on whatever you care about. You can do that very effectively by simply sharing your passion.

If you want more information, I have a wonderful Teacher’s Guide that was developed in collaboration with educators and scientists that you can download free from my website. In addition to activities for language arts, mathematics, science and social studies, it contains a number of ideas to help students take action to help orangutans or any other species.

What animals / issues are on your mind right now for future writing projects?

I’ve got several writing projects underway right now, including more picture books and several articles for National Geographic. My son and I also volunteer at Outreach for Earth Stewardship, which rehabilitates injured birds of prey (like owls, hawks and peregrine falcons), and I’m planning to tell some of their stories.

Laurel Neme is speaking at Bear Pond Books on Saturday, January 24th, from 11:00 – noon.