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Writer Takes His Family 'Monkey Dancing' to See Endangered Animals - 2004-04-21

Some of the world's most spectacular landscapes are also among the most endangered. Daniel Glick, who's reported on the environment for Newsweek and other publications, turned a tour of those sites into a five month family vacation. He describes what he saw in a book called "Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth."

A series of personal losses inspired the trip Daniel Glick describes in Monkey Dancing. His wife had asked for a divorce and moved to another state, leaving the Colorado writer with custody of their two children. Mister Glick was also grieving over the death of his brother, who'd died of cancer. An extended vacation seemed like a good way to lift the trio's spirits and see a world in danger of disappearing.

"I'd read a piece in the New York Times about a coral reef conference, and the marine biologist announced that they felt that things were going so badly for coral reefs that by the time the kids were my age nearly half of the world's coral reefs would be dead," he said. "I decided then and there I wanted to take my kids to see some of the spots before they were gone."

Zoe Glick remembers thinking her father had lost his mind. "At first I thought I thought he was psycho," she recalled. It's not every day your dad comes up to you and says, 'Hey, kids, you want to take a trip around the world?' At first, I thought, this is so cool. But then I thought, I'm actually going to be away from my friends for five months."

That also meant several months out of school for Zoe, who was 9 and her brother Kolya, who was 13. Their teachers agreed to let them go if they'd take homework along and keep journals of what they saw. As their first stop, Daniel Glick picked the Great Barrier Reef, off the northeastern coast of Australia.

"The Great Barrier Reef is not among the world's most endangered coral reef systems," he said. "But in a way, it was a perfect case study because it is very protected. And it is being affected not only by the huge global issues like the rise in sea temperature and sea level, but also what happens on land. Land clearing for sugar cane fields and for grazing and for dive shops and tourist resorts is affecting the water quality in the reef, and there are a number of marine biologists who are very concerned."

The family also spent time in Bali, Borneo, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Nepal. They backpacked, snorkeled, and got a close up view of animals few American children see except in zoos, but they saw disturbing evidence as well of how human activities can affect the environment. Zoe Glick read an excerpt from her journal.

"In Borneo we went on a house boat," she said. "The water was so dirty. There was a huge python. His head was 20 feet. After that my dad saw a pit viper that I did not see. We parked the boat on a little river-side bank, and then the cook said there's crocodiles near here. That scared me."

The trio also saw how mining and logging have threatened Borneo's orangutan habitats. In Vietnam they visited a park that's home to some of the last Javan rhinos, made nearly extinct by poaching and hunting.

Daniel Glick: "One of the really most sobering things was I realized I could go to any country and I could find an animal or a landscape that was threatened. The dual demons of population and poverty are a double whammy for any natural system. When people are scraping by to make a living it's hard to be concerned about the fact that you're pouring mercury into a river to earn a few dollars a day mining gold."
Nancy Beardsley: "Did you find any success stories as well?"
Daniel Glick: "There are people who are very trying very hard. In Nepal we went to some of the last Bengal tiger habitats in the southern part of the country. And there is something of a success story in which communities on the edge of a national park have been given some incentives by the national government and international conservation organizations to replant the forests and expand some of the habitat for the tiger and the rhinoceros there. And there are some signs that things are getting a little better there for the rhinoceros, not so much for the tiger."

Daniel Glick believes the trip gave his family a new sense of being tied to the world around them.

"I think not just in terms of the environment but in terms of the different cultures that we saw, the religions," he added. "We were gone on September 11, 2001. We were in Singapore at the time, a place where there was a large Muslim population. And these Muslims were not threatening us. They were expressing compassion and support, and I think those kinds of experiences were just invaluable."

Daniel Glick said that people everywhere tended to take an interest in a single father, a young girl with a taste for international fashion and a teenaged boy who insisted on traveling with his skateboard.

"Zoe would be dressing up in sarongs and all the native garb wherever she went," he recalled. "And it was so much fun to watch people react to her and to my son with so much joy. One of the high points of his trip was when the police at this airport in the southern part of Borneo asked him to do skateboard tricks on the front steps of the airport."

Zoe Glick said she had mixed feelings when the time came to go home. "Part of me was like, 'oh yeah, I'm going to see my best friends,'" she said. "But part of me was like, 'I'm going to appreciate this so much, and I want to keep on going.'"

The title of Daniel Glick's book came from a night the family spent camping on a beach in Australia. They were having so much fun they started to dance. His son called it "monkey dancing." Mister Glick believes they were actually "monkey dancing around the planet," an image from the natural world to describe a trip that was all about making connections to people and landscapes in distant places, and within a single family.