I’ll be thinking of Tracy and her boy on Tuesday morning as they begin their adventure together at school in Minnesota!
Tomorrow, the Nichols family will leave their home in Minnesota and drive to Colorado Springs, where they’ll check into the Marriott Residence Inn and attend Angel Service Dogs Academy, an intensive scent-detection-dog-handling workshop. Over the weekend, they’ll meet Tracy, the service dog I raised from a puppy, and over the next two weeks will learn how to use her to protect 13-year-old Benjamin, who’s been coping with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts since infancy. Recently, I interviewed the Nicholses via Skype, and talked with Benjamin, his mother, Jennifer (a preschool teacher), and his father, Joel (a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law) about Benjamin’s allergy, their decision to acquire Tracy, the fundraising they’ve done to pay for her, and their hopes for their new $20,000 dog.
So Benjamin, how will having a service dog change things for you?
The constant question [from my classmates] is: ‘Is she gonna come to school? Is she gonna come to school?’ I say, ‘Yeah, she’s gonna come to school, but she is not a pet.’
How will Tracy help you at school?
Kids eat all the time at my school, I don’t know why it’s allowed but it is. And they’re constantly eating so she’ll help. I don’t know what they ate, and they’re really not thinking about what they eat, most of them just don’t care, really.
Even when you tell them you have this allergy?
Not usually. So I really have to be careful about residue at school because I could have a reaction.
Have you ever had a reaction at school?
In second grade. I was constantly having reactions.
What would happen?
I would have to go the nurse’s office almost every day. Because I was having reactions at school. And then I went anaphylactic.
What’s that like? How do you explain it to kids who don’t understand what a big deal this is for you?
When I tell them that it could kill me, their mouths hang open, like ‘Whoa. Seriously, it can kill you?’ Usually, they don’t understand that part, so now I describe the most recent time I went into anaphylaxis when I went to Italy in 2010.
Someone had prepared pasta, thinking that would be okay for you.
My mom had prepared pasta. The label was in Italian, there was a word in Italian for ‘cashew’ that we didn’t know. It was buried in the middle of the label. There were no allergy statements or anything. We thought it was fine but one bite sent me into anaphylactic shock.
What does it feel like when that happens to you?
It’s been different every time. In second grade, my throat started to close and they gave me an EpiPen. And in Italy, first my throat started to close, and I said, ‘Dad, my mouth!’ But we didn’t think it was major, we thought it was some sort of residue reaction, so I just took Benadryl and Zyrtec. Then my stomach started to hurt but it didn’t feel like I was going to throw up, it felt like I had really, really bad gas pains and I wanted to hunch over in a ball. Then I threw up and that’s when they knew I was going into anaphylactic shock.
So your parents called a cab and you went right to the hospital …
We thought it would be easier than trying to tell an ambulance driver who we were and why we needed to get to the hospital.
What’s the Italian word for ‘EpiPen’?
I’m not really sure. We traveled with about eight of them.
Did you take an epinephrine injection before you got in the cab?
Is that scary when it happens to you?
Kind of, yeah. And it really hurts. What scares me most is if I had to give it to myself. Because I can’t walk on [that leg after I’ve had an injection]. If I had to give it to myself, somebody would literally have to carry me [to get help]. And if I’m with a friend my age, that could be difficult.
Because you can’t walk.
I guess I could drag myself if I was alone. It would be really hard.
That’s happened a couple of times to you now. The thinking with Tracy is that she’ll be able to let you know something’s been contaminated so these sorts of things won’t happen.
We haven’t had many ingestion reactions. We work really hard to never have an ingestion reaction.
It’s usually residue for you, something’s on the surface, you touch it and it gets on your hand and then into your mouth or eyes.
Do you want to know anything about Tracy? I raised Tracy from a puppy when she was six weeks old, and had here for more than six months.
Thanks for the pictures; she’s awfully cute.
The thing I love most about Tracy are those amber eyes, her beautiful amber eyes. She looks right into your eyes and it’s almost like she understands what’s going on in your head. … When I had her, her favorite game was playing Frisbee whenever she wasn’t working. She’s a very athletic dog. If you throw it, she will leap five feet in the air and catch it.
That’s good because we have some Frisbees that our dog Annie absolutely won’t chase.
So you have a dog at home? What kind?
She’s a golden retriever, she’s six years old.
Out of all the Angel Service Dogs we’ve raised—we’re on our fourth one right now—Tracy was my absolute favorite. She’s a remarkable dog. And I’m sure you can’t wait to meet her, right?
Right. I had a really weird dream about her last night.
What was your dream?
I dreamed that I was in Colorado, and I needed one penny to and I couldn’t find anyone to give me a penny.
What did you need the penny for?
Oh, to pay for Tracy. So you had raised $19,999.99 and all you needed was one more penny. How much have you fundraised?
Fifteen or sixteen thousand dollars.
Wow. How did you raise all that money?
I’m doing a bike ride on Sunday.
You’re going to ride 30 miles in the Minnesota Ironman, and you got people to sponsor you for Tracy.
We expect to get more because I was in the newspaper today.
What else did you do to raise money?
I had a garage sale. I did some gardening, some babysitting.
A cousin of yours did some dog sitting and sent you all the money he made.
That was nice of him. I actually had no idea. He decided he was going to walk dogs, and he said, ‘I’m going to give all the money I make to my big cousin Benjamin.’
How old is your cousin?
He’s nine. His family came over and on the last night he was here, he brought out this bag of money …
How much was in it?
That’s a lot of money. What did you say to him?
I didn’t really know what to say at first. I said, ‘Thank you so much. That was really, really nice of you.’
So how do you explain to people how much getting this dog means to you?
Most people ask why I’m getting it—some don’t know about my allergy—usually I just say it’s because of my allergy and the dog can sniff out peanuts.
Most people don’t understand what an Allergy Alert dog is. Often when I’m out with one of my dogs, and the dog has a vest on, people think I’m blind and try to help me across the street! That’s the thing about your allergy isn’t it? People need to get used to the fact that a disability isn’t always something that they can see, like a blind person with a cane, or a paraplegic person in a wheelchair.
My dad has a law student who uses a scooter and he has a service dog to help him get around. I got to actually meet him, and we talked about how service dogs do different things than people think.
One thing you’ll find is that an Allergy Alert dog gets people’s attention, and you do a lot of explaining about what peanut allergy is, and how the dog works. But you probably do a lot of that already don’t you?
Yeah, I wear an EpiPen around my waist.
In a fanny pack. Do you have it on right now? Wow, you even wear it around at home!
Our home is nut-free, but I always wear it to make sure it’s with me when I leave home. When they see my EpiPen, kids are always asking me, ‘Do you have diabetes?’ And I say, ‘No, I have a life-threatening peanut allergy.’
Well, it’s getting close to your bed time so I should let you go. How much are you looking forward to meeting Tracy in Colorado?
I’m really excited!
So, Jennifer, when did you become aware of Benjamin’s allergy?
He was a year old, and was trying one new food each day. So I gave him some peanut butter and his face was pale but then he seemed fine. Next day, [I gave him more] and he had a full-blown anaphylactic reaction, I called the pediatrician and she said, ‘Come to my office, but if he stops breathing, go to the ER.’ This is a medical condition that has unfolded in the last 12 years. There were lots of things I did not understand about food allergies then that I do understand now. I gave him a huge dose of Benadryl watched him carefully in the car. His pediatrician gave him steroids in her office and began educating me about food allergies. … I even had a child in my class who had a peanut allergy. I teach preschool right now, but I was teaching elementary school at the time. I was not taught to use the EpiPen. The protocols are changing. I think that doctors and the allergy community are doing a much better job now of explaining how to avoid allergens, how to recognize anaphylaxis, and how to manage a food allergy day -to-day. For example, Benjamin now has a step-by-step anaphylaxis plan. It tells us clearly how to react to different symptoms. We didn’t have a plan like this before we went to Italy. Early on, there were no food labeling laws. Allergens could potentially be listed under Latin names, scientific names, or by the phrase ‘natural flavor.’ Early on, our pediatric allergists didn’t fully communicate the danger that residue posed, and I’m not sure the medical community understood as well as they do now. This is something that we have learned how to navigate and now I am beginning to see training videos address the dangers of residue. As hard as it is now to manage a food allergy, it was even harder when he was first diagnosed. The prevalence of allergies over the last 13 years has changed protocols.
Do you have any peanut-allergic kids in your preschool now?
We have one severe, five that have been diagnosed.
What do you think is going on with all these severe food allergy diagnoses?
I think something has changed in our environment, in our food supply. Something has changed and it is affecting the normal development of our children’s immune systems. This is my best guess. Benjamin seems to be on the first big wave of allergies. When he was in preschool, we were one of the very first parents who had a child with a food allergy. His kindergarten preschool flat refused to make their school or his classroom peanut-free. In fact, the director told me she would never do that. Between Benjamin and Natalie, they had so many students with food allergies that the preschool was forced to go to a peanut-free policy … so something is going on. I should also add that even though the school initially wasn’t peanut-free, they did take care of Benjamin. The biggest challenge for us at the school was that we were not able to participate in several all-school events where there were a lot of peanut butter and nut desserts. His teachers took enormous care of him in the classroom or I wouldn’t have stayed there.
As a parent, you’re always trying to keep your kids safe. What’s it like for a parent who takes a kid to the allergist and that diagnosis falls in your lap?
It’s so overwhelming. I was telling a reporter who was just here, ‘You know as a parent that there are things you need to do to keep your children safe. For example, you keep them away from fire, and make sure they know that that’s not safe. When you walk into a doctor’s office and you find out your child has a food allergy, and they say you can never ever go to an ice cream parlor because it is too risky, you are forced to discern a whole new set of risky situations that should never be a life-threatening risk to your child You have to worry about the cereal aisle now.’
So the cereal aisle is off-limits to Benjamin.
He can walk through it, but can he pick something off the shelf and eat it? No way. Absolutely not. And I had to learn how to read that label very carefully. At the time he was diagnosed, we didn’t even have food allergy guidelines put into language that an eight-year-old could read. My shopping time went from a regular run to the store to two hours because I had to read the label on every single thing and I had to make sure they weren’t listing peanut under something else, another uncommon name. I found out I had to call companies and find out if the food was cross-contaminated. I had to learn what cross-contamination was! It was very stressful, scary, overwhelming.
So they told you Benjamin couldn’t go to the ice cream parlor. Where else?
They told me we should never go to bakeries. Candy is unsafe. Never go to ethnic restaurants, particularly Chinese and Thai, those are always off-limits, they fall under the category of ‘terribly unsafe.’ I found out chili often has nuts in it. I found out that Italian restaurants might thicken their tomato sauce with peanut butter and Mexican restaurants might thicken refried beans with peanut butter. I found out I had to worry about jelly at other people’s homes if they made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and used the same utensil. I found out you also should worry about the butter in the refrigerator for the same reason. So the risky situation moved from the ice cream parlor, to common restaurants, to your mother’s house, and possibly to your own refrigerator! And then they give you a list of words to look for to find hidden peanuts in other sorts of foods.
You go from just shopping for groceries to reading everything.
Everything. Even Gummi Bears have peanut in them. I had no idea Gummi Bears had peanut in them. So I had this experience with a doctor and a nutritionist, and then I had to try to communicate that to somebody else. People I love would look at me like I had fallen off the loony cart, [and think] ‘This is a real nutcase here. She just needs a lot of attention.’ And how do you communicate to them, ‘Okay, I know a Gummi Bear doesn’t seem like it would have nuts in it, but you don’t understand the way it was produced.’ And you get the eye roll. And that’s hard.
‘Another overly protective parent with a too-precious child,’ they think. ‘What makes your child more special than mine?’
It makes eating at a friend’s house hard. It makes potluck dinners impossible. It interferes with family gatherings. It forces families to set aside family heirloom recipes. It makes eating out hard. It requires teachers to change the way they have always taught a lesson. I understand why food allergies are so threatening to people. It is hard and overwhelming to manage and it forces us to change even the most mundane events in our lives. But on the other side of all of these hard situations is the real understanding that a mistake could cost Benjamin his life or force him through a traumatic event like a trip to the hospital. It is a very hard place to be as a parent.
Joel, how do you explain what it’s like to parent a child with a life-threatening peanut allergy?
It depends on the situation. It’s different now with him than it was when he was younger. You asked about the dog. He’s at a point now where he needs a lot more independence, given his age. That’s appropriate, and it’s what we want him to have. And it’s what every 13-year-old wants. He’s really good at taking care of his allergy. He’s not as good as we are, but he’s actually really good. There was the time in Italy when we missed it, stuff we made at our table. There’s this level of independence he’s gaining. There’s one story that Benjamin didn’t tell you that illustrates his level of meta-awareness about his allergy, at least to me.
Tell me about that …
After the Italy experience, when he would have been 11, there was this series of sermons we were listening to and the preacher asked, ‘What would it be like if you only had 30 days to live? How would you live your next 30 days?’ One of the things you do as a parent is that you initiate a conversation with your kid. He had listened to the series, and Jennifer asked Benjamin, ‘What would you do if you only had 30 days [left]? How would you live?’ And we were kind of surprised at his response. He said, ‘Mom, I have a peanut allergy. I never know if I’m going to be alive tomorrow.’ That was the end of the conversation. He didn’t say it to be rude; it was just a statement.
How did that hit you when you heard Benjamin say that?
It hits you in the gut. I’d been living with that for a long time. … When I teach class, I actually tell my students, ‘I apologize but I have my cell phone with me, if it rings I’ll try to ignore it but I may need to get it.’ Nothing’s ever happened, but this semester, for the first time, my phone rang during class and I turned it off because it didn’t say on the caller ID that it was someone I should’ve recognized. And as soon as I turned it off I realized that it had been the prefix from the first three numbers that are associated with the city. I thought, ‘The school just called me!’ And I was supposed to be lecturing and I thought, ‘They’ll call me back, and Jennifer knows how to reach me, so she’ll call me twice to signal me if there’s something big,’ and I realized as I was teaching that after two or three minutes of waiting for this call I wasn’t making any sense in my lecture anymore. This had never happened in nine years of teaching, but finally I had to apologize and say to the students, ‘Guys, I need to go and check this phone message.’ So I took five minutes and it ended up being somebody from the community center, not the school, so it was a false alarm. But it’s really hard. You have to strike a balance. Now he knows what we’ve known for a long time—that he’s always 15 minutes away from dying. All the time.
For a kid his age to be aware of that and carrying it with him everywhere he goes, that’s a big deal. What do you think, Jennifer?
It was such a scary fast reaction in Italy and it was progressing faster than we had ever seen before. He knows now when we say it is a life-threatening allergy, it is the truth.
Even that fifteen-minute window between life and death that you once counted on suddenly collapses and you’re left wondering, ‘How much time do we actually have to get him to the hospital?’
Yes, you absolutely do wonder that! Right after that happened, it scared Benjamin. I think that’s the point that he figured out, ‘This is scary real.’ Anaphylaxis hits you in the middle of a perfectly normal day. It’s not like you get a warning. Somebody at church asked me the other day (there was a food event and I was asking about what I needed to do about making food for Benjamin), ‘Oh, is he having trouble with his allergy?’ And I wanted to sigh and say, ‘No, you don’t understand. Anaphylaxis happens on a day when you would never expect it. You don’t get a warning. It is always right there in front of us. We never get a break from the possibility of anaphylaxis.’ It’s the unknown that has to be expected and prepared for every time. It was really hard on Benjamin after Italy. It was hard on the rest of us, as he worked through his feelings and his fear and we worked through our feelings and our fear. Every anaphylactic episode makes you feel very vulnerable. It is hard to return to the normalcy of just eating at a table. It is even harder to want to travel or eat out.
What happens when Benjamin has a reaction?
One of the really cruel pieces is that what seem like even minor reactions can turn anaphylactic. But not every reaction is anaphylactic. You have to take every reaction seriously and you have to watch every reaction very carefully. Benjamin has been in anaphylaxis a total of five times. Every single time, the onset was different.
So you never know from one time to the next which reaction is going to end in anaphylaxis.
You never know. It’s very stressful. If his throat closes, now I know it’s a no-brainer. If he throws up, it’s a no-brainer. If he has hives up and down his body, it’s a no-brainer. But when it starts on his face, our doctor has always said give Benadryl and observe. You look for that second symptom. One time it started on his lips and then spread to his face, and I started to see the purple around his eyes, and that’s right on the border of, ‘Ooh. What are we doing now?’ So I have sat up late into the night monitoring him, making sure that he was breathing, that there wasn’t anything happening to his body, and wondering if I’ve done the right thing by not giving him an EpiPen.
I think having the Allergy Alert dog at his side will help people understand that you’re not being overprotective, that this peanut allergy stuff is very real. It takes away the invisible, emphasizes that this is a full-blown medical condition.
Right. And we’re getting into the teenage years, and the teenage years are when the most deaths occur.
You go from being the parent who’s managed this and kept your child safe from infancy up until the teenage years, then not only do you have a life-threatening food allergy, but you’ve got all the teenage behavior going on, the risk-taking, the peer pressure, wanting to fit in …
It’s a really good time for a dog! This is a dog that will help him get through high school and into the first year of college, where we’ll have to worry about a whole other set of issues. She will help him have independence and do things like go to the movies, a place where there’s a lot of food residue. … School is stressful for Benjamin. He wants to be there, and the dog I think will make his life less stressful.
Will the dog help temper the stress that you and Joel carry?
It will. And we’ll feel much better knowing Tracy can help him not have residue reactions. I worry about situations where we have to explain and trouble shoot with people who don’t want the dog. But I’m perfectly game to do that.
Fortunately, you have the Americans With Disabilities Act on your side. But you end up having to do a lot of education whenever you bring a dog with a vest with you in public. You become not only a walking peanut allergy information specialist, you’re also a walking service dog information specialist. Tell me what your hopes are for Tracy and Benjamin, and how much she means to your family.
This is huge. This is really huge. My hope is that Benjamin can feel free to be independent. That he can go to Scout camp and not worry about what another kid ate in the tent. Tracy will help him do that. That he can go to the movies, and he can go to the mall, and he doesn’t have to have me sitting somewhere watching. And I hope that Tracy will help him communicate to other people that he’s not making this up and that management [of this allergy] is truly difficult. That doesn’t sound like a $20,000 fix, but when you have somebody say to a child, ‘It’s okay, you can eat this,’ and the child knows that he can’t, that’s really hard. This is going to be very helpful to Benjamin and give him the legitimacy to make his own decisions.
Well good luck. Tracy’s a special dog. Each one of these dogs is its own special gift, they’re such remarkable animals. But Tracy, she’s more than a $20,000 dog; she’s a one-in-a-million dog.
What we’ve always tried to do is live as full a life as possible while being very respectful of the allergy. One of the things I’m hoping is that Tracy will help Benjamin continue living as full a life as is possible on his own, while continuing to manage his allergy. That’s what we want.
She’s a very driven dog. The more you load on her, the happier she is. She has a lot of heart. A very, very big heart, a bottomless well.
That’s awesome. Well, she’s going to a sweet, precious boy.
Tracy’s forever boy.
I named her Tres, because she was my third Angel Service Dog, but in an ill-conceived bout of inspiration, I engraved “Tres-E” on her bone-shaped stainless steel ID tag.
Over the past year, as she’s progressed through a series of Angel Service Dogs guardians and trainers in Colorado Springs, Tres-E has morphed into Trac-E, but no matter how you spell her name, it’s pronounced Tracy. To me, her puppyraiser, Tracy will forever be Tres, my Number Three. As time has passed, and other puppies have come and gone, I’m pretty sure Tracy was my one-in-a-million dog, the puppy with the soulful amber eyes and boundless canine spirit that padded into my heart, circled three times and nested; for whatever reason, she chose me exclusively as hers, bonded with me like no other animal probably ever will.
Funny thing is, Tracy was an accident. Credit Gunner for that. Kim and Mike Piedt’s purebred Labrador retriever, an intensely driven hunting dog with a luminous coat a-ripple with muscle and a vertical leap of five feet or more, had escaped from his kennel at Killara Ridge Breeding & Research Center one summer day in 2010 while his owners were away. A helpful neighbor found Gunner ranging through the brambles of Portland’s West Hills and returned the AWOL Lab to Killara Ridge. But instead of leaving Gunner in his kennel, the neighbor mistakenly locked him into an adjoining pen with Sammy, a supersweet shaggy multi-gen Australian labradoodle I think of as Mrs. Snuffleupagus, a female in heat that had already been bred with another multigen labradoodle and was in the early stages of pregnancy. Gunner did what any intact male Lab would do in such a situation, so when Sammy gave birth that September, half the pups emerged from her womb as fluffy as Muppet Babies while the others were miniature Super Labs, flat coat carbon copies of Gunner. In November, after I had left Gus, my second Angel Service Dog pup, with trainers in Colorado Springs, I loaded my kids in the car and drove up to Killara Ridge to claim our third service dog puppy. We chose a Gunner pup, a seven-week-old chocolate girl with flecks of gold in her then-grey eyes; in the kennel, where collar colors serve as placeholder names, she was known as Purple, then graduated to a larger collar and was called Pink. When I picked her up, held her close for the first time, she claimed her name:
Before she could leave the kennel, the pup needed to be vaccinated, and I volunteered for the job. Here’s a video of Kim Piedt watching over me as I give a trembling little Tracy her first shot:
At home, I plopped Tracy down on the hardwood floor of our puppy nursery, a corner of the living room behind the couch that’s segregated from the rest of the house with a baby gate, where I introduced her to her fleece-lined crate, and a bevy of new toys–including a yellow rubber binky for teething–but at first, all she wanted to do was curl into my daughter’s lap:
And so like the dogs before her, and the others that have followed, Tracy became part of my family. As days merged into weeks and the weeks blurred into months, Tracy grew, and her training advanced in a rapid, and sometimes not-so-rapid, succession of firsts: learning to nose the bell hanging from the knob of the back door when she had to go outside; leaving her playpen to explore the house–including counters and the dishwasher; graduating from obedience school and into a red Service Dog In Training cape; then socialization forays in public: grocery stores, movie theaters, libraries, public schools, restaurants, buses, trains and escalators. And whenever she wasn’t working, we played, endless games of fetch and Frisbee (athletic like her sire, Tracy loves nothing more than to soar through the air) at Vancouver’s eight-acre Ross Off-leash Dog Recreation Area, road trips to Mount Hood to romp in the snow or climb a fire lookout, chasing seagulls through the surf on the Oregon coast.
After six months, when she was inseparable, glued to me like a tail, it was time to say goodbye, with a final test: a plane trip to Colorado. Wedged beneath the seatback at my feet, she rested her nose between my knees and shivered with fear as the jetliner roared into the sky; eventually, she struggled to stay awake, eyes blinking once, twice, then with a heavy sigh, she drifted off to sleep. Just before the Angel Service Dogs commencement ceremony at the Colorado Springs Marriott Residence Inn on May, 13, 2011, I handed Tracy’s leash to Roberta Swanson Ross and her teenage son, Adam, the guardians who would school her for six months until she was ready for her scent detection trainer. As Gus, my second pup, graduated and received his blue-green service vest, I stood in the back of the ballroom, and tried not to notice that Tracy was scrambling under the chairs, straining at the end of her leash to get to me. I saw the confusion and pleading in those amber eyes. Yet somehow, I found the courage to turn my back on her, and walk away.
Exactly one month from today, when I return to that very ballroom with another dog, and watch Tracy graduate with her forever family, the Nicholses of Minnesota, these will be some of the images running through my head:
The other day I stumbled upon “The Peanut Puzzle,” an article from The New Yorker (where I worked as a fact-checker in the 1990s) that was published last February and that somehow I had missed. Written by Jerome Groopman, a prominent cancer and AIDS researcher and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who also happens to be a gifted magazine journalist, it’s one of the most sober, cogent and engaging pieces of writing about peanut allergy, and the latest thinking about its origins, prevention and treatment, that I’ve come across yet. If you’re curious about peanut allergy, and/or are caring for a child diagnosed with the disorder, and you haven’t read Dr. Groopman’s story, you really should. For those of you who aren’t subscribers and don’t have access to the magazine’s online archive, I’ve uploaded it at the link below:
If you don’t have time to read the article (it’s five pages long), I’ll do my best to distill it here:
Dr. Groopman’s narrative revolves around Dr. Hugh Sampson, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City. If that name sounds familiar to those of you who are following this blog, it’s because Dr. Sampson is the physician Dr. Mary Tobin was referring to in my April 2 post, “A Kid’s Life is Worth More than a Peanut Butter Sandwich.” Like most physicians, until recently, Dr. Sampson believed that the best way to protect at-risk children from developing food allergies was to shield them from exposure to peanuts and other proteins known to trigger allergies while in the womb, and during infancy, the idea being that a child’s immune system needed time to mature in order to recognize that these suspect foods were in fact benign and are not harmful to the system. Based on this assumption, in 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted guidelines that urged mothers of at-risk children to avoid eating allergenic foods during pregnancy and while breastfeeding and delay the introduction of these foods into the child’s diet, an instruction pediatricians nationwide passed on to thousands if not millions of expectant and nursing mothers who dutifully followed that dietary advice, wanting to do what was best for their babies. But recently, Dr. Groopman writes, the experts have made a dramatic about face: “Sampson and other specialists believe that early exposure [to peanuts and other allergenic foods] may actually prevent food allergies.” Noting that Sampson and another Mount Sinai pediatric allergist have documented a dramatic rise in food allergy diagnoses over the past decade–estimating that three to five percent of the population now is allergic to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts or seafood, and that over the past decade, allergies to peanuts have doubled–Groopman leads the reader to the obvious conclusion: the policy of avoidance that the American Academy of Pediatrics embraced in 2000 may have unintentionally exacerbated, if not induced, the very condition it was supposed to circumvent.
Why the sudden reversal? It helps to understand the mechanism at work here, the proteins that are at the heart of food allergy.
Groopman explains that the proteins found in the eight foods that most commonly trigger allergic reactions–eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy–all have one thing in common: unlike most other foods, these proteins don’t readily break down when exposed to heat (during cooking) and stomach acid (during digestion). It’s this breakdown resistance that causes the body to recognize an otherwise benign food, like a peanut or milk, as a potentially harmful foreign substance. This in turn causes the body to produce large amounts of antibodies known as Immunoglobulin E, or IgE; in food allergy diagnoses, it’s the amount of IgE in a patient’s blood that determines the severity of the allergy. You can think of IgE antibodies as the foot soldiers of the immune system, the first line of defense in fighting off foreign invaders; when the body senses danger, it musters an army, which lies in wait for the next invasion. So when the rogue protein appears again in the bloodstream, the antibodies attack, waging an all-out war. The IgE molecules attach themselves to the peanut protein (or milk, soy, egg etc.), which triggers the release of histamine and other chemicals that initiate the classic symptoms of allergy–itching, wheezing, vomiting, diarrhea–the body’s misguided and ultimately self-destructive attempt to purge itself of these foreign invaders. If unchecked (with a dose of Benadryl and/or epinephrine), the runaway reaction can lead to full-blown anaphylaxis and death.
Given this scenario, physicians reasoned that eliminating the most allergenic proteins from the diets of infants would give their immune systems a chance to develop, assuming that a mature immune system would be more likely to correctly recognize these foods as benign, reducing the chances of the body mounting an allergic response when the child is finally introduced to the proteins.”We knew that the human immune system is immature for the first year or so. So I was thinking initially that, as long as we don’t expose babies to a food, they can’t make an immune response,” Sampson explains in The New Yorker article. “And if we can wait until their immune system matures after a few years they could do better when later exposed to the food.”
In 1998, Groopman writes, that reasoning became the official policy of the Department of Health in the United Kingdom; two years later, it was adopted by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But not everybody agreed. Groopman’s champion emerges in the person of Dr. Gideon Lack, a pediatric allergist at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, who told Groopman, “If eating eggs or eating peanuts in an allergic sufferer causes a reaction, then clearly the way to prevent a reaction from occurring is by not eating egg or peanut. That makes sense. But that’s different from saying that clearly the way to not become allergic in the first place is not to eat egg or peanut.”
Groopman writes that Lack’s “aha!” moment came during a lecture in Tel Aviv in 2003, when he asked an auditorium packed with Israeli pediatric allergists for a show of hands if they had diagnosed a case of peanut allergy in the past year and perhaps three indicated that they had. “Lack told me that if he had asked that question in the United Kingdom, ninety to ninety-five per cent would have raised their hands,” Groopman writes. Teaming up with Israeli pediatricians, Lack conducted an epidemiological study of more than 5,000 students at Jewish schools in London and a similar sample of students at schools in Tel Aviv, comparing the diets of the children and incidence of food allergies in both cities. Lack found that childhood food allergy was exponentially higher in London than in Tel Aviv: peanut allergy, 11 times higher; tree nut allergy, 14 times higher; sesame allergy, five times higher; for milk and egg allergy, the risk factor was two to three times higher. Lack suspects a difference in diet is responsible for the disparity, particularly for peanut allergy, noting that Israeli children encounter the protein early in their lives, in the form of a peanut paste called ‘Bamba,’ a staple for Israeli infants. Even more intriguing, Groopman notes, are studies Lack conducted at the National Jewish Medical Research Center in Denver that showed laboratory mice could develop allergies to egg protein that was inhaled or rubbed on their skin, without ever actually consuming the substance, and another study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, of nearly 14,000 American preschool children which concluded that the same mechanism seemed to be at work in humans: children with eczema who had been exposed to a skin ointment containing peanut oil later developed allergies to peanut protein. ”Doing nothing more than inhaling or touching an allergen could prompt a reaction in some children,” writes Groopman, who notes that Lack’s studies eventually persuaded other researchers, most notably, Hugh Sampson, to question the conventional wisdom of dietary restrictions and peanut allergy, which seemed to have made the problem even worse. “You can’t avoid food proteins,” Sampson tells Groopman. “So when we put out these recommendations we allowed the infants to get intermittent and low-dose exposure, especially on the skin, which actually may have made them even more sensitive.”
In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics reversed its food allergy feeding guidelines.
In a current study funded by the Food Allergy Initiative and Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, Lack, is comparing the rates of peanut allergy in 640 infants randomly selected to eat peanut products or avoid them altogether, attempting to verify his hypothesis that children develop tolerance to a host of different food proteins by exposure to the proteins during the first six months of life.
The moral of this story? Parents of children with life-threatening food allergies might find some solace in what one allergist tells Groopman: “I try to emphasize with my patients not to feel guilty that they did or did not do something that would have resulted in their child having a food allergy. Even the experts are not certain what to advise.”
As the guardian of a service dog puppy, sometimes I think I understand what it must feel like to be the parent of a foster child. I’m thinking of Tobi, this precious and precocious little creature I’ve potty trained and praised and disciplined and exercised and played with and lived with and loved, a constant companion who’s been at my feet or by my side, hungry for my guidance and approval, practically every day for the first year of his life. And soon, too soon, I’ll fly or drive him to Colorado Springs, where I’ll remove from his collar the bone-shaped stainless steel dog tag that just before he came to live with us I had engraved with his name and our address and will be tacked to the frame of his portrait that will hang with the others on the west wall of our living room. Then I’ll hand over his leash to the Angel Service Dogs scent detection trainer who will school and certify Tobi as a peanut dog. If all goes well, in six months, maybe a year from now, he’ll go home with his forever family. “How do you do it? I could never let go,” is what the regulars at Vancouver’s Ross Off-leash Recreation Area typically say when they learn that the pup I’m walking is destined to be someone else’s.
I’ve done it three times, I explain, and each time, it felt like the hardest thing I’d ever done. But from now on, if anybody asks me not how but why, I’ll tell them about Sara, Jess and Tyson Owen.
Last Thursday, I received an e-mail from the executive director of Angel Service Dogs, asking if I wouldn’t mind showing off Tobi to a new client, a couple from Washington who were coming to Portland for the day and were considering acquiring an Allergy Alert dog for their 10-year-old son, a fifth-grader severely allergic to several different foods. Of course I said yes, and so a week ago today, after taking Tobi to Vancouver for his usual morning romp, I do something unusual: I give him a bath. Not because I want him to look his best (but I do), but because the previous night I had allowed a little girl at a neighborhood candy store to pet him, and I couldn’t be sure that she hadn’t left peanut or egg or milk residue on Tobi’s fur, invisible, but perhaps enough to trigger a reaction in a medically fragile child diagnosed with multiple life-threatening food allergies.
At the appointed hour, I leash Tobi and trot a very excited dog, his curly black locks tamed and gleaming, out the front door and down to the parking strip just as a silver Mercedes with Washington plates coasts to the curb.
A back door pops open and instead of the socially awkward and sheltered food allergy kid I’d been expecting this quintessential American boy with a dimpled chin and a Tiger Beat coif and smile, au courant in modish black jeans, jacket, sneakers and shoulder bag, jumps out and exclaims “Tobi!” Tyson Owen falls down on both knees and Tobi jumps into his lap and accepts the laughing boy’s hug, burrows his nose deep into Tyson’s jacket, his butt-wiggling and tail helicoptering so furiously his back end’s almost levitating.
“Hi, I’m Sara,” says Tyson’s mom, a mama griz in bluejeans and cashmere accustomed to looking out for and protecting her cub. Smiling, watching this boy-meets-dog scene unfold, Sara tells me about Tyson’s allergies, to eggs, milk and peanuts. He was colicky as an infant, she explains, realizing now that her son already had been reacting to the diet of cheese and ice cream she practically had lived on while nursing. As a 10-month-old, Tyson experienced his first full-blown anaphylaxis reaction, when, after biting into a bread roll, his lips starting swelling to cartoonish proportions.
“We had him tested at 11 months, and that’s been our life ever since: learning how to read labels, looking for product recalls, learning how to cook for him,” says Sara. “As a parent, you know you have to teach your child about Stranger Danger but you don’t think you’ll have to protect your child from ice cream, from candy, protect him from something that’s part of most kids’ lives.”
Tyson outgrew his egg allergy by the time he was three, and he is slowly overcoming his allergy to milk, but his peanut allergy, which is so severe it’s almost off the charts, isn’t getting any better and will probably be with him for life.
“If I touch [peanut protein], I go into anaphylactic shock,” says Tyson, matter-of-factly. “That’s why I carry this.” He’s talking about the satchel stocked with emergency epinephrine pens that’s always within arm’s reach, even when he’s rolling around on the grass with Tobi.
A burly guy in bluejeans and a black leather motorcycle jacket, a head taller than Sara, offers his hand.
“This is my husband, Jess.”
Also known as “The Culinary Madman,” a nickname he earned during a tw0-year stint as executive chef at Ocean Crest Resort, a 45-room getaway on the Washington Coast that’s been in Jess’s family for three generations. Last summer, the resort’s restaurant and gift shop burned to the ground. Jess and his family manage the property together (Sara’s the resort’s public relations and marketing manager) and now they’re rebuilding. Just another setback that a decade of parenting a child with life-threatening food allergies has taught them to handle with grace and aplomb, an attitude they model for their son. I invite Tobi’s guests inside; Tyson and Sara sit next to each other on the couch, and Jess folds himself into a love seat.
“When we first found out about Tyson’s allergies, it hit us really hard,” Tyson’s father explains. “It was very scary for us and we cried quite a bit. But then we put into perspective all the different things that could be wrong. He could’ve been born with Down syndrome or spina bifida or whoever knows what else. All we have to do is control his environment. This is manageable.”
Tobi, adopting the role of canine host, trots back and forth to his toy basket in a far corner of the room and brings out a ball for Jess, a mangled rope bone for Sara, and a tug toy for Tyson.
“When Tyson starts feeling sorry for himself, I remind him there are kids who are fighting leukemia,” adds Sara. “It’s not to belittle how he feels, but there are kids with challenges that are far greater than what we’re dealing with. We tell him, ‘you just have food allergies. We can control this.’”
And control it they do. They don’t allow peanuts or peanut products in their home. They rarely dine out (as Sara says, “It’s just too nerve-wracking.”) and when they do, there are only a few restaurants they trust (including Red Robin, and its accommodating allergy-friendly menu), and even then, only after a rigorous Q&A with the server and the manager, who sometimes feel sorry for Tyson, and offer freebies, which is perfectly fine with him.
“They freak out, ‘Oh no, it’s the kid with food allergies!’” says Tyson. “Sweet! I’m getting free sorbet. Pity sorbet!”
Jess adds: “The sweetest sorbet of all!”
Once after learning Tyson was allergic to ice cream, a server commented, ‘Gee, that sucks,’ which prompted a scolding from Sara, who notes, “I wouldn’t say [I went] ballistic, but I do correct people when they tell Tyson his life sucks.”
“Why would you tell a kid his life sucks?!” she asked. “He eats well, he has a wonderful family who supports him. He doesn’t do without!”
Certainly not with The Culinary Madman for a father.
Tyson only eats food that his parents have prepared or packed for him; he sits at a peanut-free table at school, and he has taught his classmates how to use an EpiPen, and regularly quizzes them. I ask for a demonstration, and the boy stops playing fetch with Tobi, opens his satchel, and takes out an EpiPen Trainer, an injector without a needle or medicine cartridge that’s used for practice. He stands, becomes the teacher.
“What I tell everyone is first you take the blue cap off, then jab it into the fleshy part of my thigh.”
He bangs the pen into his leg, and the spring-loaded barrel contracts.
“Wait ten seconds, then pull it straight out because if you pull it sideways the needle will break off in my leg.”
Jess prods him: “What else?”
“Find the nearest adult and call 911.”
Passing the EpiPen quiz is a precondition for sleepovers, which are allowed at the homes of only two friends whose parents have been screened and prepped and passed muster with Sara and Jess and are supplied with the dairy- and peanut-free staples of Tyson’s restricted diet.
I ask Tyson what it’s like to be the food allergy kid, and he responds in a way that’s atypically nuanced and reasoned and perceptive for a ten-year-old, which may have something to do with the way his parents speak to him, not as a kid, but as an adult.
“It’s not very easy because kids are constantly asking me to talk about it and I don’t like to,” he says. “It’s uncomfortable for me because I don’t want to come to terms with what’s going on. When they ask me about it, it means I have to come to terms with it and I don’t like to think about it at all. If I think about it, I remember I have this huge roadblock in my life and I have to get over it so I try to forget about it.”
Sometimes, kids at school tease Tyson about his EpiPen satchel, calling it a purse.
“I think as a society, we all focus on our similarities because everybody likes to fit in,” observes Jess. “When we start focusing on our differences, it’s a little bit more uncomfortable.”
And sometimes, as much as Tyson and his parents try to insulate him from being labeled as the peanut allergy kid, there’s no getting around the fact that he’s different. Sara talks about how after the final game of T-ball season, after all the kids received their trophies, the team celebrated with a party at a local pizza party. Everybody but Tyson. Even though she and Jess took Tyson someplace special, it helped, but it didn’t make the hurt go away.
“It breaks my heart all the time that he can’t have whatever he wants, that he can’t do whatever he wants, that there are things he can never eat,” says Sara. ”It’s not like he’s missing out on a lot because if I take the right chocolate and soy nut butter, he can have something that tastes similar. But it’s not the same and he’s going to have to be careful his whole life. And he’s going to have the conversation every time he goes into a restaurant. It’s just going to be there. That’s always going to be his challenge.”
This seems to be too much for Tyson to bear.
“I don’t want to be special all the time!” he insists, sitting there on the couch, overcome with emotion, hating that his voice is breaking. “And I do appreciate a lot that you guys try to make me feel okay when my friends are going off and having a pizza party and you try to do something for me so I don’t feel so left out. But I don’t want to have to do that. I don’t want to have to be the kid who has to leave just because the pizza got brought out. I don’t want to be the kid who has to go someplace else … “
Tyson’s crying now. And Tobi pulls him out of his funk, literally, by initiating a game of tug of war.
“We can protect Tyson from the dangers that we can see, but the service dogs, with their sense of smell, they can detect such a minute amount that we can’t see, a smudge of something under a table or a chair,” says Jess. “It’s just such a larger safety net. Which would give us an immense peace of mind.”
I point out that they seem to be doing a pretty good job of protecting Tyson themselves, given that Tyson hasn’t been to an emergency room for anything other than the usual stitches or a broken bone since he was an infant.
“If I could wrap him in bubble wrap and keep him in the living room I would,” says Sara. “When he’s little, when he’s four or five, you can completely control his world wherever he goes but the older he gets the more he wants to be independent and the more I want him to be. We need to be able to let him go out and traverse the world and having another vigilant partner that’s not Mom or Dad, I hope it helps him gain independence to be able to do things with his friends on his own as he gets older but still stay safe.”
Tobi brings Sara his rope bone, looks up expectantly at her with a doggie grin
“Having a partner like you, Tobi,” she says, putting her nose to his. “If I could take him right now I would!”
“Do you mind,” Tyson asks me. “After meeting Tobi, I want to take him home right now.”
“I think he does,” says Sara.
I don’t. If it were up to me, this would be the family I’d want for Tobi.
“At first, he thought that if he didn’t get the dog, he didn’t have deal with it,” explains Sara.
“It’s classic avoidance,” adds Jess. “Like when my grandpa died and Grandma put his things in a box and told me to look through it and I’d find every reason not to because if I didn’t go through the box, he wasn’t gone.”
“And that’s someone in his thirties,” points out Sara. “Imagine trying to deal with something like this when you’re ten.”
Tobi’s fully engaged Tyson in a tug of war, and the boy’s winning, lifting the dog off the carpet.
“Careful Tyson! Don’t pull his little teeth out!”
“He’s pulling my arm off!” Tyson exclaims, delighted. “At first I didn’t want him, because … if Mom wasn’t with me, there has to be someone watching over me because I couldn’t do it right. That’s how I felt.”
“So how do you feel right now?” Sara asks. “That’s what I want to know.”
This is the moment of truth, the reason they’ve traveled three hours to Portland. Does Tyson want a service dog?
“I still haven’t fully changed my mind yet,” he waffles. “But I think I’m coming to terms with it, that if I don’t have this dog, I could possibly die.”
“As you can see, we’re still struggling,” apologizes Sara, who delivers an ultimatum, posed as a question, a tipping point for Tyson. ”Which would you rather have following you around in high school, a service dog, or a service mom?”
“I definitely don’t want my mom following me around when I’m 15!” concludes an aghast Tyson, still attached to Tobi.
A dog would be so much cooler, I point out.
“Absolutely,” agrees Sara. “Especially when it looks like a Fraggle!”
“Um, does your dog need to poop?”
This, from the front desk attendant at Rush University Medical Center on the west side of Chicago. On that frigid Monday in January (when I was to meet with no fewer than four peanut allergy experts all across the Windy City), I had scheduled the first interview of the day with Mary Tobin, Rush’s divisional director of allergy and immunology, at 8 a.m., which necessitated waking before dawn and fighting bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic. I had arrived at the hospital fifteen minutes late with Tobi, an Allergy Alert service dog in training, and in my hurry to get to Dr. Tobin’s office from the parking garage, I hadn’t thought to give Tobi a potty break. And after digesting his breakfast of kibble for two hours in the backseat of the car, Tobi really had to go. Standing there spotlit at the front desk of one of the biggest teaching hospitals in Chicago, with all eyes on me because, hey, look I had a service dog: a service dog that, to my horror, was now squatting forepaws to hindpaws, ready to let loose on what amounted to the hospital’s welcome mat. “Gotta go!” I said, then bolted with Tobi out the front door, and not a second too soon. After that close call, I found Dr. Tobin waiting for me in a sub-basement conference room and, after putting Tobi in a down at my feet, spent 45 minutes quizzing the pediatric allergist about what medical experts know, and don’t know, about peanut allergy.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation that’s been lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
One thing I’d like to do is discuss peanut allergy, because I think there’s some confusion among the general public about what this is, and how it differs from all of the food intolerances that people seem to be self-diagnosing themselves and their children with these days, like the gluten-free craze that seems to be more of a dietary fad than an appropriate response to a diagnosis of Celiac disease. How do you explain to a parent what’s going on with a kid that’s been diagnosed with a peanut allergy?
With [peanut] allergy, you have these immediate reactions, very clearly the child makes an antibody to the peanut protein, after exposure to it. What will happen is that the body will recognize it [as a foreign substance that needs to be destroyed] and it’s seen by the cells in the gut which cause histamine to get released. There’s an antibody, the antibody sits on the cell, there’s enough protein that it bridges two of these antibodies that recognize it and that releases histamine.
Which is the same reaction that happens if you’re allergic to pollen.
It is. It’s a very classic allergic reaction, we call it ‘IgE mediated.’
And IgE is ….
IgE is the allergy antibody [also known as Immunoglobulin E, an indicator of allergy sensitivity].
And that’s the antibody you look for in a patient’s blood when you need to measure the severity of an allergy?
Yes. A child will come in, we don’t do any skin testing. If they have a history of this we will check them by blood for peanut, wheat and soy, those are the most common antigens.
Why don’t you do the classic skin-prick test on these kids?
To do the skin test for someone who’s had a severe reaction, you can’t gauge how they might react by just putting it on the skin.
How does the blood test work?
We take the protein we suspect the patient is allergic to, we put it on a plate, called the immunoCAP, and then we tag it with these little balls and then they put a person’s blood on the plate and the IgE will go right to that. Then we come in with an antibody against the IgE, we have all these different techniques, it used to be a radionucleotide and now it’s a color change, and based on that, we can say, it’s a Class VI.
Which is the most serious?
It goes from Class VI, which is the highest, down to 0, which means they didn’t detect anything.
What happens with a Class VI peanut allergy?
Everybody rolls their eyes when they hear about someone who is very allergic. But this is the person you really need to make sure has all the precautions, because any small amount [of peanut protein] can trigger a reaction.
How does the allergy get triggered?
It’s exposure to the proteins. So it depends. The surfaces are important. So let’s say the protein gets on the skin. You get hives on the skin. Usually the problem is that kids put their hands in their mouth and then it goes right to the mucosa and then it can be rapidly transmitted through the body.
And also when you touch your nose or your eyes.
There are allergy cells in the skin and through all the mucosal membranes, which seem to have a close association to fast signaling through the body that something [foreign] has entered.
Usually it’s peanut oil that triggers the reaction?
It can be oil or it can be the actual nut or peanut butter. And people ask, well, ‘What’s worse?’ We have some clues about the preparation of peanuts. We have some clues that boiled peanuts don’t seem to be as what we would say ‘antigenic,’ causing IgE to be released. Dry-roasted peanuts seem to be the thing that is able to sensitize people.
So the roasting process does something to the peanut that’s causing the allergic reaction to happen.
The roasting process transforms the protein in such a way to maybe make it more available to the body. We don’t know. But we don’t have these kind of reactions in the Asian countries.
That’s another intriguing question. But let’s go back to the physiology of peanut allergy. If I have peanut oil on my hand and touch an allergic kid, am I going to trigger an immune response through the skin, because the skin absorbs the peanut protein?
Yes, there are allergy cells in the skin and they’re usually close to nerves and blood vessels.
And the presence of peanut protein triggers the release of histamine, a neurotransmitter that triggers the immune response to rid the body of what’s perceived to be a harmful substance, right? What happens then?
Histamine causes a big dilation of blood vessels. It can cause flushing, redness, wheezing and loss of blood pressure, vomiting and diarrhea.
So when you see a child with redness and hives on the skin, with swollen eyes or lips, that’s a very clear signal that there’s something serious going on internally.
The tongue can swell and block the airway, and the lungs can close down and cause dizziness because you can’t get air.
How much time do you have to stop a reaction once it starts?
It can progress within minutes. It varies depending on how allergic the person is and how much protein they get.
How much protein does it take?
These kids who are Class VI, it doesn’t take hardly anything to get them going, to get them to have a systemic reaction.
So it varies?
I have kids who are Class IIs and Class IIIs who can tolerate sitting at a peanut-free table but a Class VI child can’t because if [the peanut protein] gets aerosolized, it becomes airborne and you inhale it.
Is that really a risk?
On Southwest Airlines, everybody’s opening peanuts [in a closed cabin]. I’m not terribly sensitive but I’m sensitive enough so that once when I was on a Southwest flight, my neighbor was opening peanuts, and I was like …
Wait, you have a peanut allergy yourself?
I’m one of these people who won’t eat peanuts, but tree nuts are worse for me than peanuts, if I get some on me I’ll start to itch.
Where are you on the scale of 0 to VI?
You know, I’ve never done my own [blood] test. I’ve never had an anaphylaxis reaction. But hazelnuts are the worst for me. Sometimes it’s a contact, if you get some on here, on the membrane, it’s going to swell the tissue right here. That’s a Class II.
Is that why you became an allergist?
I had no idea I was this allergic when I started, I had no idea.
I’ve read somewhere that with each exposure to peanut protein, it exacerbates the severity of the reaction.
Certainly we know that if you’re allergic to it and you don’t get away from it, your system will be able to have the same response to even a 10th of a dose a month later. It’s very efficient. It’s really stepped up the antibody production. These are the kids we really have to keep away from peanuts and any excess exposure.
How many Class VI kids have you diagnosed over your career?
I’ve been practicing since 1983, and what’s interesting is that when I first started practicing at Loyola, we didn’t see this. We didn’t see food allergies like this. I had kids I could go ahead and skin test because they didn’t have the reactions like we have today. You wouldn’t see this. But it was probably in the late 80s, early 90s, that this peanut allergy started happening. In a year, I probably diagnose 10 Class VI kids. Over my career, I’ve made at least 30 Class VI diagnoses.
And more likely than not, once you’re diagnosed with a peanut allergy, it’s going to stay with you.
Hugh Sampson [director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City] has found that probably two out of eight people will outgrow it. Especially [a Class VI], somebody with that much antibody against the peanut protein, hopefully we can get it down. Where we start to worry about anaphylaxis is at Class III, Class VI is scary. Within minutes you can watch their lips and tongue swell. With a Class VI kid, if you know they’ve ingested peanut, you would give them epinephrine right away. Epinephrine is the drug of choice. It really stops the swelling and constricts the blood vessels. That’s one thing we always stress, antihistamines are nice, they can help, but the treatment of choice is always epinephrine.
What impact does a Class VI diagnosis have the lives of these kids, and on the lives of the caregivers of these kids?
It’s really stressful both for the caregiver and for the kid, because you get anxious. I have kids who really have to work with a psychologist to try to get over their anxiety of not being able to go anywhere and being exposed to people who are careless. I think the hardest thing is the people who are good-natured, the well-meaning person who just doesn’t get it. Like you said, the person who says, ‘Well why should my kid have to suffer?’ And what they don’t understand is that any exposure to peanuts can kill this student. And can kill the kid within minutes. And if that kid doesn’t have ready access to epinephrine, and if that doesn’t get reverse right away, the kid’s gone.
That happened in Virginia earlier this month …
It’s especially difficult…Thank God you have somebody like Tobi!
Sometimes you just can’t see the peanut protein …
You can’t see it and you can’t tell. I had a very allergic kid to milk in my daughter’s class, the aide wasn’t aware. And somehow some milk got spilled and the five-year olds were like, ‘She’s allergic to milk!’ It was amazing, the kids were so much more open. I heard a kid in a grocery store asking her mother, ‘Can we get that, because if it has nuts in it, somebody might be allergic to it.’ And I just wanted to go ‘Yes!’ Kids seem to have a better level of understanding and compassion, at least initially.
How can a child with a Class VI peanut allergy go to school and be safe?
When my kids were little it horrified me when I’d go into their school and ask, ‘Well where do you keep the EpiPens?’ At lunch time, the school nurse leaves and they were in a locked cabinet. The mothers of these children have just been fabulous working with state legislators to get this EpiPen law in place.
The new Illinois law that says an EpiPen must be available in all public schools and that in a medical emergency, a doctor’s prescription is not necessary to use it.
Yes. But before, they didn’t understand what they needed to do.
As far as the prevalence of peanut allergy diagnoses between when you started practicing and now, what do you think is going on?
That’s the million dollar question.
Is there anybody chasing down the answer to that question?
Yes. Hugh Sampson at Mount Sinai in New York is doing amazing work. And the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, and [Hugh Sampson] was very instrumental in supporting that, the woman who started it had lost a child.
Have you ever lost a patient to peanut allergy?
[Knocking on wood] No.
But I’m sure it’s something you worry about.
You can pretty much control the environment, but it’s the teenagers that are the hardest.
Because there’s peer pressure to fit in, they don’t want to be labeled the weird peanut allergy kid.
And they don’t want to believe they have it anymore and they take risks. And it really undoes the family. It’s usually the mother who’s the caretaker having gotten the kid to adolescence and now he’s going to throw it all away. It’s a challenging relationship. How do you keep your child safe without making him neurotic? You know, these moms, they’re just amazing. I have a huge amount of respect.
One family with a peanut allergic child that I visited, the dad had just been laid off, and yet they managed to fundraise $20,000 for an Allergy Alert dog like Tobi, and the mom said,’If it’d been $90,000 we still would have done it, even if I had to sell my car, if I had to second-mortgage my house. Because this dog give us a sense of peace, a sense of security.’ And it’s not just the peanut allergy that the dog helps with, her daughter also has autism.
Not knowing, and not being able to communicate effectively, that would just put her over the edge. From the perspective of, do we need these dogs? It’s just this sense of anxiety because they know an exposure can kill them.
If you could convey just one idea about peanut allergy to the general public, what would you want them to know or to understand?
Take this seriously. Really be compassionate toward this child and this family and know what they are going through. Because you don’t really understand what their life is like. And you don’t understand what they have to do to get through a day. Be helpful, and try not to be obstructionist. This kid’s life is really on the line. It’s not worth a peanut butter sandwich.
That’s what amazed me about the story about the parents at the elementary school in Edgewater Florida that was in the news last March, where the parents actually picketed the school after the administrator banned peanuts from the school, made kids wash their hands before returning to their classrooms after lunch, all for one allergic child. And maybe the school went too far. But essentially what the protestors were saying is that if your kid has so many issues, she should be homeschooled. We don’t want to have to deal with your child’s problem.
What’s too much? And maybe it needs to be phrased this way: maybe it’s not a bad idea for kids to wash their hands after lunch. Really? Your kid can’t eat anything else for lunch but peanut butter? That’s just about it being easy for you. And you getting creative. And this is nothing compared to what this family has to do every day of this child’s life.
One brilliant Wednesday morning in March almost exactly a year ago now, I buckled myself into the window seat of a Nairobi-bound bush plane idling on a dirt airstrip in the heart of Kenya’s Mara Triangle. The engines revved and the plane rattled down the runway, rotated, then roared into a cloudless azure sky. As the Great Rift Valley fell away beneath us, I watched herds of galloping zebra and lumbering elephants and loping giraffe dissolve into indistinguishable points that soon became lost in a horizon-to-horizon carpet of undulating amber, and I knew even then I was leaving the Mara forever changed. How could one not be transfixed if not transformed by that landscape, after spending a week immersed in it, driving and walking and sometimes sprinting, legs and lungs burning, in the company of a half-dozen bloodhounds, eight Kenyan warriors, and two of the most experienced scent-detection dog trainers and human trackers in all of Africa, mzungu (whites) from Colorado: Linda Porter and John Lutenberg.
I first met Linda Porter and John Lutenberg two years ago when I flew from Portland to Colorado with Gus, a year-old gentle giant of a labradoodle with chocolate dreadlocks. I had raised Gus from a pup, socialized him and schooled him in basic obedience, and now I would hand him over to the scent-detection trainer who would turn him into an Allergy Alert dog, teaching him to recognize the smell of peanuts, how to search a room for the odor, and alert (by sitting) whenever he detected it. I had timed my Gus delivery trip to coincide with the certification of the latest crop of Angel Service Dogs, six labradoodles who would earn their blue-green Angel Service Dogs capes by searching an Episcopal church in Colorado Springs for “hides,” peanut-contaminated objects that had been hidden throughout the sanctuary. In addition to myself and Gus, another observer happened upon the scene that day: Linda Porter, an athletic fiftysomething veteran canine officer from the Canon City Police Department who was wearing bluejeans, sneakers and a gray fleece jacket and introduced herself as a local scent-dog trainer who ran a bloodhound training and tracking school with her husband, John Lutenberg, a bloodhound handler who had spent more than three decades tracking escaped convicts for the Colorado Department of Corrections. I got to talking with Linda, mentioned that I had raised two pups for scent-detection work and would soon begin anew with a third, and was curious about the breed that had set the scent-detection gold standard. So after the trials ended I loaded Gus into my rental car and followed Linda to the Canine Training Academy, a ranch house on 35 acres in the Rocky Mountain foothills, flanked by outbuildings echoing with the spine-tingling deep-throated ba-roos of purebred bloodhounds. John Lutenberg, a rangy 60-something outdoorsman wearing bluejeans and a black hoodie and a baseball cap jammed over his ears, moseyed out of the house and watched with a bemused smirk on his weathered face as I leashed Gus, a gregarious lamb-sized Muppet of a dog, and trotted him out of the backseat of the car.
“What is it?” he asked, as Linda kicked a stick in the direction of Gus and smiled when the dog took her cue and immediately pounced on it.
As we walked Gus out to the kennels, I told John about the puppy-raising I did for Angel Service Dogs, that Gus was an Australian labradoodle, a non-shedding breed that had been pioneered in the 1980s at the Royal Guide Dog Associations of Australia as an allergy-friendly service dog, and that Gus, a direct descendant of that original cross, would be trained to detect nut odor and work as a guardian for a medically fragile child diagnosed with a life-threatening peanut allergy. At the kennel’s chain-link gate, Katie, a female bloodhound with a honey-colored flat coat, pranced and barked a welcome to Gus, her tail whipping with anticipation. As Gus cautiously approached the gate, wondering what to make of Katie, the contrast between the two breeds couldn’t have been more stark. On one side of the fence stood the proud and noble Katie, the product of untold generations of selective breeding that stretched all the way back to ancient Babylon: those long ears sweep the ground and stir up scent; those droopy folds on her snout channel scent into a nose that contains a quarter-billion olfactory cells. And mirroring Katie, a canine Mr. Snuffleupagus. Although I knew Gus had a fine nose (I once scolded him for digging a hole in my backyard, only to be chagrined when I discovered that he had unearthed a squirrel-buried peanut), as he faced off with Katie, a hound genetically optimized for tracking, I couldn’t help but feel that the designer dog at the end of my leash, whose lineage could be traced no further back than the dawn of the Talking Heads, was seriously out of his league. Yet as playmates, Katie and Gus proved to be a perfect match. Watch this short video, and you’ll see what I mean:
Leaving Gus to bond with his new friend, Linda and John invited me into their home, where I noticed this pair of photos hanging on a living room wall, conspicuous among the portraits of all the hounds and police dogs they’ve worked with over the years:
Linda explained that these were rangers from the Tracker Dog Unit they had established in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. They had just returned from the Mara a few weeks earlier, having delivered a third hound to Africa, and had served as tactical advisors, leading the rangers and their hounds on harrowing nighttime raids of poaching camps along the Tanzanian border.
At a computer monitor in her home office, Linda, an accomplished amateur photographer, queued a voluminous image gallery, a complete pictorial record of their work in the Mara. It all started in November, 2008, with an unsolicited e-mail inquiry from Asuka Takita, a veterinarian at The Mara Conservancy.
The nonprofit Mara Conservancy manages a Chicago-sized, cheese-wedge-shaped chunk of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Mara Triangle, as a safari park on behalf of the Maasai, a tribe of pastoralist cattle herders who hold the deed to the land and collect gate receipts and a share of the revenues from tourist activities at a luxury bush hotel and permanent tented camps. The Mara Triangle shares a border with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, and when the annual summertime Great Migration of wildebeest crosses the border to graze on savannah grass in the Mara, roving bands of wa-Kuria, Tanzanian bushmeat eaters who illegally hunt in the Serengeti, follow the hungry herds into Kenya.
Under the cover of darkness, the wa-Kuria set thousands of wire snares, gill nets of the savannah that indiscriminately kill whatever unlucky beast wanders into them, then the poachers slaughter the animals for meat that’s dried, bundled and spirited back over the border.
Bushmeat harvested in the Mara feeds a thriving black market in villages just outside the Serengeti, where the contraband, known as nyama misingisi (meat from Tanzania’s Singisi District), is sold as a delicacy at a handsome profit by a network of middlemen that equip and pay the poachers for their work and control an elaborate distribution system that’s not unlike the illegal drug trade in the United States.
The Mara Conservancy’s veterinarian was interested in building kennels and establishing a Tracker Dog Unit at Ngiro-are, the non-profit’s anti-poaching outpost on the Tanzanian border, and wanted to know if Porter and Lutenberg could send bloodhounds and travel to the Mara to train eight rangers from local villages to use the dogs to track and apprehend wa-Kuria poachers that slipped through the dragnet of the Mara Conservancy’s paramilitary anti-poaching patrols. The couple agreed to donate their services, and in 2009, they shipped two trained hounds to the Mara, and made two trips to Africa, and another in 2010. In this four-minute video, Linda Porter and John Lutenberg, via Linda’s graphic photographs that illustrate the problem of bushmeat poaching in East Africa, tell the story of how and why they imported bloodhounds to the Mara:
Anna (pictured above), a third Colorado hound that Linda had delivered to Africa in June, 2010, to replace Memusi, an American bloodhound that had succumbed to the parasitic brain-wasting disease, tryps, was pregnant. The Mara Conservancy had asked the couple to return to the Mara in early 2011 for several weeks, this time to oversee the schooling of Anna’s pups, the first litter of bloodhounds born in the Mara.
As a magazine journalist with a professional interest in working dogs, I requested and received permission from the Mara Conservancy to shadow John and Linda for a week as they worked with the hounds and handlers of the Tracker Dog Unit.
Five months later, in March, 2011, I found myself bouncing in the back seat of a pawprint-festooned white Land Rover with Porter and Lutenberg on the road to Ngiro-are. Just before 8 every morning, we left Mara Conservancy headquarters, a solar-powered cinderblock office ringed by a bush camp of safari tents pitched in a thicket near the Mara River that’s visited nightly by hippos and giraffe and orangutans and the occasional black mamba.
Here’s John after breakfast one morning in the outdoor dining room of “The Hippo Slums,” Linda’s nickname for their bush camp:
The commute, an overland ramble through one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, ended an hour later at Ngiro-are (Swahili for “muddy water”), a thick-walled fortress literally a stone’s throw from the Tanzanian border that’s home to the Mara Conservancy’s primary anti-poaching garrison, and the leopard-proof kennels (designed by Porter and Lutenberg) of the Tracker Dog Unit. Here’s a photo of Siele, one of the Tracker Dog Unit’s bloodhound handlers, standing outside Ngiro-are’s bullet-riddled steel gate, compliments of wa-Kuria bandits a few years back who sprayed the fortress with AK-47s while they herded rustled Maasai cattle into Tanzania; that’s the Serengeti in the distance beyond the wall; the Cape buffalo ambling toward Siele is Hannah, a mascot the Unit adopted as an orphaned calf, who sometimes serves as a couch for the rangers:
At the fortress there’d be a raucous greeting from the Tracker Dog Unit’s eight rangers, led by a 29-year-old Maasai moran (warrior) named Shadrack Olongui Sabaya, a fluent English-speaker with a literature and English degree from Uganda’s Kampala International University who’d been tending cattle at his family’s boma (Maasai family ranch) in Kilae Village and teaching high school in Lolgorien before Porter and Lutenberg brought their hounds to Africa in 2009. On my first morning at Ngiro-are, I asked Sabaya why he left a comfortable teaching job to become a Mara Conservancy dog handler, and this was his answer:
“Special dogs for tracking? It sounded like an adventure so I came over and I started all over again. I like the job, it’s not bad, it has headaches, difficulties, but it’s about being stronger, persevering. … I feel it is bad, the killing of animals, so it is good to help to come in and assist in the fight against poaching.”
Here’s a shot of Linda photographing Sabaya marching on the savannah one morning during tracker dog training:
Each morning, we’d load a dog crate into the wayback of a rover and into the crate would go two of the four Africa-born puppies, each with Maasai names–Karua (for Martha Wangari Karua, the Iron Lady of Kenyan politics); Sero (the Maasai word for “black”); Gbagbo (after the deposed Ivory Coast dictator); and Naeku (Maasai for “born in the morning”), and one of the American hounds (either Anna or Morani, the “little warrior”).
Then with the Rover packed like an all-terrain clown car with rangers wedged against the crate, quadrupled in the back seat and clinging to the roof rack, we’d drive out onto the savannah, weaving around elephants and giraffe and zebra, off-roading over miles and miles of open terrain.
Linda would shout “Simama!” (“Stop!”) and we’d park and unload and spend hours under the hot sun working the hounds and testing their handlers on scent trail after scent trail. A pair of rangers–with lions and cheetah and Cape buffalo and bull elephants wandering about, nobody walks anywhere without an armed escort–would lay down a scent trail, also known as a track line (all humans leave an invisible trail of scent–a mist of sweat and breath and skin cells–that a hound can detect and follow) by walking through the knee-high grass, sometimes for miles, then hide in the grass or behind a termite mound or giant fig tree, and wait.
Once the trail-setter radioed that he was ready, a handler would set a hound or pup on the hidden ranger’s scent, and follow the track line to its conclusion, with Linda or John trotting a few steps behind, critiquing and shouting encouragement in a mishmash of English and Swahili. The terrain, crisscrossed with predators and herds of wild animals, makes tracking a challenge for experienced hounds like Morani and Anna, even more so for a puppy.
One morning, a herd of zebra thundered over a track line one of the rangers had set for Morani, a hound with more than 40 captures to his credit. Having only encountered zebras in a zoo, seeing a herd of punda milia (Swahili for “striped donkeys”) thundering over the savannah was stunning, as you’ll see in this 10-second clip:
But just as stunningly beautiful was watching canine Morani working for his handler, ranger Mohamed Moguche. In this video, as we’re following Moha and Morani through the savannah grass, watch the hound searching for then locking onto the hidden ranger’s scent as John talks about the challenges a bloodhound faces when following a human track that’s been contaminated by hundreds of wild animals.
After four hours or more of setting, walking and running track lines, we’d drive back to Ngiro-are, return the pups and hounds to their kennels, then relax in the mess hall, a cinderblock hut with a thatched roof, and sip hot chai from tin mugs and play checkers.
One afternoon, Linda presented the rangers with a gift: Yahtzee. As I sat down to play a round with Sabaya, he picked up a dice, put in the palm of his hand, and studied it. Linda had to show him how to roll. Sometimes after tracking, we played with the puppies.
The chief warden knew that I wanted to see the hounds in action on an actual poaching camp raid, and that I was interested in interviewing a poacher. So while we were out training on the savannah, or sitting in the mess hall, we’d be listening to the radio, hoping the Mara Conservancy rangers on foot patrol along the Tanzanian border would find poachers and call for the dogs, but for the entire week I was in the Mara, the radio only crackled with static. On Monday morning, my second-to-last day in the Mara, a hot-air balloonist flying over the Mara River radioed that he had spotted smoke curling from a thicket, a possible sign of poaching activity. So that morning, instead of training with Linda and John and the Tracker Dog Unit, I hitched a ride with Sabaya and Mohamed and Morani and some twenty armed rangers jammed shoulder-shoulder and on top of the canvas roof of an all-terrain troop transport, and we drove at breakneck speed, flying over the savannah, the truck sometimes diving into and climbing out of watering holes, spraying great rooster-tails of mud.
After 30 minutes we reached our destination: River Camp, scene of one of the bloodiest crimes in the Mara Triangle’s recent history. Just before 8 p.m. on July 26, 2010, days before Linda was to arrive from Colorado with Anna, six wa-Kuria bandits and their Maasai guide, armed with AK-47s and a shotgun, ambushed a group of white Kenyans from Nairobi that had gathered at River Camp to celebrate the 60th birthday of John D’Olier, a close friend of the Mara Conservancy’s CEO. The bandits held the campers, including women and children, at gunpoint, then executed the guest of honor and critically wounded two others before fleeing into the night with binoculars and cameras and laptop computers. Morani picked up their trail and ran for six hours until he was exhausted and could run no more and the criminals escaped into the night; when later apprehended, the killer who led the raid would tell police that the hound had been at his heels, and they had barely eluded capture
When we arrived at River Camp, it was an altogether different scene, a flawless bright morning, and rangers mustering from all corners of the park were greeting each other in Swahili and Maasai and laughing and hugging and shaking hands and clapping each other on the back. I was paired with a guide, a 31-year-old Maasai ranger named Patrick Gilai who told me to stick close by, and not to worry because in addition to his World War II-era bolt action rifle, he also was carrying a well-honed combat knife. But more importantly, he had a radio to call for help.
The commander pointed his baton at the forest, and we marched in a single column into the woods along the banks of the Mara River and followed a hippo trail, searching for signs of poachers. In the dense forest, silence closed around us, the Maasai, expert trackers, somehow silenced even their footsteps. It only amplified the sounds of birds and insects buzzing and loudest of all, great splashes and snorts and crashes and grunts from hippos and crocs and buffalo crowding the river below us. As I struggled to keep up with Patrick and the rangers, who were quick-marching through the forest, I looked down and saw this Cape buffalo and Nile crocodile:
A few paces later, through the trees I spied dozens of hippos submarining through the water.
Then it dawned on me that the half-pipes of perfectly smooth mud I’d noticed leading down to the riverbank were chutes made by hippos sliding into the water from the very footpath we were walking. It reminded me of that scene from Jurassic Park, when the puddles on the ground shudder with the ominous footfalls and a T-Rex emerges from the forest canopy and swallows the lawyer in one gulp; to an American running after a Maasai ranger through a forest on the Mara River, a hippo sounds an awful lot like a tyrannosaur. A few minutes later, one of the beasts emerged from the water and charged up a chute.
The animal emerged on the trail just ahead of us, crashed through the bushes, and stood there, looking at us, huffing. Patrick raised a hand in warning, motioned for me to be silent. Then slowly, he picked up a branch, hefted it at the hippo, and bolted down the chute. I ran/slid after him, sprinted along the croc-infested riverbank, splashed across the river, then crossed back again and met up with a group of rangers who had regrouped, and were all facing the same direction, standing perfectly still. Through the trees, an agitated bull elephant the size of a cement mixer was staring down the rangers. “If he charges,” whispered Patrick. “Be prepared to run.” But the animal turned and disappeared into the forest. And so it went for more than an hour, until we finally located the source of the smoke the balloonist had spotted from above. It was a snag that had been struck in half by lightning and it was still smoldering. The rangers gathered around the base of the tree gazing upward, watching smoke curling into the sky.
On Tuesday morning’s commute, my final day, the Mara presented me with a gift. Not the poachers or the bushmeat camp I had traveled halfway around the world to witness, but something eminently more beautiful: a lioness. Linda braked the Rover and stopped beside a full-grown cat, belly swollen with a fresh kill, sitting in the dirt at the edge of the road. My back seat window was rolled down, and the lioness was so close, I could’ve reached out and patted her on the head. Not that I would have dared. Being in such close proximity to a predator initiates a visceral and deeply human instinct to flee; my mouth went dry, my hands were shaking and I found that I couldn’t even breathe, much less move a muscle to roll up the window, as Linda urges in the whispering you’ll hear in the background of this brief video I shot of the up-close encounter:
We spent that morning tracking along the Tanzanian border near a landmark known as the Salt Lick, a mineral deposit that draws animals–and poachers–from all across the savannah. After a final tracking session with Morani and the rangers, in which I was allowed to play the role of the poacher and lay a track line for the hound, Linda took this photograph, which now hangs on a wall in my office:
A week and a half after I returned to Portland, Linda sent this e-mail from her laptop in the Hippo Slums:
John is finally out on a poaching deployment … On the way back from training this afternoon John and I spotted a hyena with an odd-shaped object in its mouth. We decided to investigate and it turned out to be a huge piece of hippo hide that had been cut into a perfect square shape that had knife cuts in the skin. We took pictures and reported the sighting to [Mara Conservancy CEO Brian Heath] when we got back to the camp. He immediately dispatched Rangers to the Salt Lick area. They are out hunting for poachers now. If they get them I have your list of questions and so does Sabaya. Cross our fingers …
Twelve minutes later she sent another e-mail, this one with the subject line, “Poachers caught”:
John went with the rangers and they were able to catch 5 poachers. Sabaya had his recorder in his pocket and he is going to do the interview today. We can try to get the interview before we leave on Tuesday. It was a huge capture. Here are some photos. All this meat is from a hippo. The same one John and I spotted this afternoon. The rangers found the poacher camp not far from where we saw the hyena.
These are three of the eight images she attached:
Later I received this video footage of the raid; watch for Sabaya, the Tracker Dog Unit leader, struggling to free a butchered hippo leg that’s hanging from a tree, gore that’s counterbalanced by a gorgeous final scene, the panorama of a rainstorm descending over the Mara:
I had left Sabaya with a list of questions I had hoped to ask a poacher, and back at the holding cell at Ngiro-are, he interrogated the lead wa-Kuria hunter; Linda e-mailed me this translated transcript:
What is your name?
Mwita Marwa Chacha.
What is your age?
What is your tribe?
When did you come to the park?
Two days ago, 2011-03-31.
From where did you come?
How many animals have you killed?
For how long would you have stayed if you had not been caught?
Three more days.
Why do you hunt?
For food and to fetch money to educate children.
What else do you do besides hunting?
Farming, cultivating cassava, corn.
How many wives do you have?
How many children do you have?
Describe your living situation.
My living situation is very difficult with no oxen for plowing and no money to educate my children and they dropped out of school. My family too at times sleep hungry.
Do you receive any government assistance? Eg. education, food etc.
No government assistance that we receive.
What would you need in order to stop hunting?
Just need another option for income to provide for the family.
Do you think it`s appropriate for you and your clan to hunt?
Do you see any negative impact of hunting?
Risks from wild animals and arrests from rangers.
Will you hunt again after you are released from jail?
Describe the moments leading up to your arrest.
We suddenly heard vehicles and on checking out we learnt that we were already surrounded by the rangers. We really feared but had nothing much to do.
Had you heard about the Mara Conservancy`s Tracker Dog Unit?
What was it like for you to be pursued by the rangers and their dogs?
It was horrible with no room to escape.
Later, from my home office in Portland, I dialed Sabaya’s cell phone and asked him what he thought of the hunter’s answers to my questions, and this is what he told me, speaking from Ngiro-are:
I asked them why did they hunt and they said they hunted for food. The leader had one wife and nine children, the other team leader had two wives and two children. They claimed they need to hunt for food and feed their children. They say they are poor and don’t have food for their family. I don’t believe that. I asked them, ‘What else do you do beside hunting?’ They say they are farmers, they grow some crops, so they have food. These guys, the quantity of meat they had, they’re gonna sell the meat to those who aren’t able to come down [and hunt]. This was for commercial purposes. They were going to sell it.
Then I asked Sabaya to describe what had been going through his mind as he was wrestling with that hippo leg in the poacher camp, and he replied:
We try to conserve. We try to make it work. We are putting all these efforts, these resources, this time and energy to conserve, but the poachers are there only to destroy, to kill animals endlessly … It’s bad, it’s nauseating, it’s terrible.
But now because of the efforts of Linda Porter and John Lutenberg and the hounds and the handlers of the Mara Conservancy’s Tracker Dog Unit, the tables have been turned. In the Mara Triangle, the hunters have become the hunted. And perhaps a voracious predator long accustomed to commanding the top of the Mara ecosystem’s food chain will wake one fine morning and discover that it has toppled to the bottom, and that its name has been added to the long roster of endangered species: the bushmeat poacher.
On that day, the rangers will rejoice.