Snakes on a Plain

image from Capitan St. Lucifer

Forget Hollywood. Global warming is making horrible movie sequels better than those hotheads in the hills can.

Soon coming to a Midwest near you: An Inconvenient Truth 2: Motherfuckin’ Snakes in the Motherfuckin’ Great Plains.

That’s right. But why exactly are there snakes on this Plain?

According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, the python’s habitat is expanding northward with the increase in temperatures caused by global warming. As the Midwest warms up, our grasslands, previously uninhabitable to such snakes, could become home to the 23-foot-long creatures.

“If we had normal, cold winters, that snake probably wouldn’t survive, but we haven’t had winters like that for a long time,” says Joe Collins, a herpetologist with the Kansas Biological Survey.

Researchers first discovered a Burmese Python invasion in Florida in 2003. The Burmese Python, a type of Indian Python, is an invasive species, meaning that it is not native to the United States, and researchers think that the growing python population came from the offspring of a pet that someone released into the wild. The colony of pythons is now self-sustaining.

Climate models for the year 2100 show the python’s potential habitat slithering north and putting a stranglehold on the eastern half of Kansas, including the Lawrence area.

“The Indian Python is loose and breeding in the Everglades,” Collins says. “It could go as far north as Kansas, but that’s a hypothesis based on guesses. We aren’t sure that it’s going to happen.”

The habitable areas for reptiles are always based on temperature because these animals are cold-blooded and must have warm weather to survive.

“Reptiles are temperature-dependent,” Collins says. “If it goes down to freezing, they can die. If we have global warming, the mean annual temperature would increase so that the habitats would creep upwards.”

Collins says he received a call about a year ago from a farmer who lived south of Lawrence who said he had a snake problem. The farmer mailed him the shedded skin of a large snake, which Collins says was that of an Indian Python and was about 11 feet long.

“The farmer said, ‘All of my cats and small dogs are gone. What can I do?’” Collins says.

These snakes typically live underneath buildings and come out during the night.

“As far as I know, that Indian Python is still down there,” Collins says. “The snake could have been a pet that got turned loose or escaped. It’s a good example showing that it’s just not cold enough up here anymore.”

Collins said that other invasive reptile species have already been seen on the KU campus. Species like the Italian Wall Lizard, which can now be found in Lawrence, originally came from Europe.

“There are lots of species that come in through the South, a lot of those from Florida,” Collins says. “There are 64 kinds of invasive species in the U.S., and many have been moving north.”

Collins says Mediterranean Geckos were discovered two years ago in Lenexa. The geckos were crawling under warehouse lights in the business district.

“There is a lot of lumber here from Florida,” he says. “The animals can escape when packages or crates break. Florida has a big, big problem. All kinds of things are loose down there.”

As Kansas’ climate gets warmer, the eastern part of the state would provide a better habitat to animals previously found in wetland-filled areas like Florida.

“It’s more humid here in the eastern part of the state, so we would have more tropical animals,” Collins says. “Desert animals would probably do better in the western part.”

Calling these recently moved-in species invasive is somewhat misleading. At least with amphibians and reptiles, Kansas’ ecosystems have not seen many negative impacts, Collins says.

“There are no problems that we know of,” he says. “We could not find any bacteria or diseases. Many think that the python poses a danger to humans, but I don’t think so. But who knows what will ultimately happen. This definitely changes things.”

originally published in Jayplay magazine on March 27, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.


How An Ex Turned Me Vegetarian

image from aussiegall

I can’t believe it. I’ve been had.

He softly wrapped his arms around me and leaned in to whisper sweet nothings into my ear.

“Do you like tofu?” my vegan then-boyfriend cooed.

I shuddered at the thought of eating something with the texture of a cloud and the flavor of a dirty sock.

“Soon enough, baby, soon enough.”

I thought nothing of it, but he had unknowingly planted the seed of a vegetable-based lifestyle in my mind.

Fast forward a few weeks to the break-up dinner, where I’m shoveling blocks of Thai-flavored tofu down my throat in an attempt to salvage the relationship.

He wasn’t having any of it.

I was devastated, but after he left, I vowed to give up meat to win him back. I had no idea I had just become the victim of vegan-sexuality.

Vegan-sexuals reject meat-eaters as partners, but they turn meat-eaters into vegans through the most effective recruiting tool known to college-age students: sex, and the newest STD, a sexually transmitted declaration.

Good to know that vegans can spread their awareness, among other things, to the general meat-eating public.

“People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals strongly advocates interdietary relationships,” says Ryan Huling, PETA’s college campaign coordinator. “We believe that if at all possible and appropriate, every vegan should sleep with a meat-eater so as to let the carnivores experience the difference, the energy and stamina of a vegan lover.”

Because of the break-up, I hadn’t been fully converted to veganism, but I did take the huge slice of meat out of my life.

But there I was among all the right vegetarians for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t care if thousands of cattle were being needlessly killed. My heart had been pumped full of hormones, grown quickly at an unnatural rate and then slaughtered.

This made vegetarianism a horrible battle that I knew would last until the cows came home.

By Day 41, the dreams returned. I was nestled all snug in my bed while visions of Brella’s crunchy chicken cheddar wraps (no lettuce or tomato) danced in my head.

“You’re dreaming about meat?” a friend asked. “You’re the worst vegetarian ever.”

It was becoming increasingly harder to stick to my guns, (which I don’t use to kill animals), but now I’m at Day 73, and the meat desires have mostly subsided, partially because of Feb. 18’s largest beef recall in the history of the United States.

Thank you, undercover videos of lax USDA inspectors!

We live in a society that questions the degree of things: Barack Obama is black enough, and Hillary Clinton is woman enough, but is being a vegetarian “vegan” enough?

“Anyone who is taking a step to reduce their meat consumption is headed in the right direction,” Huling says. “Some people may not feel comfortable going vegan overnight, which is why we encourage people to start with solid steps, whether that means eating one vegetarian meal a week or even once a month.”

I haven’t yet stretched my vegan-sexual wings to convert others, but opening minds to the concept is half the battle.

Judy Carman, co-organizer of VegLawrence, a local vegan potluck held monthly, says it’s best to approach people in a gentle, compassionate way.

“Most of us were meat-eaters until we learned something,” she says. “You should get to know people the best you can.”

I’ve been had. I felt like a piece of low-grade tofu that had been chewed up and spit out, but in the end, I accepted that piece of tofu as an integral part of my life.

I won’t argue that vegetarians taste better, but since I was impregnated with the notion of vegan-sexuality, I’ve progressed from a vegetarian full of spite and revenge to a vegetarian full of peace, love and pesticide-free vegetables.

All is fair in love and dealing with vegan whores.

originally published in Jayplay magazine on March 13, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.

— This piece was one of two opinion pieces selected from the University of Kansas to compete for a Hearst Award in Fall 2008. It earned points in the editorial competition and helped KU earn first place overall.

From the Hill to the Landfill

photo by Lauren Keith

The four Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle, remember this phrase for the rest of eternity) have been drilled into our heads, and it seems Lawrencians are finally learning that one man’s trash is another man’s recycling.

When throwing something away, most people do not usually think about the final destination. Where exactly is “away”?

For most of northeast Kansas, “away” is about 10 miles north of Lawrence, just past the Jefferson County line. Tucked away on 360 acres behind limestone quarries and rows of trees is the Hamm landfill, the final resting place of the University’s trash.

Charlie Sedlock, division manager for Hamm Waste Services, estimates that KU Facilities Operations hauls in about 40 tons per month. He says this number changes seasonally, but this averages out to about 3 pounds of trash per student every month.

Current statistics show that an average American produces a little more than 7 pounds of trash every week.

How could it be that the average American generates a pound of trash daily, but KU students are only producing one-tenth of that?

Enter the ubiquitous blue recycling bins that litter campus.

Sedlock says the amount of trash generated per person has decreased because of recycling. Even though the landfill serves more customers, Sedlock says the amount of waste coming in has plateaued during the last five years.

Even as a waste company, Sedlock says Hamm Waste Services has a vested interest in seeing cost-effective and well reasoned recycling programs succeed.

“Disposal is the cheapest option, but not necessarily the only option,” he says. “It’s more of a philosophical question. If the citizenry that our clients are serving want some sort of recycling program and our client is able to do that in a cost-effective manner, we think it’s a win-win situation. If they aren’t serving their citizens, then multi-national corporations can come in and take control.”

Although many picture the surface of the landfill as a liquefied mess of diapers and yard clippings, the ground is actually hard, and the landfill appears to be filled with discarded paper products. Sedlock says the largest percentage of waste coming in is paper products, such as cardboard.

All paper products can be recycled, and the City of Lawrence is doing a better job of advertising this, but Sedlock says that by the time they get to the landfill, they are beyond being returned to the blue bins.

“It’s not an environment for recycling by the time it gets here,” Sedlock says.

When trash is dumped, the pressure that accumulates from the weight of the trash above does not allow it to break down and biodegrade.

“It becomes mummified trash,” Sedlock says. “I can show you a banana peel from the day you were born or a yellowed newspaper from 1984.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, landfills are the No. 1 source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Sedlock says waste produces a mixture of gases for about 20 years after it is discarded, peaking like a bell curve in the middle of the life cycle.

He says a fair share of gas passively vents from the landfill, but it is required to meet regulatory EPA thresholds.

However, a promising aspect of methane is the fact that it is one of the few greenhouse gases that can be harnessed to create energy.

Sedlock says Hamm Waste Services will look into converting emitted methane into energy, but the current system lacks a way to transport that energy.

It seems like Lawrence has overcome the hurdle of creating an effective recycling program, but it was disheartening to see that the majority of the waste in the landfill could have been recycled. Residents in the northeastern part of the state have obviously decreased the flow of waste going into the landfill, but the city and the University should look into mandatory recycling programs that would cut this back even more.

We can’t trash-talk recycling any longer. With recycling bins and other trash alternatives available nearly everywhere, there’s no excuse not to clean up your act.

originally published in Jayplay magazine on Feb. 28, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.

The Forgotten Greenhouse Gas

image from gogreen

“Too chicken to go vegetarian?”

A recent batch of ads sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asks this question.

Though PETA’s primary concern is for the animals, eating meat is actually deadly for the planet, too. One of the leading contributors to climate change is the amount of methane gas released by current methods of agricultural production.

Methane is the chief component of natural gas, but the place that it’s coming from these days seems anything but natural. One cow farts and burps out more than 63 gallons of methane daily. Multiply that by the 1.3 billion cattle in the world, and the planet is going to need a bit more than a dose of Gas-X to cure this problem.

Not surprisingly, several so-called environmentalists have had trouble addressing this problem. Not once in his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, did Al Gore mention methane, probably because it’s the most inconvenient truth of all. Your flesh-eating tendencies are killing the planet (among other things).

The beef industry gets a prime cut of the blame, but the other industries are guilty as well. The production of two pounds of beef releases more greenhouse gases than taking a three-hour drive in your Hummer while leaving the lights on back home, according to New Science magazine.

It can be a lonely world come mealtime for us vegetarians in the Midwest (motto: Beef, it’s what’s for every meal of the day). Even food that appears to be vegetarian is sometimes cooked in animal fat or contains traces of meat.

Fortunately, dining services on campus have been receptive to the needs of vegetarians and others looking for the occasional meat-free meal.

“We are always looking for vegetarian recipes,” says Nona Golledge, director of KU Dining Services. “Even though someone may not classify themselves as a vegetarian, they still want healthier options.”

Golledge estimates that about 26 percent of Dining Services’ 5,000 recipes are vegetarian.

For students who don’t want to make the full transition, residence hall dining facilities serve soy Boca burgers and black bean burgers.

On-campus dining selections have a huge influence on what students eat. Golledge says that on an average day, the 20 on-campus dining operations serve about 10,000 people.

KU Dining Services recently introduced organic foods into select venues, and meat from Local Burger—a restaurant that serves only locally raised meat­—is offered in The Market in the Kansas Union. As consumers, we should buy organic and local products whenever possible because doing so cuts down on pollution while also supporting our local economy.

Becoming a full-fledged vegetarian is a bold and difficult move. I don’t know how many more films like Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me or visits to TheMeatrix it will take for people to make the move to eating less meat, but we can’t keep farting around with such a serious environmental problem.

originally published in Jayplay magazine on Feb. 21, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.

Challenging the Cash Cow

Switch to Grass-Fed Beef a Painful Lesson in Economics


No. 68 isn’t lazy, but she hasn’t done much today but eat. Grass stems hang from her slowly chewing mouth, and she seems irritated that the humans have disturbed her in the middle of her all-you-can-eat special.

As the sun sets on her prairie buffet line in Lenexa, the time this black Angus cow has on the open land may be drawing to a close. Joanne Preston, the owner of No. 68 and 74 other cattle, takes some of her cattle to auction, where they are purchased and sent to a feedlot. So far, the cattle have munched mostly on grass for the majority of their lives, but once they hit the feedlot gates, their diet will be switched to a steady stream of corn.

Preston said she feeds her cattle grain in the winter to help them survive the cold, but the high feedlot doses these cattle may soon receive is unnatural — unnatural by nature but necessary for Americans’ demand for a 24/7 supply of beef.

The evils of economics have ensured a steady supply of grain-fed beef in the United States through corn subsidies and a seemingly insatiable appetite for hamburgers, even though grain prices have increased. However, some farmers have seen the benefit — but unfortunately, usually not monetarily — of keeping cattle grass fed their entire lives.

Thanks to federal corn subsidies, the price of corn is about 75 cents less than the cost to grow it. Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writes that because of this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture helps farmers easily dispose of their surplus corn by having animals convert as much of it as possible into protein for people to eat.

Grass-fed calves don’t usually need antibiotics, but after switching to a diet of corn, Pollan said they become prone to sickness.


“The shift to a ‘hot ration’ of grain can so disturb the cow’s digestive process that it can kill the animal if not managed carefully and accompanied by antibiotics,” Pollan writes in his article “Power Steer.”

But as demand for beef grew after World War II, the then-fledgling beef industry found a powerful tool in corn.

“Compared with grass or hay, corn is a compact and portable foodstuff, making it possible to feed tens of thousands of animals on small plots of land,” Pollan writes. “Without cheap corn, the modern urbanization of livestock would probably never have occurred.”

And neither would have McDonald’s.

“Farmers would optimize grass production to sell cattle at the end of the fall,” Larry Hollis, who specializes in cattle health at Kansas State University, said. “That used to be the way it was sold in the olden days, but that’s not how McDonald’s operates. They sell hamburgers 365 days a year.”

‘The market is all about dollar signs’

Local farmer Joyce Williams raises grass-fed cattle, but, at first, not because she saw the potential negative effects on the cattle.

“We have never fed them grain because we never realized that they needed it,” Williams said. “The cattle looked healthy and tasted good, so why did they need grain?”

Williams, co-owner of MJ Ranch in Lawrence, said the business has never made a lot of money from its grass-fed beef.

“The market is all about dollar signs,” Williams said, “but it’s not the right thing to do for the animals.”

However, market demands have changed, and more consumers look for grass-fed beef.

MJ Ranch has already sold out of its grass-fed beef for the year, the first time this has happened this early in the season.

Hollis estimated about 5 percent of cattle consumed in the United States were entirely grass fed, but said this niche market is developing.

Williams said the ranch has had a lot of visitors.

“People come to us and see that what we’re doing is what we say we are doing,” she said.

The Bottom Line

However, for some farmers, the cost of having more land for grass-fed is far more expensive than spending more money on pricier feed.

“You have to own a lot of grass or buy a lot of feed,” Hollis said. “Feed cost is extremely high, and it has affected the price of owning grazing land. This is driving up the price of grass-fed cattle because we are growing less corn.”

In the end, it boils down to an economic showdown, but the consumer seems to gradually be accepting a cow like No. 68 that is slower grown but more naturally raised.

Most cattle start as grass fed, even if they end up as grain fed.

“The grain gives the cattle the extra energy they need in the winter,” Preston said. “But they get good grass all through the summer.”

The New BYOB

image from diongillard

College students should start a new BYOB: Bring Your Own Bag.

At the grocery store, when asked if you want paper or plastic, your answer should be neither.

Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, which, like all plastics, is derived from oil. According to WorldWatch, fewer than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled, leaving the other 100 billion to clog streams and take up space in landfills.

Plastic sucks.

It takes 11 barrels of oil to make a ton of plastic bags. Our reliance on this seemingly innocent staple of American life could be continuing our country’s dependence on oil from the Middle East.

Because of the plastic bags’ detrimental effects on the environment, San Francisco banned them last year. It is the first city in the United States to do so, but other large cities like Boston and Chicago are considering similar proposals.

Even though nothing that green is growing in the Midwest, consumers can still curb the amount of waste generated by their everyday shopping habits.

Some stores in the Lawrence area offer a discount for customers who bring in their own bags. Both The Merc, 901 Iowa St., and all Dillons stores offer a five cent discount for every reused bag.

“We do this for grocery bags, produce bags and coffee bags,” says Janie Wells, general manager of The Merc. “I started in 1996, and we’ve been offering the discount at least since then.”

Sheila Rowrie, Dillons spokesperson, says that Dillons has been offering the discount “for as long as any of us can remember,” and that she has been with the company for 11 years.

Even though five cents may not seem like much money, the spare change adds up over time. The problem with offering this discount is that many customers have no idea that it even exists. Rowrie says that the discount is not explicitly advertised.

“It’s more of a word-of-mouth thing,” she says.

Wells says that The Merc has some in-store signs about the discount and that it is occasionally mentioned in advertisements or newsletters.

For people who don’t see the environmental benefits of using reusable bags, they need to be notified of the four Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle, remember this phrase) and shown the monetary benefit they would gain.

Larger chain stores, such as Wal-Mart, do not offer a discount for bringing in your own bag, but assistant manager Robert Garner at the store at 3300 Iowa says that the store welcomes people who want to BYOB.

“You can bring your own bags in—that’s fine,” he says. “We probably don’t offer a discount because we have a very big recycling program that the company uses for all stores, so that the bags are used as many times as possible.”

Although reusable bags are omnipresent at all types of stores now, larger corporations are still dragging their feet on the issue.

“Customers can buy a reusable bag for $1 at the store, but we do not offer a merchandise discount,” Wal-Mart spokesperson Bill Wertz says. “That may be something we’ll consider in the future, but I wouldn’t want to speculate at this point.”

Bringing cloth bags to the grocery store is more common now than it was in the 1980s or 1990s, Janie Wells says. She estimates that 30 percent of The Merc’s customers now bring their own bags.

Wells says that The Merc has resisted charging customers for using the store’s bags, a trend that is becoming increasingly popular on the West Coast.

“It’s the Midwest,” she says. “That’s pretty harsh. I would rather approach this through education and offering a reward for making a good choice.”

Now that you’ve got the facts, don’t be left holding the wrong bag.

originally published in Jayplay magazine on Feb. 14, 2008 (PDF). Click here for its original online home.

How To Green Your Sex Life

image from margolove

Nothing says “I love you (and the Earth)” like a Valentine’s Day full of organic massage oils, a box of fair trade chocolates and a bottle of locally produced wine.

Some sex toys, including dildos, contain chemicals called phthalates, which makes hard plastics like PVC softer and gives a jelly-like feeling. But phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which means the chemicals mimic hormones and do damage to sex organs. Contributed photo Even though most people don’t think about keeping the environment clean before doing the dirty, spending a little extra time choosing more environmentally friendly products is worth the delay.

Some sex toys and dildos contain chemicals called phthalates, which makes hard plastics like PVC softer and gives a jelly-like feeling. But phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which means the chemicals mimic hormones and do damage to sex organs. The European Union has banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys since 2004.

According to TreeHugger, a surefire warning sign is a disclaimer that you might find on sex toy packages that say that the device should be used for “novelty purposes only.”

To avoid the more dangerous end of the chemical spectrum, look for sex toys made from hard plastics, silicon, metal or glass.

As with all your purchases, try to find products that are labeled “natural” or “organic.” Steer clear from petroleum-based products and anything with artificial scents, flavors and colors. Find products that are sexy but durable and rechargeable. Although these products might be more expensive initially, you get more bangs for your buck in the long run.

Latex and lambskin condoms are generally thought to be biodegradable, but polyurethane condoms are basically plastic, which does not biodegrade and creates more landfill waste. Unfortunately, there are not many green products available locally — both Richard Osburn, the owner of Naughty But Nice, 1741 Massachusetts St, and Holly Kirkpatrick, manager of Priscilla’s, 1206 W 23rd St., say they did not carry any specifically environmentally friendly products — but a quick Google search should satisfy your green spot.

Latex and lambskin condoms are generally thought to be biodegradable, but polyurethane condoms are basically plastic, which does not biodegrade and creates more landfill waste.

Still, the best green love option available is to find someone who isn’t going to fuck over you or the planet. For single ecosexuals, there are several online dating sites that promise to hook you up with your green soul mate.

One of the oldest green dating sites is Green Singles, which first started out as a postal newsletter in 1985. Lee Schulman, president of GreenMatch LLC, says the site has just over 14,000 members with 800 new members each month.

Schulman says that GreenSingles was created “as a place for progressive singles in the environmental, vegetarian and animal rights community and other green singles who love the outdoors, holistic living, personal growth and spirituality to meet up and network for friendship, dating, romance and the exchange of information and ideas.” Other dating Web sites for the environmentally friendly include Green Passions, Human2Human, and Veggie Romance.

Of course, there’s always the Lawrence Farmers’ Market, the Wal-Mart Recycling Center, Critical Mass gatherings or the produce department at the Merc to find that special someone, too.

originally published in Jayplay magazine on Feb. 7, 2008. Click here for its original online home.