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Wild Chapel Hill

There’s a side to the quiet Town of Chapel Hill most folks don’t know about….and it’s a wild one.

A barred owl fledgling rests on a log beside Bolin Creek, soon after leaving the nest for the first time.

Do you have to go ‘into the wild’ to see wildlife?  No! Even urban areas can have a surprising diversity of wildlife.  Case in point:  Chapel Hill, North Carolina is a university town of around 60,000 residents, making it the 15th largest community in the state.  It is one corner of the high-tech hub known as the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill).

Don’t let the ‘town’ in the official name fool you, Chapel Hill is a fairly densely populated area, with a greater number of persons living per square mile (2,687) than large cities such as that of Atlanta, GA (630) or Nashville, TN (1,300).  Only 7 percent of land remains undeveloped.

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Piebald white-tail deer seen on a town trail

I toss out these statistics to establish that Chapel Hill is truly an urban environment, with high population density and built-up environment.  Yet, it is home to a rich diversity of wildlife.

 

What’s around town?

I am a wildlife photographer living in Chapel Hill, so when I’m around town I usually have a camera with me.

Gray fox near Homestead Road

Over the past year, I’ve been documenting the wildlife I’ve encountered which I’d like to share because it is truly outstanding. Among the animals I’ve photographed:

  • Barred owl
  • Gray fox
  • Bald eagle
  • Raccoon
  • Opossum
  • Deer
  • Nutria
  • Beaver

    Nutria in Bolin Creek near Franklin Street
  • Woodchuck (groundhog)
  • Rabbit
  • Great blue heron
  • Three species of hawks
  • Monarch butterflies
  • And far too many birds, insects, and reptiles to list.

I set up some camera traps in my tiny backyard (I live on a quarter acre within in the city limits).  The animals which have been documented in my yard:  gray fox, raccoon, opossum, white-tailed deer, flying squirrel and a host of birds.   Some mornings, I hear the hoot of an owl and the call of a coyote.

Marsh rabbit from a town trail

Increasingly residents are living and working in close proximity to wild animals whose native habitats have been lost or fragmented by development.

owlWM
Barred owl at sunrise near Morgan Creek

I’ve lived either in or near Chapel Hill for around 30 years. The area has changed dramatically, with the region booming with new development.  Clear cutting is more commonplace than ever before.  Native wildlife habitats have been lost or fragmented.  Increasingly residents are living and working in close proximity to wild animals, who have adapted to city life and are attracted to man-made food sources.

Is living with wildlife safe?

When people and wildlife live in close proximity to each other, it can lead to conflict.  However, much of the issues are of our own making.  Leaving garbage or food out and getting too close to wildlife can lead to problem behaviors.

steeplevultures2 (1 of 1)
Black vultures atop Christ Church in Southern Village

Wildlife should not be feared, but we should have a respect that these are wild animals. I have encountered residents who, for example when I point out a barred owl roosting in a tree, are simply terrified.  They find it difficult to understand that unless they are the size and weight of a mouse, the owl has little interest in them!  Fear stems from a lack of knowledge and interaction with the natural world.

Barred owl near Franklin Street & Estes Drive.

Yet, I have also encountered residents (and photographers!) who don’t have enough fear and get entirely too close to a wild animal.  I have a long zoom lens so I can stay a good distance away from my subjects.  But many (far too many) times while I’m photographing a subject, a passerby will get way too close in an effort to snap a picture with their cell phone.  I’ve even seen naturalists with binoculars and photographers with zooms get too near an animal’s personal space proclaiming ‘oh, this one is used to people’.

Great Blue Heron at Finely Golf Course

Such harassing interactions always cause the animal to flee, creating a hazard for both the animal (who may be flushed from a safe spot into the open where it may face predators) and people—a frightened animal may perceive you as a threat and lash out towards you in self-defense.   Observe.  Appreciate.  Be respectful.  Don’t harass.

If you leave wildlife alone, they will leave you alone.  One exception…a sick or injured animal.

Baby raccoons on a backyard deck off Weaver Dairy Road

With most wild animals, if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.  The exception being a sick or injured animal.  Rabies is an issue in the region; yet it seems far too many people mistakenly think ‘it must have rabies’ at the first sight of a fox, raccoon or bat.  Just because an animal can be a carrier of rabies does not mean every single animal is rabid.

Red-shouldered hawk at Bolin Creek

How do you know when an animal is sick?  A good rule of thumb:  wild animals should act wild, having a healthy fear of humans. As a wildlife photographer, I take great care to not be seen by my subjects because the moment I’m spotted, they will retreat. Even among urban animals who have been acclimated to people, they may tolerate your presence but they will never approach you.  If a wild animal chooses to approach you, that’s not normal behavior and a sign that you should keep your distance.

Where to see wildlife

  1. Look where you already go every day, close to home or work.  We are often so focused on where we are going that we don’t take time to truly look around us.  You might be surprised what’s in plain view!  I’ve seen owls at UNC, bald eagles over 15-501, fox off Weaver Dairy Road and a woodchuck raising a family in a burrow right under busy Franklin Street!

    woodchuck
    Who’s living a busy Franklin Street bridge?   A woodchuck, also known as a groundhog!
  2. Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County has many great public trails.  Many are paved and easily accessible, such as Bolin Creek trail, Morgan Creek trail, and the Riverwalk.
  3. UNC owed lands contain public trails from which wildlife can be found. Carolina North Forest and the NC Botanical Garden’s Battle Park and Mason Farm Biological Preserve are great places.

Want to see more?

Wildlife of North Carolina note cards

 

 

Exclusive: NatGeo’s Yellowstone Live presents years old documentary footage as live

National Geographic Channel presents footage published 3 years ago as being from animals they filmed this week during the broadcast, Yellowstone Live.  

As a wildlife photographer, I abide by a few simple rules:

1) Respect the wildlife.

2) Get the shot honestly and ethically.

3) Present an image in the post-edit as close to how you actually experienced it.

In the era of photoshop and fake news banter, authentic photography is a fundamental ethic which National Geographic Magazine has historically promoted.  Editorial polices express the belief that what the reader sees, should be what the photographer saw naturally…no baiting of wildlife, no over-manipulation of images during post-processing, etc.

Unfortunately, this ethic apparently does not extend to National Geographic Channel with videography because it is purposefully and with shocking intent presenting stock footage filmed 3 years ago as being from animals they are following this week during a live TV and internet broadcast.

Yellowstone Live, is a four-night multi-platform production presenting the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park.  It premiered on the National Geographic Channel August 5, 2018 and is hosted by former CBS reporter Josh Elliott with co-hosting by animal expert Chris Packham and FS1 reporter Jenna Wolfe.  In the series press release, it says the production will use

“a complex network of 34 live cameras, 200 crew, cutting-edge, first-ever cell-phone bundling technology to broadcast in the most remote locations, live-audience interaction; digital coverage on multiple platforms and innovative technologies including the following:

A “Magma Cam,” a thermal imaging camera, which will reveal Yellowstone’s thermal features

Aerial views of essential wildfires

Aerial filming of a wolf pack in remote wilderness area

Footage from inside a beaver lodge”

Let’s examine that last bullet point…footage from inside a beaver lodge.  The co-hosts in both Episode 1 and 2, present multiple clips of beaver lodge footage as either ‘happening right now’ or with the introduction “these are pictures we got a little while ago”.   Yet, these are the exact same video images which appeared in Wild Yellowstone, a documentary published by National Geographic in 2015.  Not ‘sort of similar’ but exact frame for frame identical.  These animals were not filmed “a little while ago” as the host states, unless you count 3-4 years ago as fitting that criteria.  See the comparison for yourself:

Above Snip from 2015 documentary “Wild Yellowstone”
Snip from Yellowstone Live Episode 2

Host Josh Elliott introduces the Episode 2 clip by saying “Another family intensively studied is a family of beavers who we’ve been with all week long following this family out at Schwabacher’s Landing.  We want to check back in and see what they’ve been up to.”  In fact, the animal family in the footage was first published in a 2015 documentary Wild Yellowstone-Grizzly Summer.

“Another family intensively studied is a family of beavers who we’ve been with all week long following this family out at Schwabacher’s Landing.  We want to check back in and see what they’ve been up to.” In fact, the animal family in the footage was first published in a 2015 documentary.

Color footage of a beaver with a branch is shown while Christ Packham narrates. Then as the color footage transitions to a black-and-white infrared scene, Packham says Now these are some pictures we got a little while ago showing….” The footage airing during Packham’s narration is from the 2015 documentary.  Packham continues, “Let’s listen..remember this is in pitch blackness.” Both Packham and Elliott chat back and forth about how cute the images and sounds of the baby beaver chewing a stick are.  (See the full clip below).

A second clip is then played showing a beaver on a the bank felling a tree.  The image is of a single beaver first running towards then direction of where the tree will fall and then, changing direction and running away.  Eliiott wraps up the segment by saying “so that’s what we were capturing remotely”.  This is the exact same beaver footage from 2015.  Judge the comparison:

Above Snip from documentary Wild Yellowstone 2015
Above Snip from Yellowstone Live Ep 2

Emmy Award winning wildlife cinema-photographer Jeff Hogan was on the production crew of the 2015 Wild Yellowstone footage and is also featured prominently in Yellowstone Live photographing a beaver dam.

Jeff Hogan Yellowstone Live Ep 1

Hogan provides live commentary, indicating that he can ‘hear the young beavers squawking’.  He does not verbally present his footage from the 2015 production, rather it is co-hosts Elliott and Packham who pass the footage off as ‘a family of beavers  they’ve been following this week’.

Anyone who has ever tried to photograph wildlife knows that wild creatures are unpredictable…they don’t perform on demand. I personally think attempting a live show with wildlife is asking for disappointment…truly wild animals cannot be located on que, let alone photographed doing captivating things which might keep an audience’s attention for one or two hours.

Therefore, it is understandable that the production company would need to have some stock footage on hand for those  moments when their 34 live cameras and 200 crew (if that is indeed true) fail to capture anything at all worth sharing.  If they’ve done their homework, then those moments should be rare AND they should say so…the audience will understand.  The show would have been just as good without the false statements. But to present it as either happening right now or even within the past few days is dishonest.  And this is the impression the audience clearly received. 

 

In an era where the term ‘fake news’ proliferates and science is routinely questioned, educational programming should be beyond reproach.  Shame on National Geographic and the production company (Plimsoll Productions in association with Berman Productions) for not being more forthcoming in their presentation of wildlife. If we can’t trust what we see on a nature presentation from esteemed National Geographic, then it’s a sad commentary on where we are culturally–that the desire to entertain and fool the audience outweighs the desire for truth and transparency.  How is the public to trust anything else presented?

Watch a 2 minute clip from Yellowstone Live Episode 2 and judge for yourself if you get the impression the footage presented is live/recent from the week or from 3 years ago, links to exact same images from 2015’s Wild Yellowstone follows below:

 

The full Wild Yellowstone documentary containing the beaver footage can be viewed at time mark 7:45 and 34:00 of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTjQJtr44Gk

 

 

 

North Carolina bald eagles: a comeback success story

Photo by Beth Waldron, taken at Haw River, Bynum, NC 2017
Haw River, Beth Waldron, 2017

I recently went to the Haw River near Bynum, North Carolina to try out a new lens and unexpectedly encountered two bald eagles. Unexpected because not a single pair of bald eagles were nesting in North Carolina in 1983 when State biologists first released juveniles into the wild as part of a recovery effort. Now there is a thriving eagle population with an estimated 300 eagle territories statewide and 125 nesting pairs. The Haw River feeds into Jordan Lake, where around 20 eagle pairs nest and many more visit.

Decline and recovery

We know bald eagles were part of the historic environment in North Carolina because they were mentioned in a 1709 publication (A New Voyage to Carolina) by explorer John Lawson.  The Cherokee Indians also have stories passed down about golden and bald eagles.  So we know eagles were in the state, but why did they disappear?  The NC Wildlife Resources Commission cites several reasons for the eagle population’s decline:

  • Deforestation
  • Hunting
  • Poor water quality
  • Agricultural pesticides
Bald eagle catching a fish at Jordan Lake. Beth Waldron 2017

The most dramatic of these threats came in the 1960’s & 70’s when fish and other animals were exposed to pesticides such as DDT and PCBs which washed into streams and lakes. When the bald eagles ate fish and prey animals containing the chemicals, they too ingested the toxic substances.  Female eagles laid eggs with much softer shells which crushed under the weight of the nesting mother. In 1972, Congress passed a series of bills banning these chemicals and creating protections for eagles and other raptors.

The NC Bald Eagle Project was launched in 1982 to re-establish an eagle population in the state.  At first, eagles were raised in captivity and released into the wild around Lake Mattamuskeet in eastern NC. Many of young eagles died due to avian malaria carried by the local mosquitoes (which the young eagles had no natural immunity to).  Attempts at further reintroduction ended but in 1984, the first post-DDT wild bald eagle nest was documented just 7 miles from the lake.

State activities evolved to include the identification and monitoring of new nests and providing technical assistance to landowners and timber companies on how to help identified eagle populations by protecting nesting sites.

In 1990, wildlife habitat management practices were implemented at man-made reservoirs Jordan Lake and Falls Lake in central NC to provide roosting and nesting habitats for bald eagles.  Now there is a thriving eagle population at the lakes with around 20 nesting pairs at Jordan Lake in the area where the photographs posted here were taken.  Statewide there is an estimated 300 eagle territories  and 125 nesting pairs.  Isn’t this is a lovely chart showing how humans can have impact when we change practices to help save species decimated by our own actions?

Source: NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Bald Eagle Fact Sheet 2005

Track an eagle!

 

Today’s technology allows for even more advanced study and management of the NC eagle population.  NC State University professors Ted Simmons and Roland Kays lead a project using state-of-the-art GPS transmitters to study bald eagle movements in North Carolina.  In January 2015, an immature bald eagle who had been successfully treated by rehabilitation experts for an injury was able to be released back into the wild with a solar-powered GPS transmitter affixed.   Since her release, the eagle, named Yangchen, has made extensive use of reclaimed phosphate pits and catfish ponds near the Albermarle Sound. Recent maps of the bird’s movements are available to the public online and updated four times a day by the Movebank animal tracker site. The scientists are hoping to track the immature bird to follow migratory movements, pair formation, and nesting behavior over the next several years.

The bald eagle population has made a remarkable comeback in North Carolina.  It will take continued effort to ensure we never again are without them.

Haw River, Beth Waldron, 2017

Want to see more local eagle photos?

Visit:  https://bethwaldron.smugmug.com/Eagles/

 

 

 

 

 

A dose of nature

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”
Anne Frank

When the world begins to feel scary (and lately, that seems far too often), I step away from the internet and the constant barrage of sensory overload to go for a walk.  I find peace in communion with nature. The trees are my cathedral, the birds my choir and the sunlight a reminder that there is always another daybreak after even the darkest of nights.

Don’t think you have to live in the country to find a quiet moment with nature.  I live within city limits and the following photos I took whilst on walks within a short distance of home in easily accessible public parks..just in the past week!

Serenity and wonder is all around….if you take time to look for it.  If you enjoy these, try visiting a new site I’m working on, Nature NC and share what you see on your walks.

Barred Owl at UNC’s Battle Park
Bald eagle catching a fish at Jordan Lake

Bolin Creek bath
Getting ready for cooler days ahead
Lovely song…wish you could hear.   (Get outside & you can!) 

Pre-existing condition: a palatable term for government sanctioned discrimination

We tend to think of health care as complicated.  Here’s a little secret:  it’s not.  It’s only evolved to be a complex system because we’ve made it that way.  When a physician sees a Medicare patient, an estimated 130,000 pages of rules and regulations influence that relationship. The Affordable Care Act and it’s supporting regulations are defined in over 20,000 pages.  Private insurance policies are as varied as the millions of firms offering employee health plans. Add to the mix that these coverage rules are in a state of constant revision.

Any interaction that is managed with volumes of legal-ease is bound to be one the ‘average American patient’ will not understand and with new health care proposals coming from Congress with little notice in rapid succession, it is next to impossible to comprehend how provisions buried in tens of thousands of pages may impact us far down the road.  It need not be this way.

At its core, our complex health system governs one very simple fact of life:  we get sick and need help to get better.   The devil in the details comes in how government chooses to manage this basic need of its populace.  It’s disheartening that the current health policy mentality doesn’t seem to appreciate this basic fact.

Humans are frail living creatures.  We don’t live forever.  We each die of something biological that causes our bodies to stop functioning. None of us will live our entire lives without having a single illness or accident.  Cut us and we bleed.  If we fall, our bones break. Our vision and hearing decline over time.  Our teeth rot.  And if we live enough years our hearts will eventually tire and fail.  Our cells easily mutate and multiply…cancer.  If you think of it, our bodies are so subject to ailments that it’s a wonder in ancient times we lived long enough to advance civilization at all!

Yet, this natural propensity towards illness is now given the ominous regulatory label of ‘pre-existing condition’, which has come to carry a negative connotation with penalize-the-patient policy proposals.  Don’t think illness is the natural order?  Health and Human Services analysis shows up to half of Americans under age 55 have a pre-existing condition and that number rises to 86 percent for those over age 55.  Fact is, most of us have already experiences some form of major illness in our lives and for those who haven’t, live long enough and your time is surely coming!

But alas, all is not lost!  Here comes science and medicine as the saviors of humanity.  Modern health care compensates for our physical frailties. Until this century, life was nasty, brutish and short. We now have the mind-blowing ability to have our vision corrected, repair our dental cavities, remove cancerous cells, mend a broken bone, treat a failing heart and stop a serious bleed.  Science and medicine extend not just our life, but improve the quality of that life.  That’s huge.

The rub is that life-extending scientific achievement comes with a price tag.  Our entire, complex health system is set up for no other reason than to sort out who in society can easily access these scientific accomplishments, when and how much they should pay for it.  That’s it. There is no other reason for private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid to exist…they are the more palatable modern version of ancient gladiatorial fights, with the winners (those who can access and afford care) being able to live another day.

The larger question is whether government’s rules for the fight should be applied equally to all persons regardless of age, gender, geography or any other criteria.  If we truly believe in equality, it must. To create layers of complex code which creates conditions in which only seniors, only the disabled, only the poor, only those without pre-existing conditions can access government facilitated care is contrary to ensuring the general Welfare as defined as an essential role in the Preamble of the US Constitution.

To create layers of complex code which creates conditions in which only seniors, only the disabled, only the poor, only those without pre-existing conditions can access government facilitated care is contrary to ensuring the general Welfare as defined as an essential role in the Preamble of the US Constitution.

There’s a fundamental inequity when government intervention results in a playing field in which a 68 year old cancer patient, retired with Medicare can access life-saving treatment, potentially, without paying a single dollar out of pocket but a 38 years old cancer patient, working full-time with employer sponsored insurance, cannot.  And, if the younger patient is lucky enough to survive, go back to work and pay off medical debt, they are penalized by not ever being able to get insurance again due to now having a ‘pre-existing condition’.  Such inequality created and endorsed by the federal Government via thousands of pages of regulation unintelligible to the ‘average American’ runs counter to its purpose of promoting the general Welfare.

If we accept as a fundamental starting place that we are all equal then why would this equality not apply to everything the government does, including insurance?  Otherwise, the federal Government is favoring one segment of people over another…the well over the sick, seniors over the middle aged and the young, the poor over the middle class, those who have lived long enough that the natural frailty of the human body has manifested in a “pre-existing condition” and those who have not.

To draw a line and say ‘this group is worthy of easily accessible and affordable medical care and this group does not’ is truly rather arbitrary.  It is not the federal Government’s role to divide us into segments, but rather to treat us all equally in its exercise of power.  If one segment deserves medical care, then we all do.  Few of us will escape this life without encountering an illness, accident or frailty. Any policy which does not reflect this undeniable fact is doomed to eventual failure.

Call it ‘Medicare for all’, call it ‘single payer’, call such a health system by any name you wish….but call our only fair option what it should be, an equal right to enjoy government’s promotion of the general Welfare.  That’s not socialism, it’s equality and that’s about as democratic as it gets.

How one bird improves public health

We love penguins.  We make blockbuster movies about them–Happy Feet, March of the Penguins, Madagascar Penguins, Mr Popper’s Penguins.  And the penguin related merchandise…wow.   But vultures?    Not so much. When a vulture makes an appearance in a movie, they add a sense of foreboding…something bad’s looming about.

Grant it, vultures might not have the cutest face among the birds of the world–put a turkey vulture up beside a barn owl and it’s not a fair match—but I suggest that like so many things in life, you can’t judge a book by its cover.   Today is International Vulture Awareness Day (oh yes, there IS such a thing!)  So indulge me and let me hit you with a few tidbits about these often misunderstood creatures who are an essential part of our ecosystem.

Vultures prevent the spread of disease.
King Vulture..how can you not love this face?

Vultures eat dead stuff.   It’s one reason they get a bad reputation–people find disgusting the notion of eating rotten flesh.  Yet, this act provides a valuable service.  Nature is full of dead animals who succumb to sickness, diseases, accidents, cars, starvation or are the leftover remains of predators.  Vultures are great at sniffing out these dead animals.  And, they get rid of these health hazards for us!

I will not get into a stomach-turning detail of how carcasses rot and attract nasty bacteria and how that makes it way to human populations–just trust me that if you leave enough dead flesh outside long enough, it becomes a catalyst for disease spread.

Vultures excel at gobbling up putrid flesh that would kill any other creature.  Their stomach acid is incredibly corrosive which allows them to safely consume some truly deadly disease-causing organisms like botulism, anthrax, and cholera.

Endangered and essential:  a lesson in what happens without them

Consider a real-life example of what happens when vultures disappear from an ecosystem.  Among the Hindu culture of India, cattle are considered sacred. Of an estimated 500 million cows in India, only 4% are consumed by people.(Ref 1) That means there’s a whole lot of cow carcasses to deal with, around 12 million tons annually.  When cow dies,  it is not consumed by people, but rather by the vultures. They are the waste-disposal system.

The problem for vultures began in the 1990’s when cattle in India began to be widely treated with an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac. (This drug is an NSAID and is also used in humans to treat inflammation such as with arthritis) The drug effectively poisoned the vultures who ate the cow’s flesh, causing them to die of kidney failure within hours (Ref 2).  Between 1992 and 2007, the population of one vulture species–the oriental white-rumped vulture–is estimated to have declined by 99.9%. (Ref 3).  Where there were once over 80 million of these vultures, the numbers are now only several thousand–the fastest population collapse of any wild bird in history, including the Dodo.(Ref 4)

What happened when the vultures disappeared and were no longer consuming dead cattle?

  • There was a build-up of carcasses which both contaminated water supplies and harbored diseases like anthrax (3)
  • The disappearance of vultures allowed other scavenger animals to take their place–namely rats and feral dogs. which carried pathogens and therefore spread diseases throughout human populations such as rabies, anthrax and plague.(1)
    • Today in India, there are an estimated 18 million feral dogs, the largest population in the world.  30,000 people die from rabies each year, more than half the world’s total.(1) 70% are children under age 15.

In response to the ‘vulture crisis’, India officially removed the drug diclofenac from market in 2006, but it continues to be available illegally in some areas.  Unfortunately, the damage has been done and it will take some time for the vulture population to rebound, if at all, to levels which will improve public health.

Note that diclofenac continues to be available in the EU and US, however it has not been linked to significant declines in vulture populations in these areas.

Take-away:  we are interconnected

While the lessons of what happened in India with the vulture population has many implications for other countries, the biggest is that it illustrates just how interconnected our ecosystems truly are. What on first glance appears to be an ugly, disgusting, ‘useless’ bird turned out to be an absolutely essential element in public health..and in ways no one would have ever predicted.   So next time you see a vulture by the side of the road enjoying some roadkill, don’t be repulsed. Rather, rejoice in the great service nature has provided–that ugly, bald bird is actually in a very real way out there improving your health!

Tidbits:

There are 23 species of vultures worldwide (14 are considered endangered or threatened). They are found on every continent except Australia & Antarctica.

Vultures are among the longest living birds in the wild–around 30 years.

Vultures mate for life.

They reproduce very slowly–they don’t reach sexual maturity until 5-7 years old and produce 1 chick every 1-2 years.

What’s a group of vultures called?  A committee, venue or volt. In flight, a flock of vultures is a kettle, and when the birds are feeding together at a carcass, the group is called a wake. So many names!

Spooky warning? Nah, they’re just enjoying sunning themselves.

REFERENCES

  1. What is a Vulture Worth?  PBS
  2. The Population Decline of Gyps Vultures in India and Nepal Has Slowed since Veterinary Use of Diclofenac was Banned, Nov 2012, Journal PLOS
  3. The truth about vultures BBC Earth
  4. Conserving South Asia’s Threatened Vultures,Save our Species
  5. BNHS, Société zoologique de Londre, 2007

EXCLUSIVE: Historic cemeteries became Wall Street traded commodities, now financial trouble looms

How do you turn a profit off a cemetery? That is the question now facing a financially troubled international firm owning 19 of North Carolina’s once community run cemeteries, including the large historic Montlawn Memorial Park in Raleigh and York Memorial in Charlotte.

StoneMor Partners L.P.,  a Trevose, Pennsylvania headquartered company, owns 316 cemeteries and 105 funeral homes in 28 states and Puerto Rico.  Its stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker $STON.

In a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing dated July 28, 2017 the StoneMor Partners LLC admitted they have technically defaulted under the terms of their credit agreements–agreements which allow for creditors to call due $151 million in outstanding loans, immediately if they so choose. The company is seeking relief from its creditors. Industry analysts say the company is unlikely to meet it’s credit obligations because “the company has no history of generating cash flow and had only $15 million of cash the last time it filed audited financials for Q3 2016, yet it has continued to pay dividends and even expanded its sales force.”  Required financial reports for 2017 are overdue.

The default comes on the heels of a class action lawsuit filed in federal court in November 2016, in which investors accused the company of providing misleading and falsified earnings numbers designed to make the company appear profitable.  The complaint says StoneMor promoted the false figures while ramping-up dividend payments to investors each year, yet never actually generating sufficient cash flow to make these distributions. Instead of issuing cash distributions, the company simply kept issuing new securities and used those funds to pay off old investors in what has been called a ponzi-like scheme.

The class action complaint says StoneMor financial statements were “premised on a financial shell game that involved raising fresh capital from investors just in time to distribute a portion of it back to investors”

As a result, the company’s stock has taken a nose-dive, down 60% since August 2016, further increasing pressures for the company to demonstrate results.

What does this mean for StoneMor owned cemeteries and the grieving families which utilize their properties?  Already, the struggling company has been accused by customers at multiple cemeteries of property neglect and squeezing grieving families for cash by utilizing harsh sales-driven policies. (sources below)  My investigation has found a pattern of questionable business practices and low to non-existent regulatory oversight.

Here’s how it manifests for consumers:

Sales Representatives misrepresented as Counselors

StoneMor is currently recruiting 93 sales representatives nationwide, according to their corporate website. Below is the job advertisement as it appears on the StoneMor website,  each position is identical in wording with only the location and name of the cemetery changed. The positions are commission-based and promise high income.

Note the highlighted language:

job recruitment(source: https://careers-stonemor.icims.com/jobs/3812/sales-representative/job

However, the persons hired into these sales positions provide grieving families conducting business at the cemeteries with business cards identifying their position as that of a “Family Service Counselor“.

Business card from StoneMor employee

No mention of their role in sales is provided to consumers nor are families told they are working on a commission basis.  No counseling services are provided.  A search for ‘family service counselor’ on the StoneMor ‘careers’ website returns zero results and redirects to the ‘sales representative’ positions.

How do the Family Service Counselors/Sales Representatives from 20 different StoneMor owned cemeteries describe their work–is it counseling or is it sales?

In their own words:

“You’re not a counselor, this is a sales role in the death care industry.”

“you don’t get paid unless you make a sale

“You are made to lie, and cheat customers and in their own words “prey on the emotions” when someone just died.  Create the urgency!! is the motto.”

“the atmosphere was predatory

“Forget the legal aspects of customer service, forget actually caring for families who have lost loved ones and are grieving, they need stuff and you had better sell it to them.”

“concern is only for “the sale” and how to manipulate any and all into a purchase

“They want you to bring up past death experiences with families to make them feel guilty about not pre-planning for their families. It’s all about the money.

“The company is less about the families we are servicing and more about meeting numbers.”

“business model is based on outdated vacuum sales tactics that are to be expected on a car lot and not in a cemetery.”

“Tells you to put family first but only cares about profit unless there is the chance of lawsuit!”

“Commission only!…The “leads” were going through family members of people buried in the cemetery”

“Money hungry! And will say and do whatever necessary to get it out of families!”

Unethical means of generating leads.”

“Vultures….Let us circle the dead and pick the families wallets clean..If you do not do this you are not considered worth their time.”

“location manager don’t care about families, all they want is the sales… even if the families are having money problems.

“They mark the memorials up 350%. You heard that right. Ripping people off at a time of desperate need.

“The operating Officials should spend a day in an office. They should also experience a death. This industry has to change. I feel very sad for the communities that have to deal with the steady rule changes and never having a steady friendly face.”

“Issues needing to be resolved are put on the back burner as selling pre-need is “more important” – according to management.”

“If you’re gullible, you may even trick yourself into thinking you are helping people”

“I have heard more complaints from families than praise

-former full-time StoneMor Family Service Counselors  Source: Glassdoor, Inc. job recruitment company reviews Source link

What happens at the community level when distant profit motives intersect with grieving families & low regulatory oversight?     A case study

When you have a financially troubled distant corporation striving to meet shareholder expectations and commission-earning staff incentivized to sell products, the outcome for families utilizing a cemetery is almost inevitable. To better illustrate the local impact, here’s how this corporate profit squeeze has played out in one North Carolina cemetery:

Wayne Memorial Park, Dudley NC

Wayne Memorial Park is a 40-acre perpetual care cemetery located in Dudley, North Carolina–a rural farming community in Wayne County where the average income is $34,598. The property is an ideal spot to watch military jets fly low overhead as it lies directly at the end of a runway for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in nearby Goldsboro, NC.  Due to the proximity to a large military base, the cemetery is a popular final resting place for Veterans and their families as well as the community’s predominantly farming and blue-collar residents.

Founded in 1948, the cemetery underwent many changes in ownership over the years, but it was not until 1996 that non-local management took control of the property when Wayne Memorial Park, Inc merged with Townson-Rose Funeral Home and Forsyth Memorial Park and became SCI North Carolina Funeral Services.

In 2007, StoneMor Partners L.Pobtained a license from the NC Secretary of State to begin doing business in North Carolina.  Two years earlier, local tax records show Wayne Memorial Park was one of their acquisitions, purchased in 2005 for $1,013,500 under the entity StoneMor  North Carolina LLC whose state filings show no principal office in the state but rather list StoneMor’s Pennsylvania officers and address.

During StoneMor’s tenure as owner of Wayne Memorial Park, notable changes have occurred:

  • High property staff turnover.  A 17 year employee and former manager confirmed the 2017 revenue quota for the Dudley cemetery is $1.7 million, with each month having a specific income target….a target difficult for local staff to meet in a small community cemetery. As a result of demotions and penalties for failure to meet monthly sales quotes, there have been three managers of the cemetery in 2017 alone.
  • The overall appearance of the property declined dramatically as reinvestment in upkeep diminished. The grass covering the graves slowly turned to weeds and bare ground appeared.
    • This is what Wayne Memorial Park looked like in July 2012 
    • This is what Wayne Memorial Park looked like in July 2017 taken by the same sidewalk. 
    • This is what the ‘Garden of the Good Shepard’  looked like in June 2010
    • This is what the ‘Garden of the Good Shepard’ looked like in June 2017, same place.
  • Temporary grave markers–historically provided free by funeral homes as part of their comprehensive services–were banned to encourage the purchase of ‘keepsake’ temporary markers–available only from 1 supplier (the cemetery) and at 1 price point.
    A fresh grave of a presumed Veteran given the flag placement…but who? No name marks the grave.
    UPDATE 11/26/17: 5 months later, the same above Veteran’s grave is still unmarked, but now that the grass has grown over & the grave no longer ‘fresh’, it is no longer visible that a burial is at that spot.

    Sole source in the funeral industry is a practice not permitted under regulations, yet there is little oversight which will be detailed later in this article.

    • The perpetual care cemetery currently neither places nor allows placement of temporary markers on the day of burial to designate where human remains are interred.  The temporary markers, designed of a laminated paper material to last only until a permanent bronze and granite marker can be in place, were traditionally placed after the grave was covered at the conclusion of burial by local funeral homes as part of their services.
    • A grave with a temporary ‘keepsake marker’ installed. (look for the black rectangle just in front of the yellow flowers)

      Families who wish to avoid an unmarked grave must purchase the ‘keepsake marker’ as the only alternative.  The ‘keepsake marker’ is a small stone plaque measuring 10 inches by 6 inches etched with the decedent’s name & year of their birth & death (not full date) and no other personal information. It is available for purchase only from the cemetery at a cost of $176.14. Since it takes approximately 2 weeks to be installed, in the time between the burial & placement of the temporary keepsake marker there is nothing marking a  grave.

    • The sales pitch on the temporary ‘keepsake marker’ is that this cost will be deducted from the permanent granite and bronze marker if it is purchased from the cemetery rather than from an outside vendor. The permanent granite marker is not currently required to be purchased from the cemetery, a consumer protection under NC law.  The starting costs are $4,550 for what was described to me by the sales representative as a ‘basic’ marker going up to $8,000+ range–significantly higher than prices charged by outside vendors I surveyed.
    • An unmarked grave which has caved in.

      If a family chooses not to purchase the permanent marker from the cemetery, then they are out the $176.14 temporary ‘keepsake marker’ fee plus the cemetery will then charge an additional  ~$200 ‘installation fee’ for the permanent marker, even though they are not actually installing the marker (the outside marker vendor does that).  It is unclear why an install fee is charged if the marker is not purchased from the cemetery and no install work is therefore done by them. I say the cost is ‘around $200’ because I was unable to get an exact fee from the Family Service Counselor/Sale Representative I met with, who said a printed price list was not available due to the ‘variable nature of their products’.

    • I asked what happens to people who do not purchase the temporary ‘keepsake marker’—how do they locate their loved one’s grave in the future once the grass grows and it isn’t possible to tell a fresh grave had been dug.  I was told ‘the family just has to know’ but that they could also pay the cemetery a ‘location fee’ to survey the lot again.  The cemetery keeps paper records of where burials occur, but does not physically/visually mark specific grave locations.
    • Because some families can neither afford the ‘keepsake’ nor immediately outlay the $4,000-$8,000 for permanent marker (recall this is a community where the average income is $35K), many graves now go unmarked for extended periods of time, sometimes indefinitely.  Consequently, exactly where bodies are interred has been questioned. Reports have emerged of  family members with valid deeds attempting to bury a loved on what they thought was ‘their family plot’, only to discover someone else was already buried in the same location….the same plot had been sold twice.
  • Grave tents are banned out of liability concerns.
    • Customary practice among the area funeral homes I surveyed is to leave the funeral tent up for approximately 5 days to both mark and protect the fresh grave from the elements. Additionally, it serves to shield the flowers from the wilting sun. However,  Wayne Memorial Park now bans this practice. I have confirmed reports that tents are erected the day of the funeral and before the last of the mourners leave a service, cemetery staff begin taking down the tent and closing the grave.
    • I was told by the Family Services Counselor/Sales Representative that tent use after a service’s conclusion is banned out of ‘liability concerns‘.  Yet oddly, tents are permitted to be in place during the service when the greatest number of people are around it.  I was unable to obtain a reason for the disconnect except that it was ‘corporate policy’ of which I was unable to obtain a written copy of the corporate policy.
  • Flowers placed by mourners are aggressively removed and the company’s own silk flower arrangements pitched to families as tasteful alternatives.
    • If you’ve never had to purchase funeral flowers…they can be expensive, with a single casket spray running $300-800 and individual wreaths from $150-300, among florists I surveyed.  In one confirmed instance at Wayne Memorial Park from May 2017, fresh flowers valued over $1,500 were removed from a grave less than 48 hours after burial.  With no temporary marker allowed and the flowers removed, there was nothing indicating a body had been interred at that location.
  • The scheduling of burial services in the cemetery is more tightly controlled under StoneMor, with hard limits on the number of services occurring on the property per day and their times with no graves permitted to be opened on weekends or holidays.  A Monday burial is possible only if the management receives notification in writing by 1pm on Friday.
    • In one confirmed case, a death occurred on a Friday afternoon at 3pm and the family preferred to schedule the funeral for the following Monday or Tuesday. However, the cemetery said that if they weren’t notified by 1pm on Friday, they could not ‘open a grave’ on Monday. The family was then unable to bury their loved one on Tuesday because the cemetery also limits the number of services which can take place each day and they were ‘already booked’ for Tuesday with other persons ‘backed up’ who died after the 1pm Friday notification deadline.  So that left Wednesday as the family’s only alternative.  The day/time of the funeral was entirely driven by when corporate policy said it could be done and not when the funeral home, minister, musician, florists were available or when the family wanted.  The family of the deceased had to meet the cemetery’s needs, not the other way around.
  • Consumers and deed holders are unable to obtain a written copy of the current cemetery policies and prices upon request.
    • I asked via written email, phone call and in-person visit for a copy of the cemetery’s current policies and prices.  After 5 days of inquiry, I finally received a 47-page document detailing the cemetery’s policies. However, it was dated 2002five years before the company was licensed to do business in NC and when the cemetery was under different ownership.  The 2002 document has no mention of current polices pertaining to temporary markers,  ‘keepsake makers’, tents or funeral flower removal.  I have been unable to get such current policies or pricing in writing.  State statues indicate consumers must be able to easily obtain a copy of prices and policies upon request.
  • Families are pressured to return after burial for additional sales opportunities. Consumers receive multiple phone calls following burial from the Family Services Counselor/Sales Representative asking for an in-person “after-care appointment“.
    •  No counseling or support services are provided and no additional business conducted.  A ‘counselor’ confirmed to me  this meeting serves as an opportunity for the cemetery to market their permanent markers, silk flower arrangements and pre-planning services.
    • I have also confirmed cases of long-time plot deed holders being contacted by phone and told they need to come in to ‘confirm their deed‘.  At such confirmation appointments, pre-planning services and products are pitched.

What is the law governing cemeteries?

Current rules and regulations were passed during a time when cemeteries were locally-owned enterprises and not owned by New York Stock Exchange trading level international conglomerates–regulation has not kept up with changes in the industry.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates funeral homes to protect consumers, but not cemeteries except in limited situations.  The Funeral Rule, enforced by FTC, makes it possible for families to choose only those goods and services needed and to pay only for those selected, whether making arrangements when a death occurs or in advance. The Rule allows for easy price comparison among funeral homes, and makes it possible to better select the funeral arrangements wanted.  However, the Funeral Rule does NOT apply to third-party sellers, such as casket and monument dealers, or to cemeteries that lack an on-site funeral home.  In recent years, the FTC has expressed a desire to extend the Rule to cemeteries, but so far this has not happened and it is unclear the current administration’s view expanding federal authority.

At the state level, cemeteries operate under a myriad of rules.  In North Carolina, perpetual care cemeteries, including those owned by StoneMor, are overseen by the NC Cemetery Commission, created under the main legislation governing cemeteries, The NC Cemetery Act aka Article 9, Chapter 65The 9 member Cemetery Commission is appointed by the Governor and the General Assembly; 7 of the members represent the cemetery industry and hold financial interests in cemetery and funeral related businesses, 2 appointees represent the public.

There are no ‘consumer guides’ published by the Commission to put the law in simple terms for consumers.  The statues themselves are not an easy read.  In the NC Cemetery Act, there are named provisions that a cemetery cannot force a family to purchase vaults and caskets from the cemetery, but there is nothing specific to temporary markers or other products which may be deemed as ‘required’ under individual cemetery policy.  The intent of the NC Cemetery Act appears clear–the General Assembly was trying to prevent families from being preyed upon during times of grief–however, the Act was written in an era before for-profit corporations began purchasing nonprofit and community cemeteries.  All forms of current burial practices, which many run counter to custom and tradition, were not foreseen and therefore are unaddressed.

From ancient times, a defining moment of civilization was when humans began to honor the dead. Marking graves is simply what generations have intuitively done as the first act of grief to demonstrate dignity and respect for the deceased.

Not isolated problems

My research finds that the issues detailed above are not limited to Wayne Memorial Park nor North Carolina, but rather are being reported at multiple StoneMor properties. From news reports, the consensus appears that consumers have little recourse under current (or non-existent in some states) regulations. Scenarios are arising which are not addressed under current consumer protection laws.

From newspaper and TV accounts:

  • Pinelawn Memorial Park in Kinston, NC:  families report tall grass, fire ants, and weeds covering graves.  Reported by the Kinston Free Press 7/14/2017
  • Anniston, Alabama:   No grass, soil erosion, trucks driving over graves, downed limbs.  Families call the condition of their loved one’s grave ‘heartbreaking’.  ABC news 33 8-8-2017
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:   “allegations of high pressure sales tactics”, “In two dozen interviews with families and funeral directors, similar themes emerged: Complaints that StoneMor had harassed and misled mourners and customers, upsetting or bewildering some when they may be most fragile.”  Philadelphia Inquirer 10/26/2015 
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:   Family “pushed to buy” additional plots following death of son, rules prohibiting chosen monument. “It’s all about money to them,” say the parents “Losing Matthew broke our hearts,” he says. “Dealing with All Saints (cemetery) broke them all over again.” Philadelphia Inquirer 2-12-2017
  • Delaware:  lack of price lists, pressure to pre-arrange services, handing out sales material to people leaving burial services.  “In a 48-hour period, we had six clients calling about being harassed on the telephone by StoneMor sales people,”  Delaware County Daily Times 
  • West Virginia:  “Families outraged over condition of burial plots”  reports of ‘rude employees’, flooding, broken stones, disrepair, history of complaints regarding condition of cemetery,  Register-Herald 5-31-2016
  • Allentown, Pennsylvania:   Graves sold twice.  Only discovered when marker stone was to be installed. ” The plots that we had purchased were previously sold to another couple” The Morning Call 10-6-2016
  • Annville, Pennsylvania:  “Complaints pile up against cemetery” reports of disrepair, lack of upkeep ABC TV 27 June 8, 2016

And there are many more.

Needed actions

I don’t like to present a problem without offering a possible solution.  With that in mind:

  • In North Carolina, the General Assembly needs to:
    • Revise statue to clearly include consumer protections for all customary burial products and services such as temporary markers, tents, flowers.
    • Sole-source purchase ban should be expanded to cover all cemetery goods and services, not only caskets and vaults as current law dictates.
    • Price lists and policies should be written, clear, current and available upon request.
    • Minimum property upkeep standards for perpetual care cemeteries should be defined.
    • Closer monitoring and enforcement of existing regulations is also needed.
    • The regulatory body should be diversified to include more non-industry representatives.
    • Consumer education guides should be created to spell out clearly the rights of families.
    • An easier complaint process should be implemented with independent investigation and the ability to provide anonymous tips.  Currently complaints received by the NC Cemetery Commission are forwarded to the cemetery in question for comment and resolution.  I was unable with repeated attempts to get anyone to answer the phone at the number provided for the NC Cemetery Commission..number goes straight to voicemail..so anonymous tips from consumers or employees of unethical or illegal practices is not possible.
  • At the national level, the Federal Trade Commission needs to expand the Funeral Rule to include cemeteries. Currently they only regulate cemeteries who also own a funeral home on the cemetery property.  There needs to be greater consumer protections via regulation of the cemetery industry, similar to that which already exists in the funeral home industry.
  • Importantly, consumers need to be aware that their local cemetery may be a for-profit corporation.  I suspect few people realize that cemeteries are now stock market traded corporations and the person counseling them on burial arrangements earns a commission-only income. While every business must make a profit, the death industry is unique because it catches consumers at a vulnerable time immediately following the death of a loved one. Protections are needed to ensure ethical conduct.  Greater transparency is needed so consumers can be fully aware.

Disclosure

I was compelled to research StoneMor because my family is buried in Wayne Memorial Park and one day, I may be as well.  My grandparent’s and extended family’s graves are there and most recently, my father was buried there.  My parents pre-planned their burial, purchasing plots in 1990 at a time before the cemetery was owned by StoneMor.   When Dad died, we did not know the cemetery had changed hands, yet the difference in the experience was striking.  Red flags of things which ‘didn’t seem quite right’ I encountered during our burial experience prompted me to research the company. I therefore make no claim of un-bias, rather I have tried here to present what I found as factually as possible. I encourage news outlets to conduct their own independent research to verify and expand upon what I have presented. I am happy to share sources and collaborate with verified members of the news media.


StoneMor’s North Carolina properties include:
  • Alamance Memorial Park, Burlington, NC
  • Carolina Biblical Gardens of Guilford, Jamestown, NC
  • Chatham Memorial Park, Siler City, NC
  • Crestview Memorial Park, Rural Hall, NC
  • Floral Garden Park Cemetery, High Point, NC
  • Lakeview Memorial Park, Greensboro, NC
  • Martin Memorial Gardens, Williamston, NC
  • Montlawn Memorial Park, Raleigh, NC
  • Mountlawn Memorial Park, North Wilkesboro, NC
  • Oakhill Memorial Park, Kinston, NC
  • Oaklawn Memorial Gardens, Winston-Salem, NC
  • Pinelawn Memorial Park, Kinston, NC
  • Randolph Memorial Park, Asheboro, NC
  • Rowan Memorial Park, Salisbury, NC
  • Skyline Memory Garden, Mount Airy, NC
  • Wayne Memorial Park, Dudley, NC
  • West Lawn Memorial Park, China Grove, NC
  • Woodlawn Memorial Park, Durham, NC
  • York Memorial Park, Charlotte, NC

UPDATE 2-27-18  The cemetery continues to be in decline.  I noticed one unmarked grave which has now caved in.

Monday Motivation: Going beyond life’s restricted zones

Are you a rule follower or a rule breaker?

I’ve always been a color-inside-the-lines type person.  I’ve never had a speeding ticket nor even a parking ticket…which is kind of amazing since I’ve spent 30 years in a university town with tight parking and overzealous towing!

I’m so rule obsessive that I was once dismissed from a jury because, after questioning, the defense didn’t think I could identify with the accused because I was the only one of the jurors who had NEVER been in trouble with the law!  I wasn’t a ‘jury of peers’…which I’ll take that as a divine compliment any day when the potential peer is a repeat offender drug dealer who resisted arrest!

Still, is it possible to play it too safe?  Not in the law and order sense, but in life-in-general. Career advancement, public recognition, even some relationships seem to go to those who take risks rather than sit back.  Risk-taking often means pushing the boundaries of what’s deemed the status quo…to push the line of perceived acceptability out just a bit as we strive to stay within it. Stasis stagnates us. Yet, none of us likes to find ourselves hanging out alone on the outside of the line–a hard line to navigate when society inconsistently both criticizes and rewards nonconformity.

Going where you ‘shouldn’t go’ in life is a gamble…sometimes you succeed beyond your wildest expectations and other times you fall flat on your face.  But you don’t know which outcome until you push that boundary, go beyond the restricted zone in your life. And the only way to do that is by holding firm to your integrity.  Follow your inner moral compass reflecting honesty and genuineness. If something intuitively feels ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ there’s probably a good reason those feelings crop up..that’s the only restricted zone you really need to heed. You simply cannot go wrong being yourself.


Dear reader:   Getting back into the publishing groove after a long, necessary hiatus.  Expect more frequent posts on a wide range of topics. (gotta push past my own restricted zone!)