Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

Full Bio | Get my RSS |

Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

PHOTOS: 90 Percent of Lemurs Are Threatened

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Lemurs are arguably the world's most adorable vertebrates. They're also the most endangered, according to a recent study by Conservation International. A team of researchers found that an astonishing 90 percent of the 103 species of lemurs, native to Madagascar, are nearing extinction due to hunting and habitat loss caused by illegal logging on the island—the only place in the world that they live. Here's the breakdown:

23 are now considered 'Critically Endangered', 52 are 'Endangered, 19 are 'Vulnerable' and two are 'Near Threatened'. Just three lemur species are listed as 'Least Concern'.

If the internet has never shown you a picture of lemurs—which look kind of like monkeys but are actually more closely related to the slow loris—I don't know what you've been doing with your time. But here are a few from Conservation International to catch you up to speed:

Weighing in at about five pounds, the greater bamboo lemur is the biggest of all the lemur species.  © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierAt five pounds, the greater bamboo lemur is one of the biggest of all the lemur species. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe red-ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe red-ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka, a colorful species of lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka, a colorful species of lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe blue-eyed black lemur is the only primate species (besides humans) with blue eyes © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe critically endangered blue-eyed black lemur is the only primate species (besides humans) with blue eyes. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierAt only an ounce, Madame Berthe's mouse lemur is the smallest primate in the world.  © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierAlso critically endangered is the Madame Berthe's mouse lemur. Weighing just an ounce,  it's the smallest primate in the world. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe indri, the largest species of lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe indri, the largest species of lemur, is among those listed as critically endangered.  © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka hangs out. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka hangs out. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe black-and-white ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe black-and-white ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Should You Leave the AC On for Your Cat or Dog?

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Hot kitty.

I've been told that in the Mother Jones DC bureau last week, a debate raged over whether or not it's only crazy cat ladies who leave the air conditioner on all day for pets. I can see both sides: Sure, it's pitiful to see dogs pant and cats make themselves as flat as possible to beat the heat, especially during gnarly heat waves. And yes, it's true that pets are unable to doff their fur coats.

On the other hand, their ancestors lived outside for eons before we domesticated them, so surely they must be heartier than we give them credit for. What's more, round-the-clock AC is exorbitantly expensive and contributes significantly to climate change, as the New York Times recently reported. Because of the soaring demand for air conditioning worldwide, and because the gases emitted by modern cooling equipment are extremely potent planet warmers, scientists estimate that AC units could account for a staggering 27 percent of global warming by 2050.

So is it really necessary to chill Fido all day long? I decided to call a few veterinarians to settle the argument once and for all. Dr. Helen Myers, veterinarian at the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center, had this to say in an email:

When the temperature and humidity rise, it becomes crucial to keep our pets comfortable and safe. Animals cool themselves by panting, a process of exchanging warm air from their lungs for the cooler air outside. This cannot happen when it is hot and humid, which leads to increased risk for heat stress and exhaustion. Leaving the air circulating with fans or, better yet, leaving the air conditioning on will help to keep pets cool and healthy. Thermostats should ideally be set at 78-80 degrees, an appropriate comfort level for most pets. Basements are typically cooler than the rest of the house, so if your basement is a comfortable place for your pet to be, having them spend time down there during a heat wave is also an option. Pets should also always have access to fresh water, as they can get dehydrated.
 
Both cats and dogs are susceptible to excessive heat and humidity, but cats are more likely to control their activity so as not to add heat from muscle activity. Elderly, overweight, and pets with heart or lung diseases should be carefully watched, as they are highly susceptible to heat stroke. Pets with short muzzles like pugs, bulldogs and Persian cats are at a higher risk of becoming overheated because they cannot effectively pant. These pets should be kept in rooms with air conditioning so they can stay cool.

Kimberly May, a veterinarian and spokeswoman for the American Veterinary Medicine Association, added that it's important to observe your pet and adjust the indoor temperature according to its particular needs. "Keep an eye on your pet and see where your pet hangs out," says May. "If your dog is constantly by the AC vent, you probably shouldn't turn it off. But if you see the dog sitting in the sunlight, you might have a little more leeway." As a general rule of thumb, cats are often slightly more heat-tolerant than dogs, and for both species, the longer the fur, the more uncomfortable the animal will be in extreme heat.

As for the argument that animals don't need AC since their forebears dealt with heat just fine, May doesn't buy it. "We've domesticated them and ruined all that," she says. "It's not smart to make an assumption about their needs based on their ancestors. We've changed their diets; we've changed a lot of things."

A few other tips from May: You can try putting ice in your pet's water bowl, but only if your animal is comfortable with it; some cats and dogs are freaked by ice and won't drink ice water at all. Some dogs like the pricey cooling pads sold at pet stores and on the internet (this one is $79.99 on eBay) but others won't go near them. Walk dogs in the early morning or evening, and keep the walks short. Don't go running with your dog, since dogs will keep going, even if they're overheating.

How can you tell if your animals are hot? Why, compare them to pictures of sweltering critters on the internet, of course. A few to get you started:

These cats are eagerly awaiting the unveiling of their cooling station:

cuttlefish/Flickrcuttlefish/FlickrDog in a cooler:

Inspire Kelly/FlickrInspire Kelly/FlickrHere's a hot cat hanging out by a window:

Muffet/FlickrMuffet/FlickrCat meets fan:

Photo by Kate SheppardPhoto by Kate Sheppard

Three-dog heat wave:

Tobyotter/FlickrTobyotter/FlickrHere's a hot cat in Tokyo:

Tata_Aka_T/FlickrTata_Aka_T/FlickrAnd here's one who finds a potted plant cooling:

Violette79/FlickrViolette79/Flickr

Is Your Supermarket Chucking Foods Before They Expire?

| Mon Jun. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

I am a recovering food-expiration-date zealot. Until very recently, I poured milk down the drain if it was even 24 hours past the date printed on the carton. Then, when I was trying to kick my restaurant habit and reduce my food waste and spending, I learned that the very expiration dates that I had so faithfully adhered to were mere suggestions. Even the FDA admits this: "'Use-by' dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates," the agency says in its expiration-date FAQ. "But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below." The only product that the FDA requires expiration dates for is infant formula.

Given all this, I've been looking for foods nearing their expiration dates at supermarkets: If I can save a yogurt from an early death, I reason, I'll be cutting down on food waste at the supermarket. But I've noticed at my local stores that it's close to impossible to find food that's less than a week away from expiring.

So I reached out to the corporate HQ of several major supermarket chains. Of the five chains I contacted, only Whole Foods responded, assuring me, vaguely, that team members "are consistently reviewing products on our shelves, and removing anything that that has reached its expiration date."

Frustrated, I decided to call the stores I shop at directly, using yogurt as a test case. How long before a container of yogurt expires, I asked, would it remain on the shelf? As a whole, employees seemed fairly foggy on store policy. "I think we keep it out up until the day it expires?" said a guy at Whole Foods. "Wait, no, that sounds kind of sketchy. I'd like to think we do better than that." He connected me with an employee in the dairy department. "For the little ones we leave them on the shelf up until about three days before the expiration dates," he said. "For the big ones usually we take it out of the shelf like five days before." Some of the usable product gets donated to charity. A manager at Lucky told me he thought that employees left yogurt out until two or three days before its expiration date, then threw it away. Trader Joe's did the same, though the employee I talked do said she thought that some items were donated.

Lastly, I had this conversation with a manager at my local Safeway:

Me: What happens to yogurt that doesn't get sold before its expiration date?
Manager: It gets distressed.
Me: Distressed? What does that mean?
Manager: It gets distressed, company policy. We scan it and then throw it away.

Oof. Of course, the employees I talked to were only speaking about practices at their individual stores, not chainwide policies. But grocery store food waste is a well-documented problem. A 2006 study (PDF) found that the average supermarket sends close to 5,000 pounds of food per employee to the landfill every year.

So what's a waste-hating consumer to do? For starters, find out if your supermarket donates near-expired goods to charity. You can also hunt for bargains. Some major supermarket chains have discount shelves and bins, and discount chains like Grocery Outlet sell food that's nearing or just slightly past its prime. Once you get your goods home, treat expiration dates as guidelines. In most cases, you can use your eyes and nose: If something looks off-color or smells unappetizing, that's a good sign that you shouldn't eat it. You can also refer to this handy FDA chart.

Tue Aug. 12, 2014 1:35 PM EDT
Thu Jun. 26, 2014 6:42 PM EDT
Fri Apr. 25, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Nov. 11, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Mon Sep. 16, 2013 2:28 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 15, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Mon May. 13, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Thu Dec. 27, 2012 12:52 PM EST
Fri Sep. 21, 2012 2:02 PM EDT
Tue Sep. 18, 2012 4:37 PM EDT
Fri Aug. 31, 2012 11:12 AM EDT
Thu Aug. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Aug. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Thu Aug. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Fri Aug. 10, 2012 2:43 PM EDT
Tue Aug. 7, 2012 12:49 PM EDT
Thu Jul. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Wed May. 16, 2012 3:43 PM EDT
Wed May. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Tue May. 15, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Fri May. 11, 2012 3:08 PM EDT
Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Fri Mar. 16, 2012 2:59 PM EDT
Mon Feb. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Fri Jan. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Fri Jan. 13, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Sun Jan. 1, 2012 7:00 AM EST