Category: Uncategorized

Austin Named America’s Most Dog-friendly City

By Nancy Huang

Video by Kelsey Machala

 

Peanut, a mixed beagle, jumps onto her owners Jordan Tucker and Kennedy Paris when they come home. Peanut, friendly and excitable, circles the coffee table three times, barks at the window, and obediently sits when Paris tells her to.

 

Tucker, an English student at UT Austin, said that when she and her girlfriend decided to adopt a dog it was a split-second decision.

 

“Austin’s a really good place to raise a dog, but we wanted to adopt,” Tucker said. “[Our dog] Peanut moved around from one home to another, five total. Austin Pets Alive was doing a fundraiser with her and a few other dogs in a pen. We literally just looked at her and were like, ‘hey let’s keep her.’”

 

Such on-the-spot decision making was only possible because of how dog-friendly Austin is. “America’s Best Cities to Be a Dog,” a blog post published by air filter business Alen on Friday, lists Austin as number one in the nation for dog-friendly lifestyles.

 

Alen’s website states that Austin’s 167 restaurants, 15 dog parks, five hiking trails, three tours, and seven pet-friendly stores “provide a lot of options for visitors and residents to bring their dogs along most places they go.”

 

The website’s prominent criteria for ranking order was the BSL census (Breed-Specific Legislation), a list of states that have dog breed restrictions. BSL is a law that restricts or bans specific breeds of dogs because of their appearances or aggressive characteristics. 33 states have some form of BSL in place, while the state of Texas doesn’t have any.

 

The data collected came also came from nokillnetwork.org, a site with data on no-kill cities, and BringFido.com, which lists 315 dog-friendly restaurants in Austin.

 

Austin is the country’s largest no-kill city. No less than 90 percent of the dogs in local shelters are adopted out.

 

Paris, Tucker’s girlfriend, has family in Austin and grew up in a house of three dogs.

 

“Me and all my friends with dogs just get together with all our dogs and drive around the city to hang out,” Paris said. “There’s never really any trouble finding a place to hang out.”

 

According to Tucker, Peanut’s favorite place to go is the Zilker Dog Park, one of the main off-leash areas in Austin.

 

“She’s a happy nut,” Tucker said, before telling her dog how lucky she was to be in Austin.

 

Here is a graphic informing what the top cities in the US are to be a dog,

 

Top 5 US Cities To Be A Dog (1)

Austin’s Transportation Struggle

 

AUSTIN, Texas – Like cars in the night, they come and they go. Through break-ups and make-ups, ridesharing services and the city of Austin shared a tumultuous relationship until one gave into compromise and decided to make things work for the community.

The rollercoaster of emotions took a toll on Austinites when Uber and Lyft had a falling out with the Austin city government in May 2016 forcing alternative options to rise.

The city demanded the ride-sharing services require fingerprint testing background checks of all drivers. But Uber and Lyft argued that was an unnecessary cost they did not want to cover. They threatened to leave, and after Austinites sided with the city in a vote, they did–for a year.

Residents from Austin who depended on the service felt an immediate loss.

“I was an avid user of Lyft and Uber-so were a lot of my friends,” said Eric Shea, 24, a member of the Austin community and Mueller area resident, “Many of us don’t own a car and used a combination of public transportation and ridesharing apps.”

During the 2017 legislative session, Gov. Abbott signed a statewide ride-hailing law that did not require fingerprint testing. So, Uber and Lyft made-up with the city and citizens they left stranded and returned to Austin in May.

The two ride-sharing giants were welcomed with open arms by the very people that drove them out.

But watch out Lyft and Uber, there’s new transportation in town. And it’s offering free pickup and drop-off services, until June 2018, that is.

Pickup is sponsored by CapMetro, a public bus service in Austin. The new service is the first transit agency to operate a ridesharing service using their own vehicles. Pickup began its pilot service in June 2017 offering free rides to everyone within the service area.

As the way people use transportation is changing, with increasing popularity of ridesharing services, we are looking for ways to integrate this into our public transportation service,” said Mariette Hummel, a spokeswoman for CapMetro, “This is a pilot, so it’s important to us to find out what works and what doesn’t.”

Now until June 2018, rides are free on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. within the pilot service zone.

According to the Cap Metro website, Pickup will service a select part of Northeast Austin (see map for detailed locations). cap metro

“The route was chosen because it’s a diverse area including schools, a pool, shops and residential areas,” said Hummel, “It also includes both Mueller and senior living centers.”

  The cost of the service after the pilot program has yet to be determined, according to Hummel.

“I’ll definitely take advantage of the free service,” said Shea, “But I would love to know how much everything would be after this pilot program. I just don’t know if I would use it enough to get my money’s worth.”

With a heavy target to the right demographics, CapMetro’s Pickup service seems like a reliable transportation service, but all will be determined once the pilot program concludes and they start playing with the big boys. 

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Black Star Co-op

Black Star Co-op: Preserving a Cooperatively-Owned Business Model Despite Economic Troubles

By: Ross Milvenan and David Lopez

Andy Martinec wakes before dawn, ready for a long day’s work. He puts his hair in a bun and pulls on denim cut-off shorts and a T-shirt. His job? To turn several 55-pound sacks of a grain into something many Americans love – beer.

Andy Martinec is a beer team leader at the Black Star Co-op brewpub, one of the few remaining co-op brewpubs in the nation. Despite facing economic shortcomings in the past few months, Black Star Co-op maintains its consumer-based cooperative business model and continues to pay livable wages to its workers.

The Black Star Co-op Logo  Photo Credit: http://www.blackstar.coop

The Black Star Co-op Logo
Photo: blackstar.coop

“You’re coming in here buying a pint of beer with money that is going towards supporting a company that is paying living wages,” Martinec said.

A living wage is commonly defined as the amount of income needed to provide a decent standard of living. Black Star currently pays $12 or $13 per hour to its employees plus healthcare and dental benefits. They believe the restaurant industry’s typical two-wage system is unfair to the workers and frequently leaves them exploited and underpaid.

“Remuneration, or the total sum of the money that we pay to our workers in wages and benefits, is extraordinarily higher than any other restaurant in the industry,” Martinec said. “But we pride ourselves on that because we want to have a hospitable environment for our workers.”

There are currently 14 cooperatively owned breweries in the United States, according to microbrewr.com. Due to an increased focus on worker’s rights, participation, and community, co-op breweries can face certain economic obstacles that conventional breweries do not. As a result, many of them are struggling.

In 2017, the co-op experienced a 14 percent decline in sales from the previous year, according to co-founder Johnny Livesay. This is partially due to increased competition in the Austin market for craft brewing. The Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission issued seven new brewpub licenses in Austin in 2016.

“2017 has been another challenging year for the co-op,” Livesay stated in a blog post on behalf of Black Star. “We can say things are improving somewhat, but we aren’t out of the woods yet.”

Black Star was the world’s first democratically self-managed brewpub when it opened its doors in 2010. The brewpub now currently maintains about 3,500 member-owners who share a stake in the business. The daily business operations are run democratically by a worker’s assembly, whose aim is to give all workers a voice in the operations. There is also a board of nine directors handling long-term decision-making on behalf of the organization, whom are elected every three years in a democratic process.

Livesay along with the worker’s assembly and the board of directors are reluctant to alter their business model, but realize the reality of their situation. Some members of the board have proposed having the co-op’s self-managed operational body managed by a general manager who is also an employee of the board.

“This would be a major departure from the current structure,” Livesay wrote. “But one that could be welcome at this stage in our life cycle.”

Chris Byram is the lead cellarman at the brewery, who provides assistance to the head brewer throughout brewing process. Byram has been with the brewpub for just under a year after a few negative experiences working in the service industry.

He is enthralled with the process of the cooperative and how they handle business.

“It’s about having a different shared face, you have partners and a partnership instead of a top-down management,” he said.

Byram believes the sense of community with locally owned, independent breweries is evident. Byram said brewpubs in Austin differ mightily from the large-scale, nationally known operations like Coors or Miller-Busch.

“We’ve always experienced a great community of sharing and brotherhood, everybody is sort of willing to help out … if another brewer needs grain or yeast we’re happy to help them out,” Byram said. “It’s an equal exchange. At the end of the day they’ll pay us back or give us another couple sacks of grain.”

Although the collective nature of the brewpub is beneficial for brewers and pub-goers sometimes it can complicate long-term goals and dilute the efficiency of the operation.

“Decision-making can kind of drag its feet. It does get a little frustrating at times where everybody kind of has their own view what’s best for the business,” Martinec said. “But it keeps everybody in check.”

Andy Martinec, head brew master, with Black Star Co-op's house IPA.  Photo: Black Star Co-Op/Facebook

Andy Martinec, head brew master, with Black Star Co-op’s house IPA.
Photo: Black Star Co-Op/Facebook

Lily Shebell is a frequent customer at Black Star Co-op who prefers the brewery’s communal vibe as compared to some of the other larger breweries in Austin.

“There are always nice people who work here. You see familiar faces all the time,” Shebell said. “And it’s a laid back atmosphere. That is why I come here.”

Livesay said only time will tell with regard to Black Star Co-op’s future, but they are open to change as long as they maintain the needs of their members.

“We are expecting, and open to change,” Livesay wrote. “As we continue to work towards improving the co-op, please join us in furthering the co-op’s success by coming in for a pint, or a burger, over the next few months.”

 

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College Chaos Consumes All

Sarah Potts is embarking upon the next chapter of her life and beginning her freshman year at the University of North Texas in Denton, while college senior Garrett Shuffield is nearing the end of his undergraduate journey at The University of Texas at Austin. Both are in very different stages of college life but look enthusiastically ahead to what lies before them. Potts and Shuffield tell of their experiences that brought them to this moment and of personal goals they hope to one day accomplish.

 

Sarah Potts has big plans to attend the University of North Texas in Denton this fall. She will major in biology and hopes to make her way to medical school following graduation 2020. Excited yet nervous to take on life after high school, Potts is looking forward to the unknown experiences her freshman year will bring.

“I think I will change my major simply because I’m not too sure of the one I have now,” Potts said, “everyone I’ve talked to about picking a major told me to be open about the possibility of changing it and to focus on finding what I love.”

Graduating from a charter high school in Houston, Texas, Houston Academy for International Studies, Potts left high school in May 2017 with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

On how she feels about being her own for the first time, Potts felt more eagerness than apprehension.

“It’s definitely going to be something different,” she said.

“I’m more excited than nervous. Now, I have the luxury of my mom. In two weeks, I’ll be on my own and have to deal with a responsibility I’ve never had. It’s thrilling.”

With a smile on her face, Potts talked enthusiastically about who she hopes to be instead of where she wants to be after college.

“I think my next four years will be really discovering who I am and finding out what means the most to me.”

 

Garrett Shuffield is a fifth-year student in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. Soon he will graduate with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in accounting. A few weeks ago he decided to go to law school.

Though he seems to have it all figured out, Shuffield is just one of the many students whose college career boasted twists and turns hurdled with difficult decision after difficult decision.

When asked if this is where his college freshman self-thought he’d be nearing graduation, he laughed.

“OH man, no not at all,” he said.

Shuffield began his freshman year as an electrical engineering major.

“I thought I wanted to make the next iPhone because I’m a super Apple geek tech fan,” he said, “But I quickly realized electrical engineering is the study of electricity, which is SO boring.”

After a  harsh realization, Shuffield dropped all engineering classes and called home, admitting early defeat to his mom and dad.

But thanks to some helpful advisors, Shuffield was able to add other courses to his schedule after the drop course deadline.

He spent the next year working hard to make the best possible grades to transfer into the business school.

Fast-forward one year, and that’s exactly where he was.

“Within two weeks of my first accounting class, it clicked, it made sense,” he said, “I was enjoying it and everyone else was miserable.”

And with positive change followed more big goals.

“I thought that I would just enter the big four accounting world as a tax accountant,” Shuffield said, “But more recently as I’ve thought about where I see myself in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years down the road in my career, I realized that more of my interests and my goals align better with the legal aspects of tax-tax law.”

Shuffield is taking the LSAT in December and hopes to start law school next fall.

Shuffield believes college taught him, not only how to learn, but how to solve problems unexpectedly thrown his way.

“I’m very excited for my future,” he said, “I have no idea what it’ll hold.”

“The past four years have taught me that everything can change at any time. But I’m excited to see where I end up, what I do, who I meet and hopefully change the world,” Shuffield said.

 

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What is Cruelty-Free?

How to be cruelty-free:

So, you’re thinking about transitioning to cruelty-free beauty products? But you’ve already invested so much time and money creating a beauty empire that lives in a suitcase sized beauty bag, and you’re scared of starting over.

Well,  you don’t have to– according to cruelty-free makeup artist Rebecca Seals.

Jkissa shares a vibrant beauty look created with all cruelty-free products for her 296 million Instagram followers.

Jkissa shares a vibrant beauty look created with all cruelty-free products for her 296 million Instagram followers.

The local makeup artist offers tips on how to begin the transition to a cruelty-free makeup routine; ones that don’t require you to throw out your life savings in makeup.

“I understand the stress of those making the switch to cruelty-free,” she said, “When someone makes that decision they usually get this urge of passion and want to throw out every product they have that isn’t cruelty-free.”

But Seals recommends starting small for first timers and slowly incorporating more and more cruelty-free products over time.

“Take the three products you used most and buy them cruelty-free,” Seals suggests, “That’s the easiest and biggest step that will pave the way for a complete transition to cruelty-free.”

Jkissa (who does not give out her real name), also known as @jkissamakeupis a beauty blogger with close to 3 million followers on Instagram and Youtube. She shared her decision to become cruelty-free and vegetarianism began with her retreat with Lush, a 100% vegetarian cosmetics brand, to save sea turtles.

Jkissa with her dog Tsuki, @itmetsuki. After Jkissa rescued Tsuki, the dog developed cancer and had a leg amputated."

Jkissa with her dog Tsuki, @itmetsuki. After Jkissa rescued Tsuki, the dog developed cancer and had a leg amputated.”

“Seeing the damage we as humans are doing to them was really influential,” she said.

Jkissa urges her followers to do their own research before purchasing a product and points them to Logical Harmony for reliable, cruelty-free information.

Rochelle Rae, of Rae Cosmetics in Austin, advises those desiring to go cruelty-free to visit PETA’s website for a list of harmless products.

“Their website lists cruelty-free and non-cruelty-free cosmetic brands,” Rae said in an interview, “That’s a great place to start.”

What is cruelty-free?

In the world of cosmetics, there are multiple levels of production to make a beauty product ready for buyers, and testing is one of them.

Beauty product testing is not regulated by any government agency, therefore it’s up to the cosmetic brands themselves to define what cruelty-free means to their company and consumers.

This gray area can create confusion for consumers desiring a certain kind of product.

But, cruelty-free makeup generally means the product was not tested on animals during any stage of manufacturing.

Brands like Urban Decay and NYX adhere to these guidelines and are marked with “cruelty-free” logo on each product.

Some brands never test on animals and will make it known on their websites, such as Benefit Cosmetics or MAC, but aren’t considered cruelty free. Why?

If you look more closely, websites like these will read, “Some governments require animal testing before the product can be sold.”

According to the PETA website, the biggest obstacle to making beauty products cruelty-free is global expansion. China, where many makeup brand parent companies are located, requires animal testing before a product can go to market.

For this reason, Benefit Cosmetics and MAC cannot officially be labeled cruelty-free.

NARS announced their expansion to the Asian market; a shock to many consumers.

Though labels aren’t everything, as some brands do not test on animals but aren’t identified as cruelty-free. If you aren’t sure, it’s always best to do research on the brand you’re interested in.

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Increase in Rabies Cases in Austin Over the Summer

 

A bat at Austin Bat Refuge. Photo by Kelsey Machala

A bat at Austin Bat Refuge. Photo by Kelsey Machala

 

By Nancy Huang

Let’s say you walk into your living room and, lo and behold, you see a bat in the rafters of your ceiling. Or maybe it’s dozing on the floor. You’re not completely sure what to do–bats aren’t a common animal. Believe it or not, there is a proper way to handle of bats in residential areas, and it will minimize harm for both yourself and the animal.

According to Kelly Carnes from Bat Conservation International, there are approximately 1.5 billion bats in Austin.

“Austin has one of the largest urban bat populations in the country,” Carnes said. “It’s not unlikely that Austinites will find a bat taking shelter in their homes.

Bat being fed a worm at Austin Bat Refuge.

Bat being fed a worm at Austin Bat Refuge. Photo by Kelsey Machala

Bat season in Austin is between March and November, according to the Travis County Health Department website, and comes with a rising risk of rabies cases.

During the summer months Austin’s Mexican free-tailed bats roost in high and dry places, including some houses and residential buildings. Proper removal of the bats should ensure no exposure, but people who aren’t aware are putting themselves in danger.

Rabies is a disease that affects mammals. It is fatal, and usually passed from animal to animal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, rabies exposure occurs only when “a person is bitten or scratched by a potentially rabid animal, or when abrasions, open wounds, or mucous membranes are contaminated with the saliva, brain, or nervous system tissue of a potentially rabid animal.”

Merely touching such an animal, or contact with its urine or feces does not constitute exposure.

Cleaning a bat at Austin Bat Refuge.

Cleaning a bat at Austin Bat Refuge. Photo by Kelsey Machala

According to the Austin Texas Government website, when bats are found in residential homes owners should stay calm and do the following: Isolate the area and close the door, and open a window in the room. There is a high chance that the bat will free itself if left alone.

This strategy works for the entire summer except during the months of June and July–inexperienced young bats may be trapped inside during this time period, and unable to escape.

Carnes said the risk of rabies is lower than people think.

“This time last year, there were only 4 percent of tested bats that had rabies,” Carnes said. “It’s unlikely, but health organizations take precautions because rabies is so contagious.”

Always wear gloves when handling bats.

Always wear gloves when handling bats. Photo by Kelsey Machala

 

Texas Parks and Wildlife makes it  clear that nobody under any circumstances should touch a bat, alive or dead, with their bare hands.

If the bat is resting in someone’s home, then putting a container over them and then sliding a cardboard sheet under it, all while wearing rubber gloves, is the best way to remove a bat.

If anyone is bitten by a bat, people are instructed to call the Austin Animal Center at 3-1-1, or the Austin/Travis County’s Disease Surveillance Unit at (512) 872-5555.

 

Ian’s Giving Garden

Video by Alessandra Rey and Sydney Rubin

 

Written by Michaella Marshall and Sydney Rubin

When Ian McKenna was eight years old, he began building gardens.

He was inspired by a story his sister Addison told him one day after school.  

A girl began to cry one day in Addison’s first-grade class. The girl came from a low-income family and could not afford Christmas presents. She told Addison that Santa would never visit her home because she thought he hates poor people. The story upset McKenna, so he decided to take action.

“I decided to do something about that,” McKenna said.

At 5 a.m. on Christmas morning that year, McKenna and his family visited the girl in Addison’s class. They brought food and presents, which caused a flood of emotions from the girl’s parents. It was a reaction McKenna will never forget, a reaction that made him think about what else he could do to help others.

That’s when McKenna found out that many students at his elementary school only ate when the school provided a free meal. Ian decided to to build his own garden to grow produce and feed the hungry.

“I’m growing gardens to help feed people who can’t afford fresh and healthy meals,” McKenna said.

McKenna, who is now in eighth grade, has constructed four “Ian’s Giving Gardens” over the years. He currently houses gardens at Sunset Valley Elementary, Oakhill Elementary School, the Big Brother Big Sister mentoring center and his own home.

“Ian is an extremely thoughtful kid,”, Ian’s mother Sarah McKenna said. “He named his first garden his ‘Hacienda Garden’ and planted foods that are found in Hispanic dishes because he knew that the majority of the students at the school are Hispanic. For the garden he is planting today, he chose produce that is colorful because he said he wanted to help the preschoolers to learn their colors and for them to be excited.”

The garden at Sunset Valley has made its way into the elementary school’s curriculum. Emily Bush, the principal at Sunset Valley, is impressed with how many people in the community benefit from Ian’s Giving Gardens.

The produce from the gardens is sent to families in need, local farmer’s markets and food shelters across the city.

“We’re blown away with how much produce it’s yielding,” Bush said. “He’s been able to provide a whole dinner for the homeless.”

Students at Sunset Valley use the plants in the garden for research in science classes. Being able to go outside to the garden and look at the plants provides a great hands-on experience for the kids.

“It has had a major impact on the students,” Bush said.

The school has even created its own garden committee, including parents, faculty and other community members.

McKenna’s favorite plants to grow are scorpion peppers, Carolina reaper peppers, fruits and potatoes.

“Picking potatoes are like a scavenger hunt,” McKenna said. “Time to search.”

McKenna dreams of studying meteorology and astronautical engineering to help with his gardens in the future. He hopes to one day plant gardens across the U.S. and eventually around the world. His dream spot to grow a garden is Africa.


Photos by Michaella Marshall

By the numbers

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Infographics by Bella Tommey

Where Western Psychology and Curanderismo Meet

Story by: Itzel Garcia

AUSTIN—Along the Arizona-Mexico border, Alicia Enciso Litschi grew up listening to the word “curanderismo,” a traditional healing practice of Mexican indigenous roots, as part of her Mexican-American culture and upbringing.

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Photo Courtesy of Enciso Litschi

Much later, after earning a PhD in counseling psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, Litschi began implementing traditional curanderismo practices to her profession until she reached a balance between western psychology and curanderismo where both methods of healing worked with each other.

“Curanderismo includes a holistic perspective, it includes the body, the mind, the soul and spirit. If a person is sick, then it is because there’s something wrong with any of these. There’s an imbalance,” Litschi said. “This is something very new to western psychology but beginning to be implemented.”

Both, a curandera and a psychologist, Litschi practices psychotheraphy, or what she calls, “Con alma” or “With soul” therapy. Litschi mainly treats patients with depression, anxiety, social anxiety and imposter syndrome. She also focuses on personal, spiritual and career growth.

The history of curanderismo dates back to indigenous practices before the colonization of Latin America and has developed mainly around Mexican and Mexican-American culture, but Litschi’s approach is inclusive to all ethnicities.

“[If]clients have an open mind to spiritual connections, and if I think it’s something they would appreciate, I tend to use curanderismo to bring a connection with the spirit and earth,” Litschi said.

One of the main curanderismo rituals Litschi implements are “limpias” or spiritual cleansings, in which a person is caressed and rubbed with specific plants. Sometimes, an egg is used to transfer the energy from the body of the patient to the egg. Often, limpias are used to diagnose patients.

“I’ve done limpias with my clients, but also have taught them how to do it themselves because I think that’s also important,” Litschi said.

However, though curanderismo is practiced in professional spaces like in Litschi’s case, it isn’t generally legitimized by western methods of healing.

Curanderismo for the most part is not a certified approach to counseling, Dr. Rachel Gonzalez-Martin said, associate professor in the Mexican American and Latino Studies (MALS) program at UT-Austin.

“Curanderos tend to learn as apprentices –but they aren’t certified like midwives who work in hospitals,” Gonzalez-Martin said. “I think there are informal social networks of training and apprenticing that are more valued than others, also many may also be registered nurses or (have) PhD’s in related health fields.”

Since curanderismo is not certified, specific empirical evidence is difficult to come across of. But there are surveys that record how many U.S. citizens take a holistic approach to mental health.

According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2002, 75 percent of adults in the US have used some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In 2009, 10 percent of children with special health care needs used alternative medicine.

In fact, the recognition of curanderismo by Western psychology is one of Litschi’s main passions that continues to shape her work and her future.

“Curanderismo is it’s own expression of science and needs to be taken seriously,” Litschi said.

Meanwhile, curanderismo remains relevant to cultural practices, specifically with Mexican and Mexican American youth and families.

“There’s been an emphasis in trying to reclaim that which was not lost but which was in hiding.” Litschi said. “It happens a lot within academic spaces, especially when speaking to Mexican American students.”

Celia Valles, a Biochemistry senior at UT Austin, who completed a student thesis about curanderismo, remembers the hands of her aunt rubbing her face, arms and stomach with an egg to release a headache, or an emotional ailing, or what is known as “mal de ojo.”

“I went to a school where most students came from Mexican descent, where the idea of mal de ojo and rubbing yourself with an egg was really common,” Valles said.“Like sometimes, whenever my mom thinks I’m giving too much attitude, she says to me: you need to go get a limpia. Right now.”

 

Birdwatching in the 21st Century

 

Photos courtesy of Chris DuCharme and Phil Butler. Article and graphic by Courtney Runn

“I looked this morning and didn’t see her at all.”

“She’s come out twice. She was chasing the vultures away.”

Chris DuCharme and Phil Butler stand outside of Hogg Auditorium on The University of Texas’s campus almost everyday. From around noon till 2 p.m., you can find them staring up at the UT tower hoping to catch a glimpse of the Peregrine Falcon that lives on top of it. As soon as the bird appears, they pull out cameras, foot-long lenses trained on the sky.

“I kinda joke that he’s the master and I’m the apprentice,” said Butler. DuCharme has been observing the peregrine for several years while Butler just joined him this February. Butler is a program coordinator for the School of Liberal Arts and joins the veteran birdwatcher during his lunch break.

Most of their time is spent waiting. They alternate between sitting and standing and will occasionally walk around the tower for a different angle. Only through their zoom lenses can they truly get a glimpse of the peregrine’s life atop the tower. A problem technology could easily fix. They have a pretty good idea of the bird’s routines, but a web cam could fill in the gaps when they can’t be present in person.

Butler watches a web cam in Pennsylvania that offers viewers constant footage of falcons from several angles. Through this up-close look into their world, he has been able to watch their life: babies hatching, the mother bringing back food to the nest, both parents flying in and out.

“To see it that close up…it’s mind-boggling,” said DuCharme. “Fifteen years ago, nobody thought about that kind of stuff.”

birds-in-texas_22107984_ece29e6eb149112e16d4ae387a208fc512e09c37The Internet, digital cameras, and smart phones have ushered in a new era of birdwatching, making the hobby more accessible. Through web cams and digital cameras, birds can be seen up-close at any time. Websites like eBird allow users to track their own bird sightings, explore bird maps, and alert others to their finds. The tagline for the site is “Birding in the 21st Century.”

Pre-Internet days, DeCharme remembers getting alerts via telephone about bird sightings, but they would be delayed. Technology offers immediacy. If an eBird user records a rare bird sighting, members in the area could know about the bird in real time.

Smart phones also allow for more accessible birdwatching with apps to help users recognize species, record bird calls, and quickly record video or take a picture for later study.

Sheila Hargis works in the police department as a civilian but has been an avid bird watcher for 20 plus years. She volunteers with Travis Audubon, a local chapter of Audubon, a national bird conservation and observation society. Instead of carrying field guides with her on Audubon field trips or personal outings, Hargis uses apps on her phone to identify birds.

“Some of these electronic field guides…link up to the eBird data and if there’s a bird you need to add to your life list then it will tell you, hey this bird is missing from your life list and there was one that just showed up in Bastrop last week and here is where it was seen,” said Hargis.

In 2014, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology released an app called Merlin, which helps new birdwatchers identify species. The app will ask a series of questions, from bird size to location of the sighting, then offer several possible matches of species that would normally be found in the area.

While technology makes birdwatching more accessible, it has drawbacks as well.

“We’re busy entering data on our phone,” said Hargis. “We’re maybe not as connected to watching what’s happening.”

UT student Agustín Rodrigeuz began birdwatching this semester for his class Biology of Birds. He fears technology would discourage people from going out into nature since “you [could] see more ‘exciting’ birds just browsing the Internet.”

DuCharme hopes that a web cam will be installed on the UT tower soon so he can get a more intimate look at his long-time companion. But he’s also not ready for birdwatching to become completely integrated with technology.

He has a few birds he’s got his eye on right now and he’s not sure if he’s ready to share them with the world yet.

UT Plant Center’s Deep Roots

Text By Noelle Darilek

Audio By Armando Maese

Photos By Meredith Knight

One the first floor of the University of Texas Tower tucked around a corner, there is a nearly invisible door which opens up to a small room with low ceilings, file cabinets, stacks of folders and files, and a small kitchen and office areas stuck off to the sides.

This is the UT Plant Resources Center, hardly the herbarium you’d imagine it to be. The space could almost double as a basement.

Bob Jansen, UT Plant Resources director, meets with George Yatskievych, botanist and curator at the resources center, every Wednesday to discuss topics like funding and future plans for the center.

Jansen has been a member of the university faculty since 1991. Fairly soft-spoken, he sits at the round kitchen table in a striped t-shirt next to Yatskievych and describes the resource center as a “hidden treasure.”

The university was founded in 1881 and the herbarium was created shortly after in the early 1890’s when Dr. Frederick W. Simonds came to work at UT. Simonds was interested in plant research and collected various plant specimens in the process, thus the herbarium was created.

However, it wasn’t called the Plant Resources Center until the mid-1980’s when the university took on a second major herbarium that was donated by famous botanist and archaeologist, Cyrus Lundell. Today it houses over a million different specimens, from wildflowers to seaweed, and is the largest herbarium in the Southwestern United States.

“All of our resources are dead,” said Yatskievych. “We are a giant morgue with plant cadavers.”

With specimens that date back to the 1760’s and the most recent being from last month, the resources center has seen a lot of changes in the type plant growth in the world over time. The center collects specimens and documents the plant, which was growing at a specific location and time.

“We take in about 7,000 new specimens each year,” said Yatskievych. “We accept well prepared plant specimen donations from anyone who has a need to have such specimens housed in a publically accessible museum where they can be catalogued, made available for study, and preserved for perpetuity.”

This includes donations from students and faculty, botanists, environmental consultants and even members of the public. The center relies on the person who collected the specimen to supply them with the information on where, when, and by whom it was collected.

The plant specimens are stored in folders in horizontal piles on shelves in specially constructed museum cabinets. These cabinets are tightly sealed to prevent insects, fire and flooding from ruining them. The specimens are then used mainly for scientific purposes, such as genetic testing.

Amalia Diaz, assistant curator, said the valuable plants are more than just plants – the plants have a lot of important data associated with it.

For example, the center has a plant called Eupatorium organense, a member of the sunflower family, from Captain Cook’s first voyage in the South Pacific. It is from 1768 and was found in the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil area. Several other plants from Captain Cook’s first voyage collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander can also be found here.

Being the only plant collection located on the UT campus, students studying a related field also utilize the resources center.

“We’re still finding uses for our collection,” said Yatskievych. “Last semester we had an artist who visited and imaged some of our specimens as inspiration and as raw materials for some of his art projects. So it’s not all science.”

With a staff of three, plus help from 10 undergrads who work part-time as herbarium assistants, the center wants to show that it is an important contribution to the university.

UT has been one of the lucky ones, as natural history collections, such as the one at Northeastern Louisiana University in Monroe, is facing impending closure.

“Natural history collections at public universities are especially vulnerable to loss of support and closure,” said Yatskievych. “Other institutions are scrambling to figure out how to arrange a transfer of the huge volume of materials…fortunately, the collections at UT appear to be stable for the immediate future.”

Jansen notes that universities tend to close resources centers down due primarily to limited funding and changing priorities.

“Collections are an easy thing to cut because at some places it probably doesn’t serve that many people at the university,” said Jansen. “At the Louisiana institution, they’re taking the space to build an athletic facility, so athletics is obviously more important to them than having collections.”

The 13th largest herbarium in the United States, the UT Plant Resources Center has a couple hundred visits annually for those coming to work with the plants, not counting visits from students for class related activities.

In an 80-year-old building, the small room in the UT Tower isn’t quite constructed to double as a plant resources center. Yatskievych said being located in the tower is kind of a trade off. While being centrally located for students, it can be hard to park at and get to for others that are not on campus.

The small staff knows their center can be hard to find, but are currently working on new strategies to get noticed.

The UT Plant Resources Center is currently awaiting the opening of a new biodiversity center to use as an opportunity for outreach. The center will bring together the various biodiversity collections at UT to have all in one place.

“In the past there were scattered collections, but the idea is to have a biodiversity center to have them under an umbrella,” said Diaz. “It’s going to have its own building and it’s going to be more visible to people.”

Jansen said the center would be more convenient and better for interaction, as UT’s collection would be housed with the other related ones.

“We’re on multiple floors of the tower and we’re grateful to have that space, but it isn’t very convenient,” said Jansen. “The curators and staff and directors of those other collections, it would be to their advantage for interactions to be in the same place.”

The center will not be open until the start of the upcoming fall semester and is part of the Integrative Biology Department, directed by Dr. David Hillis.

“Having the center creates opportunities for better communications and potential shared projects among the collections and station staff, even though we are rather spread out in terms of locations,” said Yatskievych. “Having a center also hopefully will lead to a new building in the future where the natural history collections can be housed in a more state of the art museum facility.”

Even when the biodiversity center is created, the goal of the resources center will remain the same – to be as useful as possible to other people, whether it’s helping them with projects or identifying plants.

Although for now most people don’t know the resources center exists, Yatskievych said he and his staff are trying to help as much as they can. They want to continue serving the Texas population more and more.

“We want as many different people excited about plants and nature as we can get in through our door,” Yatskievych said.

 

Audio Script

Since the 1890’s, the Plant Resources Center has been one of the UT Tower’s hidden treasures. It houses over one million dead plant specimens that have mainly been donated by people outside of the university.

 

“We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t able to show that we are important for research education and outreach. The university doesn’t just allow things to exist just because they are. Nothing is safe in that sense, everything has to show that it’s part of the community and contributing to the university’s mission.”-George Yatskievych

 

George Yatskievych  is the head curator at the center and runs it alongside two other officials and a handful of undergraduate assistants. He believes that the plant resources center is a valuable resource for all kinds of projects, such as standard biology projects history dating projects and art collages.  The Center does not receive any money from UT, it solely relies on donations from others and grants from research projects. The Center is not in danger financially, but it is running into some other concerns.

 

“We’re open to the public so we don’t exclude anyone. We want as many people as possible excited about plants and nature as we can get through our door. It’s a little difficult because first off a lot of people don’t know we exist, we’re still working on marketing ourselves, branding ourselves, but also being at the university, parking is an issue. The university is big so sometimes it’s just a matter of being at the right part of campus and we try to help people with whatever type of questions they have, whether it’s a beginner or whether it’s someone who is very technically advanced.”- George Yatskievych

 

Bob Jansen, director of the plant resources center, says that another issue is the fact that many UT collections are scattered all over the place.

 

“A lot of the collections are over at the Pickle Research Center, which is 14 miles from here. That’s not very convenient for the people that are out there. It would be more convenient if everyone was out there or if it was somewhere else together. So that I think is something that we would like to see in the future and there’s certainly been a lot of discussion about it now. So I think there’s a reasonable chance it could happen.”- Bob Jansen

 

There have been talks of a biodiversity center, which would include the Plant Resources Center. Assistant curator Amalia Diaz believes this is a step in the right direction.

 

“When we talk about the new Biodiversity Center, this new initiative at UT, it’s giving us that opportunity to reach out to people in a different way, not only the enclosed collections but also different activities and they can see what we do and they can get involved so when it’s time to defend something you know what it is and you can go for it.”- Amalia Diaz

 

As the Plant Resources Center continues to grow, its variety of uses will also expand, as they are currently trying to reach out to property owners and others that did not know about the center before. Through this, it will be even more beneficial for not just UT, but rather the entire state of Texas and beyond. Armando Maese, multimedia newsroom.