HOW MUCH IS A DOG’S LIFE WORTH?

January 5th, 2016

I got my dog Josie when she was already 7 years old. We bonded from the moment we met. It was while I was on a working trip in Alaska. She was a smoke gray twelve-pound pooch with tons of attitude and fight. So much so that I sometimes think we’re cut from the same cloth. Josie was in a rough situation and her beloved owner asked if I would take her home with me. I agreed. Neither Josie nor I knew what to expect at the time. But she seemed to accept me. It was almost as if she knew I was the right person for her, as well.

Josie flew back with me and quickly adjusted to her new life in Connecticut. She became “top dog” in my home while befriending my two other dogs. Then she slowly worked her way into my husband’s heart one nip at a time. She’d formerly had problems with a man and it was a while before she learned to trust him.

My house is covered with windows and Josie loved to sit and bark at anyone that passed by. She’d go from one window to another gazing in all directions. When she wasn’t looking out a window she’d be sleeping in front of it basking in the sunlight. She’d jump at every opportunity to run outside. Josie was curious, agile and smart and never backed down from a challenge whether it be squaring off with the UPS guy or standing up to a buck ten times her size. That is, until she became stricken with SARDS three years ago.

Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome is a rare disease that causes sudden blindness and can lead to a numerous other problems. I dove into research mode and learned as much as I could about the disease. I had Josie put on a cutting edge protocol and began to home cook for her. It was hard work and took a few months, but I managed to get Josie on an even keel. We both adjusted to her new condition over the next few years as she became more dependent on me and I grew even closer to her. Her strict schedule of meds and foods has never been a bother to me. But I won’t trust a dog sitter to administer the care and attention that Josie needs. That means there are no vacations or weekend trips unless Josie can come along.

At the age of fourteen, she needed to have a number of teeth pulled. We worried about anesthesia at her age but I found a dental specialist in Manhattan. Josie pulled through like a champ after the first frightening post op night and a few more recovery days. That was in May of last year.

This November she developed a growth on her hind foot that became infected. My vet put her on an antibiotic but the infection has persisted. Surgery is the only option. Josie recently turned 15 years old and the thought of her undergoing anesthesia again is nerve-wracking. Even so, I took her to the Cornell University Veterinary Specialist Group where she has been evaluated. Her heart is in great condition, her blood work is perfectly normal and she’s been deemed to be a good candidate. She may be blind, but Josie is one healthy girl.

Then I received an estimate of what the bill will be. The cost for surgery is mindboggling. And while I bitch about it, to my mind there is really no choice. I have to see Josie through this event, whatever it takes.

The interesting – and upsetting – thing to me is the reaction of some of my friends when I tell them what the cost of surgery is going to be.

Why don’t you just put her down and get a new one?

It’s as if she’s no more valuable than an old pair of shoes and just as easily replaced.

Josie is precious to me. She’s become an integral part of my life these past 8 years. There are things I can do without. I don’t need lattes or special dinners and, for now, I can even do without the occasional haircut. What I can’t do without is Josie.

So, how much is a dog’s life worth?

A lot once they’re part of your family.

The Big Blog Hop

March 14th, 2013

Tricia Tierney has been kind enough to ask me to participate in what has become known as a “blog tour” or “blog hop.”  Authors answer ten questions about a book they’re working on or one they’ve already written.  Then they tag another author to answer questions about their book.  Hopefully, the chain continues.  Anyway, you get the idea.

As for Tricia, she’s not only a talented writer.  She’s one heck of a fascinating woman.  Her life has been like one of those romantic adventure films that we all love to watch.  The difference is that Tricia has actually lived it.  Fittingly, she’s at work on what is sure to be a terrific memoir and I can’ wait to read it!

Below are my answers to the ten questions.  I’ve tagged Pamela Beason to keep the chain going!

What is the working title of your book? Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler

Where did the idea come from for the book? The idea actually came from a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who called one day and said, “You’re not going to believe the crazy case we just worked on.”  It turns out he was right.  It was so outrageous that no one would have believed the story if it had been written as fiction.

What genre does your book fall under? The book is narrative nonfiction.

Which actors would you choose to play you in a movie rendition? Jessica Chastain.  She’s not only a redhead but tall and slim.  In addition, she has much better taste in fashion.  What’s not to like?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A real-life thriller that takes a look into the seedy underbelly of illegal butterfly trading, the downfall of the “Indiana Jones” of the butterfly world, and the rookie Fish & Wildlife agent who put his life on the line to stop him.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? My book was published by William Morrow.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? The first draft took nine months.  Hmm…I hadn’t thought about that.  Then I polished like mad.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? It has been compared to The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.  Needless to say, I stand in awe of her.

Who or What inspired you to write this book? Writing is my way of trying to bring attention to the enormity of the illegal wildlife trade.  The loss of a species even as small as a butterfly can have a tremendous impact on our environment.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? The book ultimately deals with obsession, lust and greed.  Obsession comes in many forms.  While working on this book, I became obsessed with meeting the butterfly smuggler Yoshi Kojima.  I traveled undercover to Japan where I managed to track him down.  Yoshi Kojima is certainly the king of butterfly smugglers.  However, he’s also a fascinating man.

Now let me introduce you to Pamela Beason.

Pamela Beason lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she writes novels and screenplays and works as a private investigator. When she’s not lurking behind a computer or in the shadows, she explores the natural world on foot, in cross-country skis, in her kayak, or underwater scuba diving. She’s the author of the Summer Westin eco-mystery series (Endangered, Bear Bait, and Undercurrents so far), as well as The Only Witness, the first mystery in a new Neema the Gorilla series, and romantic suspense novels Shaken and Call of the Jaguar. Pamela’s writing has earned her multiple prizes, including the Daphne du Maurier Award, recommendations from Suspense Magazine, and First Place and Grand Prize in the 2012 Chanticleer Book Contest.

Leap of Faith

February 12th, 2012

I just finished a proposal for another narrative nonfiction book.  What does a writer do while waiting to learn its fate?  If you’re driven and crazy, you start writing another book.

Yep, that’s what I’m doing now.  I’m jumping headlong into a new work of fiction.  It’s not Rachel Porter this time but a story I’ve been thinking about for years.  Still, it’s one thing to brood over a plot and quite another to actually sit down and start working on the book.  It’s exciting, frustrating, and the most terrifying feeling in the world.

What if people think that what I’m writing about is silly?  What if no one likes the tale?  There’s always the chance that readers will find the prose to be filled with cliches and the characters too wooden and one-dimensional.  Writers put themselves on the chopping block every time they begin to create.  Yet, that never stops us from taking a leap of faith.  Then why are we so fearful of criticism?  The answer is simple.

We’re publicly revealing the most personal things about ourselves in each of our characters and stories – our innermost fears, our secret loves, our dreams, hurtful humiliations and betrayals.

I recently caught a George Clooney interview on “Inside the Actors Studio.”  He made the comment that celebrities are so highly acclaimed and well paid because they have the courage to do what few others will – strip away the curtain and bare their souls for all to see.

Okay, I love George Clooney but we’re about to have our first public spat.  Excuse me, George, but exactly who do you think creates the dialogue, the emotions, and the complex characters that actors portray?  Actors may be the public face but writers power the engine.

I love actors.  Heck, I used to be one.  But let’s give writers their due.  We risk publicly humiliating ourselves with every single one of our books.

By the way, I’m hoping George Clooney sees this and takes the time to drop me a line.  I can’t tell you how much I’d love to meet a movie star.

On The Passing of a Gentle Soul and The Wild Animals of Zanesville, Ohio

October 23rd, 2011

I swore I’d never buy a dog from a pet store but that’s exactly what I did seventeen-and-a-half years ago. I learned of a young female Bichon that had been at a pet store for too long. Nobody wanted her. She wasn’t a “pretty” dog. Her head was way too big for a pedigreed Bichon and she didn’t have a dainty face. She was clearly the product of a puppy mill. She was a canine combo of Vanna White and Bette Midler. As I later found out, she had a heart of gold.
I drove to Long Island, bought her and she promptly threw up in the car on the way home. That’s the way our relationship began and that’s the way it went for the next several months. I wanted to bond quickly. However, my puppy wasn’t sure how to handle her newfound freedom after having spent way too much time in a peg store cage. She ran around the house in a constant state of frenzy, her eyes never made contact with mine and she was wracked with kennel cough. Tallulah slowly adjusted to life in her new home and finally acknowledged my presence. We both experienced a learning curve and grew all the closer for it. She provided the warmth and love that I’d been looking for.
One spring season she realized there was a groundhog in the front yard and I learned that obsession grips dogs just as it does people. Finding that groundhog became her sole mission in life. She’d dart outside every morning, stick her nose down its hole and stand guard. She was as patient and dogged as any wildlife photographer.
She was also devoted. My husband would trudge off to work for the week at five a.m. every Monday. It was Tallulah who somehow knew when he was prepared to walk out the front door and ran down to see him off while I remained in bed. The she’d return upstairs and cuddle with me.
Tallulah slowly began to grow old. Her eyesight started to fade along with her hearing. Four years ago,  she developed Cushing’s disease. This is where human vanity and obsession kicks in. I felt sure that if I worked hard enough I could keep her alive for an infinite amount of time. I’ve always cooked for my dogs. Now the daily medications began. Soon, I was not only carrying Tallulah in and out of the house but also around it since she could no longer find her own way. Finally, she refused to lie down to rest or sleep unless she was on my bed. That meant someone always had to be home with her. Still, I felt that I could magically keep her going.
Reality hit hard when she could no longer be coaxed to eat by tempting her with baby food, broiled turkey burgers or home-cooked chicken with broth. Then her back legs began to give way. I held her the last night and finally realized that I was no magician. Tallulah had become a very old lady. I’d been hoping for an easy passing. My wish was that she’d slip away in her sleep and I’d never have to make a hard decision. It didn’t happen that way.
So, what does this have to do with the 18 rare Bengal tigers, 2 wolves, 6 black bears, 2 grizzlies, 9 male lions, 8 lionesses, 1 baboon and 3 mountain lions that were released from a farm by their owner who then shot himself? People buy wild animals for their own vanity sake. They want what’s rare. It feeds their ego. Many truly believe they have some sort of magical bond with a wild animal. It helps to make them feel special.
I don’t believe any wild animal should be owned. It’s a crazy idea that can only lead to heartbreak. Certainly the animal isn’t happy and, many time, the owner becomes overwhelmed. I’ve never understood why state and federal regulations haven’t yet been put in place to stop this. Perhaps it’s because it is a business and there is money to be made. However, the sight of the resulting carnage in Zanesville, Ohio should be more than enough to prompt states to immediately pass a law against the buying and trading of “exotics.”
Even so, once you do own an animal there is the responsibility to care for that living creature for the rest of its days. That goes for zoos, sanctuaries and pet owners. There is also the responsibility to provide that animal with a dignified death. The wild animals in Zanesville not only had a sad life but a horrific end due to the selfishness of their owner.
I wanted to believe that I could somehow make my dog live forever. If she was ill, then I just wasn’t working hard enough to keep death at bay. Tallulah had to teach me that sometimes we have to let go. I did my best to give her a good life. She taught me a valuable lesson at the end – to respect a dignified death as much as I do a dignified life.

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Fiction or Nonfiction: That is the Question

August 12th, 2011

This book reads like a novel.  It must have been fictionalized.  You made up the dialogue, right?

I’ve been hearing that a lot lately in regard to WINGED OBSESSION.  The answer is no: the events as told are absolutely true.  And no: Kojima said things that even I couldn’t have imagined.

WINGED OBSESSION is what is called narrative, or creative, nonfiction.  That doesn’t mean I made up the story.  The book is factually accurate, but purposely written to read like fiction.  Basically, narrative nonfiction is fact-based storytelling.  The writer works to create a compelling narrative that will, hopefully, keep the reader turning the page.  This is done by applying some of the same skills that are used in fiction – setting each scene, presenting fascinating characters and creating a strong narrative persona.

Still, you must have taken some creative license with the events.  How else could you know what the characters in your story are thinking?

That’s easy.  It just requires exhaustive research and that’s something I truly enjoy.  I love digging into actual events.  What’s more fun than trying to figure out what compels people to do what they do?  The great thing about narrative nonfiction is that it doesn’t have to be told as purely objective journalism.  You’re allowed to bring emotion to your characters and create a sense of drama while following a story arc.

I know I’m reading good narrative nonfiction when my attention is riveted and I can’t put the book down.

Here are some of my all-time favorites:

“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote.  Talk about chilling!  This book still haunts me.  And it was the first of its kind.

“Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer.  Not only did this guy climb Mt. Everest, he then wrote a bestseller about it.

“The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean.  Need I say more?

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt.  Thus began my love affair with Savannah.

“Praying for Sheet Rock” by Melissa Fay Greene.  Okay, I admit it.  I’m fascinated with the South.

“The Perfect Storm” by Sebastian Junger.  A great book.  The author’s not bad looking, either.

The fact that such outrageous, fascinating and shocking events actually happened makes them all the more compelling.  There’s no escaping the old adage: the truth is stranger than fiction.

Narrative nonfiction provides the best of both worlds.

Things That Bug Me – Or – What The Bug?

May 27th, 2011

I attended the Bug Fair at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History a few weeks ago and came home with a bunch of questions swirling around in my head.  Here are a few that beg an answer.

1.  Why does a pest control company sponsor the Bug Fair?  Oddly enough, Western Exterminator Company is the proud sponsor of the Bug Fair.  Terminix also had a booth there.  Doesn’t that seem a bit odd?  I guess my confusion stems from the fact that, as far as I know, the purpose of the Bug Fair is to make people aware of how incredible bugs and butterflies are.  Having an exterminator company as the sponsor seems rather contradictory.  Isn’t it their job to kill bugs?  I’m still trying to figure this one out.  Perhaps they promote the Fair in order to ensure there will always be a multitude of bugs around.  After all, exterminator companies need bugs to zap.  Otherwise, they’re out of business.  So, I guess promoting bugs really does make sense.

2.  What is it with kids and tarantulas?  And who knew they had such a fascination with them?  Every other kid walking around the Fair seemed to have Tupperware container with a live tarantula squirming inside.  Come to think of it, maybe Tupperware should be the Fair’s sponsor.  Thank God for those tight fitting lids.  I’d hate to see eight hairy legs peering out at me.  Do kids actually play with tarantulas, anyway?  Why aren’t they doing something constructive with their day like playing computer games?  I mean really, how much fun can it be to watch a tarantula eat a few live crickets every week?  Or do these unnaturally hairy, scary spiders have hidden attributes that I don’t know about?

3.  Okay, who would buy a grasshopper for $4,500?  That’s right – $4,500!  No joke.  There actually was a grasshopper on sale for that price by the name of Tropidacris dux monster. That translates into ‘Giant Brown Cricket.’  Personally, I think it’s false advertising.  This bug isn’t a cricket but a gigantic grasshopper with abnormally large wings.  How big is this thing?  Large enough so that hunters once mistook them for birds in flight.  You might shoot it too if you saw one flying at you.

4.  What makes someone decide to become an insect chef and who really wants to eat mealy worms, scorpions, ants and giant water bugs?  It makes no difference to me if it’s sauteed, filleted, barbecued or roasted.  Okay, okay.  I know bugs are the terrestrial cousins of shrimp and lobster (which I happen to really love) and eating them is supposed to be good for the planet.  I don’t care.  This is where I draw the line.  A slice of banana worm bread, anyone?

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Tossing Your Book Into The World

May 2nd, 2011

Authors spend a year – sometimes two or three – nurturing their book.  Then comes the moment when we finally have to let go and the book takes on a life of its own.

Step away from the computer, lady, and no one will get hurt.

Releasing a book is exciting and frightening both at the same time.  There’s the rush of having a published book hit the stores.  There’s the fear that no one will like it.  Naturally, some people do and some people don’t.

But what about those folks who read your book and actually become angry?

Who am I talking about, exactly?  In this case, I’m referring to a small group of butterfly collectors who feel I’ve attacked them.  In turn, they’re attacking me.  Apparently, I’ve hit a nerve.

Hey, I’m not saying all butterfly collecting is a crime or that all butterfly collectors are bad.  But there are those who cross the line.

What line is that?

It’s the line between collecting legal butterflies versus collecting protected and endangered butterflies.  Then there’s also the matter of just being plain greedy.  There are instances where even legal butterflies have been over-collected.  Honestly, how many samples of a legal butterfly does a collector really need?

“We’re only talking about butterflies,” one interviewer told me.  “It’s not like these collectors are murdering anyone.  So, what’s the harm?”

Perhaps that bit of logic should be turned on its head.  There’s a definite class system when it comes to how species are valued.  Replace butterflies with chimps, tigers, or elephants and the reaction would be one of pure horror.

After all, some collectors hanker for chimps while others want their very own elephant tusk, or how about knocking off a couple of black rhinos for their horns?  That’s not killing anyone.

Oh, that’s different?  Face it.  Insects are on the low end of the totem pole.

So, why do butterflies matter?

Population biologist Paul Ehrlich has likened our ecosystem to an airplane in which we’re the passengers.  What if someone decides to remove a rivet from the plane and then another and another?  Eventually, the plane’s wings will fall off and we’ll all go down.  Now replace those rivets with species.  How many species have to be affected before our “plane” falls apart and our ecosystem crashes?

It seems as if we’re bound and determined to find out.

Meanwhile, I’ve launched my new book into the world.  I just hope it flies as gracefully as a butterfly.

CAN THEY REALLY SELL THAT ON THE INTERNET?

February 18th, 2011

I love the Internet.  I admit it.  I can find an apartment on Craigslist, rent a movie on Netflix and dream about meeting the perfect man on Match.com.  I can even track down a replacement part for my near extinct refrigerator.  Forget about letting your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages.  Mine would much rather dance across the keyboard to find what I’m hankering for these days.

Which makes me wonder.  What else can be found on the Internet?  Endangered species and products, perhaps.

You bet.

African ivory, rare birds, leopard and polar bear pelts, even tiger-bone wine can be had with a click.  Would you like some hawksbill turtle shells to decorate your home?  Or, how about a nice shahtoosh shawls from an endangered Tibetan antelope to keep you warm?  What’s that?  You’re looking for something living and breathing to cuddle up next to?  No problem.  Online ads can be found for baby lions, tigers, leopard cubs, crocodiles, an ocelot and a bonobo.  That’s still not quite what you’re after?  Then how about settling for a chimp, a marmoset or an adorable capuchin monkey?

Wait a minute!  How can this be possible?  Isn’t all that stuff illegal?

Uh huh.  No matter.  You’re talking the Internet, baby.  It’s as if the genie has been released from his bottle and can now grant your heart’s desire.  The result is that the Internet has become one of the greatest threats to rare species.  Cyberspace is helping to fuel the illegal wildlife trade through opening up new markets and globalization.

The International Fund for Animals (IFAW) conducted a three-month survey in 2008 and discovered that more than 7,000 species worth $3.8 million were being sold on auction sites, classified ads and chat rooms.  Most were in the U.S. while many were in Europe, China, Russia and Australia.  How does it work?  That’s the beauty of it.  Say I offer to sell a Siberian tiger online.  You call me, we talk and no one will be the wiser.  The Internet offers unscrupulous dealers and sophisticated smuggling rings exactly what they want – anonymity.  What better haven in which to carry on a nefarious trade”

“The result is a cyber black market where the future of the world’s rarest animals is being traded away,” declared Phyllis Campbell-McRae, Director of IFAW UK.

No kidding.  Thousands of endangered animals and animal parts are regularly offered for sale online.  The latest example is the Kaiser’s spotted newt, a rare salamander found only in four streams in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.  Wouldn’t you know?  I’d never even heard of it before now and it’s already one of the first species being driven to extinction by the Internet.  Apparently, people in the pet trade are really hot for these little critters.  So much so that demand has reduced their population by eighty percent.  Less than 1,000 mature newts now remain in the wild.

Here’s the top seven species endangered by the Internet trade according to the Huffington Post:

1.  Kaiser’s Spotted Newt – You already know about this one.  How much is that little spotted newt on your monitor screen going for?  They’re a bargain at $300.

2.  Red & Pink Coral – Think about it.  Your jewelry isn’t pretty enough to justify wiping out entire coral reefs.

3.  Elephants – Yes, they’re still being illegally hunted for their ivory.  According to IFAW, the worldwide population of 600,000 elephants is diminishing by 38,000 a year.  Hey, ivory figurines are just something else to dust.

4.  Tigers – 100,000 tigers roamed Asia as recently as 100 years ago.  Now there are estimated to be less than 3,000 tigers remaining in the wild.  Tiger-bone wine is not going to improve your rheumatism or arthritis.

5.  Capuchin Monkeys – Viewed as status symbols and/or substitute children.  How about adopting a cat or dog?

6.  Ocelots – Still one more exotic house pet.  They belong in the wild, not in your home.

7.  Polar bears – Don’t they already have enough trouble just dealing with climate change?

Below is a photo of the Kaiser’s spotted newt courtesy of Dr. Richard Bartlett

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Japanese Porn – Or, You’ve Got To Be Kidding

February 1st, 2011

Japan is a funny place.  So much is based on customs and formality.

When and where do you take off your shoes?  What is an appropriate gift to give someone?  Is it proper to cross your legs in public?

Then you trip across Japan’s adult video industry and WHAM!  Everything you thought you knew about the country flies right out the window.  It turns out that the Japanese porn industry is big business.

Did I say big?  I take that back.  The Japanese porn industry is HUGE.  How huge exactly?  The adult video industry is worth over a billion dollars a year.  No kidding.  After all, this is the land of maid cafes where young girls in short costumes bow in submission and greet customers as their “master.”  Vending machines sell not only sex toys, but also high school girls’ used panties.  On the surface, Japan appears to be a very sexually pro-active country.  Which makes it all the more interesting to learn that it’s one of the most sexless societies in the industrialized world.

Hey, that’s not my opinion.  It’s based on surveys conducted by organizations ranging from the World Health Organization to Durex, a leading condom-maker.  According to a World Health Organization study, 1 in 4 married couples in Japan have not made love in over a year and thirty-eight percent of couples over age 50 don’t bother with sex at all.  Still another survey found that as many as one-third of all marriages in Japan are sexless.  No wonder there’s been a dramatic plunge in Japan’s birthrate.

So what have the Japanese turned to in place of sex?  You guessed it – porn.  And not just any porn, but what is considered to be some of the most outrageous fetish and niche porn that exists.  In fact, Japanese porn is so specialized that it encompasses dozens of different genres.

There’s “baby play” which goes back to the “baby days” when mom took care of everything.

Then there’s “broken dolls.”  Oy.  This is a medical fetish involving young girls in hospitals covered in casts and splints.  Do I really have to spell it out or can you imagine what happens next?

Let’s just cut to the chases.  There’s bondage porn, rape porn, utensil-rape porn, food-rape porn, frozen-food-rape porn, vomit-enema porn, and Lolita complex porn.  But the fastest growing star on the horizon is “elder porn.”  Yep, that’s right.  Elder porn.  The superstar in this genre is a 76-year old actor who has been featured in such films as Maniac Training of Lolita and Forbidden Elderly Care.

The catch is that Japan’s pornography law prohibits showing male or female genitalia.  It’s covered with a mosaic blur.  You can’t make this stuff up.

So where does Yoshi Kojima fit into all this?  He got his start helping the yakuza smuggle 8-mm fully visible hardcore porno films into Japan.  The same skills would prove handy when it came to smuggling butterflies later on.

The Yakuza – Or, What Do You Mean I Can’t Take A Picture?

January 9th, 2011

“Please don’t take a photo!” I was scolded as I raised my camera.

“Why not?  What’s the problem?” I stubbornly questioned.

“I brought you here because you asked me to.  Not because I want to get into trouble.  Let’s keep walking.”

Jeez.  It wasn’t like I was hauling some hulking 35mm Nikon but a small point and shoot camera.  What was the big deal, anyway?

“They’re yakuza.  They don’t like to have their picture taken,” my guide-for-the-day nearly hissed.

That was the point.  It was precisely what made them so interesting – that, and the fact that they looked like a Japanese version of the rat pack.

I had a day off in Kyoto and there was a lot of ground to cover.  I had to see Nijo Castle, the Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu-dera and, of course, the local yakuza headquarters.  It wasn’t as though the building was some sort of secret.  The place looked like a car dealership with a legion of black Mercedes, Lexus and Hummers.  The autos were guarded by a legion of tough guys in shiny black suits with pomaded hair and sunglasses.  They stood like statues with their hands neatly folded in front of them.

“How about I just take a picture of the building?” I persisted.

“No!” my tour guide panicked.

Hmm… my reputation must have preceded me to Japan.  My tour guide wasn’t taking any chances.

“Do they really think no one knows who they are?  It’s not as if they’re keeping a low profile,” I remarked.

But then, being a secret society isn’t what the yakuza are about.  In fact, they’re one hell of a large syndicate.  According to my guide, there are close to 100,000 active members divided into 2,500 families.  Oh yes, and lots of businesses are run by the yakuza.  There are over 800 yakuza front companies just in Tokyo.  These include investment and auditing firms and pastry shops.

“Some of their members are graduates from the University of Tokyo and University of Kyoto and are doctors and lawyers.  Many can speak three or four languages.  They’re very good with business,” my guide said with a touch of pride.

Not only are they heavily involved in pornography, sports, illegal gambling, nightclubs, loan sharking, smuggling, money laundering, narcotics, entertainment, tourist scams, gunning running, construction, slavery and prostitution rings but have close ties to the Japanese real estate market and banking.  Talk about your savvy businessmen.

But best of all is their association with the corporate world.

“Mitsui and Mitsubishi Corporation have good relations with them and the yakuza help to run the stock exchange.  They are shareholders and control a lot of businesses that way,” my guide explained.

Uh huh.  In reality, the yakuza deal in a form of extortion known as sokaiya.  It’s a protection racket.  And let’s not forget about blackmail.  The yakuza will dig up embarrassing information on a company and its leaders, be it tax evasion, unsafe factory conditions or secret mistresses.  The company then pays to keep the scandal from being made public.  It’s common enough that payoffs are included as part of their annual corporate budget.

It seems the underworld syndicate not only plays an important role in business; the group is also officially registered with the police.  My guide confided that members speeding by in their luxury vehicles are never stopped by the police and given a ticket.  Who wants to deal with an angry guy covered in tattoos that many times has a digit of his little finger missing?

Oh, didn’t I mention that?  Members, who fail to properly carry out their duty or embarrass their compatriots, make amends by cutting off a knuckle of their finger.  The severed portion is then offered to their boss as an apology.  Make too many mistakes and you’re going to find yourself having a hard time holding a pen.

Wait a minute!  How does all this relate to the butterfly trade, anyway?

Kojima learned the fine art of smuggling in his younger days by doing some odd jobs for the yakuza.  Hey, it certainly helped to pay the rent.