Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Friday, September 9, 2016

Portrait of a Bird Trainer

Meet Aron Smolley, Senior Bird Trainer at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This lucky duck has been working at the Aviary for the last five years. He has worked with many types of birds, including toucans, parrots, vultures, roadrunners, hawks, eagles, owls, crows, cranes, and more! Here are some of the bright birds he's currently working with...

Zazu, the wrinkled hornbill
Grunt, the colorful king vulture
Precocious kea parrots
Tropical turaco named Kambo
Aron and the Aviary contribute to conservation efforts on a daily basis by using education birds to inspire curiosity and love in those who visit. A love for the natural world and its animals is important in instilling a desire to protect it. Aron not only cares for the birds at the Aviary, he is also responsible for creating and presenting the Aviary's bird shows, which focus on educating visitors about the simple things they can do to protect the environment, birds and their habitat. Some of these topics include recycling and stopping the use of pesticides.
Aron and Rousseau educating some promising young birders
Phoenix the falcon putting smiles on faces

Grunt making a grand bird-show entrance
To put on successful bird shows, Aron and his team must train the birds on a daily basis. This means he gets to spend A LOT of time with them!

 Matilda the red-tailed black cockatoo learning commands

These baby West African crowned cranes, Jasmine and Tiana, are learning how to keep up!
Relaxing is a skill, too! Aron with Rafiki the Northern ground hornbill

I asked Aron to tell me what he likes best about his job, and to elaborate on some of his best moments at the Aviary. Here's what he said:

"Other than all the behind-the-scenes stuff I do on a daily basis, my main role at Tracy Aviary is to connect people to the birds on a personal level. I present the bird show twice a day, and the emphasis is on getting the birds as close to people as possible, with as many interactive experiences as possible. We strive to give people information that cannot be found in a book or through a Google search. Most of my bird show dialogue consists of stories about the individual bird as well as making connections between birds and our every day lives. I tell people little things they can do (or stop doing) to help birds in the wild, I show them how to find them in the wild, and I demonstrate for them why they should care.

When not performing shows, I am mostly out and about on aviary grounds, with one (or more) birds, letting the birds show off their natural behaviors, whether it be flying, climbing, running, or swimming. My goal is to give people unexpected intimate experiences with the birds in an informal setting. These are my favorite types of encounters, the ones that surprise people. I love to see their eyes light up when I approach them with a friendly bird that they can hold, feed, or take a selfie with. 

When you work closely with the birds, you start to pick up on their individual personalities and of course you become very attached. I work with a wrinkled hornbill, Zazu, that will perform his entire show routine while carrying a grape in his beak that I gave him at the start, and he will give it back to me before exiting. He will insist that I take the grape from him or he will not move on to the next step and the show will be delayed. 

My personal favorite bird at the aviary is our aplomado falcon, Phoenix. He is trained to fly to a glove, no matter who is wearing the glove. In the bird show we call a volunteer on stage to put on a glove and fly the falcon. I once called a 5 year old child on stage to hold Phoenix. 4 years later the nine-year-old approached me with his parents and said that he has a framed photo of me, him, and Phoenix hung on his wall. When he grows up he is going to be a bird trainer and teach people to protect birds. 

One of the most emotional experiences of my career/life was losing our golden eagle, Nizhoni, last year. I had just returned from my first trip to Belize, and made it back just in time to hold her in my arms when she passed. It was one of the hardest things I had ever been through, but I was extremely touched by the outpouring of support I received, even from people I had never met. I was getting facebook messages and emails from people that had Nizhoni at their Boy Scout events and weddings, people that had bumped into me and her out and about on grounds - I even got a black and white photo sent to me from one of her original handlers more than 20 years ago. She inspired tens of thousands of people, and I had the honor of being the last person to work with her in a very long line of trainers. Her spirit lives on in everything I do.

I once ran into a blind man at the aviary and allowed him to feed, and then hold, Inca, our red-billed toucan. The blind man said out loud that she was beautiful, that he could feel her beauty in his hands. I think about this interaction all the time, because I agree that she is beautiful but I find it to be profound that someone could appreciate her beauty without seeing her brightly colored bill and exquisitely complex feather details."

After visiting
Belize and its rainforest, Aron decided to move there to work with the Belize Raptor Center. They will be organizing their first bird show program, of which Aron will take the lead. Conservation education is important in tropical countries, where most of the wildlife and bird species of the planet reside. "As much as I love Tracy Aviary, I am heading to Belize because I feel that this is where my mission is needed more. I see vast potential in the conservation community down there and I want to be a part of it. I hope that our efforts will inspire people around the planet to protect our natural world and keep it safe."

Thank you, Aron, for all of your education efforts and hard work throughout the years, and for being an advocate for the planet. The birds love you!

Monday, April 18, 2016

2 Weeks of Yoga and Healthy Eating in Ecuador

I'm so excited! I was just asked to lead a Yoga and Wellness Tour through Ecuador by my friend who owns FairTravel4u. This is exciting for me because, not only do I love Ecuador, I have been practicing yoga for almost twenty years. I've also studied health and nutrition for quite some time - so everything about this trip is going to be fantastic.

Here is the information for the trip. It will take place March of 2017, and I must find 10-20 yogis to bring with me.

Ever wanted to do yoga in the Amazon? On the beach? In the Andes?

Then join us on our

 2-week Yoga and Wellness Tour through Ecuador

Practice daily guided yoga and healthy eating while exploring the beautiful country of Ecuador. With two yoga sessions per day, along with meditation, massage, reiki, canoeing, and horseback riding, you are sure to be regenerated in both body and spirit.

Experience sunrise sessions overlooking lakes and mountain valleys and surrounded by a chorus of birds. Practice ocean-side Kundalini as waves rumble in the distance. Enjoy the smell of fragrant flowers and chatter of insects as a meditation session in the jungle carries you off to sleep.

The tour starts in the Andes where you will stay in a peaceful mountain lodge overlooking the largest freshwater lake in the country. Then we will take canoes into the Amazon where we spend a few days in a jungle lodge, searching for birds, exotic flowers, and river Caiman. From there we visit the coast and stay ocean-side, passing local villages and rustic communities along the way. And we end our tour in the sacred valley of Vilcabamba, also known as the Valley of Longevity, some of whose inhabitants are said to be over 120 years old.

The Wellness Tour includes many of your healthy meals during the trip, all lodging based on two participants sharing a room, guided jungle and mountain tours with a naturalist, English-speaking guide, all four in-country flights, two yoga sessions per day, meditation sessions, two massages (one with reiki), and all group activities during the trip.

Dates: March 4-18, 2017
Price: $2500

For a detailed itinerary and more information, visit


call/text: (720) 473-0657
email: info@jennieofthejungle.com


We will be heading to the Andes as soon as we debark the plane, staying at a lodge in the mountains with a view of a Volcano and the largest freshwater lake in Ecuador. From there we head into the Amazon jungle - entering by boat to our island lodge on a large lake. We will be able to see exotic birds, monkeys, coatis, capybaras, insects, frogs, butterflies, Amazon dolphins, caiman, and much more! We will have plenty of time around our yoga sessions to explore and wildlife watch.

From the jungle we will travel to the coast, where we will do our daily yoga overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We will take a tour through the surrounding valleys where we will interact with small, local communities who still thrive off of fishing and growing fruit. We will have a beach bonfire (weather permitting) and a full body massage.

Then we will head back into the mountains to a lodge complete with beautiful gardens and the largest yoga studio in Ecuador. There we will practice Kundalini, meditation, and air yoga, as we overlook scenic valleys and rolling hills. We can birdwatch from the platform and see other critters as we travel by horseback or hike through the valleys and cliffs toward local waterfalls.

And all of this while eating healthy! What more could you ask for?

So if you'd like to join us, get in touch! Promise it will be well worth your while. Because of the rich beauty of the seldom-touched countryside and forests of Ecuador, and the politeness of the people, it has remained one of my favorite countries in the world. I'm always excited at the opportunity to return.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Weird Animals You Didn't Even Know Existed

After a brief hiatus while traveling without internet in Thailand (blog coming soon!) and then getting my laptop stolen, I am back with a new blog!

Now I believe I know about A LOT of animals - ALLLL the animals, to be exact (or so I like to think)! But I'm humbled and brought back down to Earth when someone tells me about a species that I wasn't aware existed. You can bet I go right to a computer and look it up in order to learn everything I can about it (and pretend I knew about it the whole time).

This blog is dedicated to some of these unusual creatures - and count yourself lucky if you've heard of any of them!


"I don't even bother looking in the mirror anymore."

("Serow Capricornis sumatraensis" by Melanochromis) 
The serow ranges throughout parts of Asia, India, and the Himalayas. They are basically temperamental, solitary, and sometimes fuzzy, goat-antelopes. Both males and females have beards and small horns, which I imagine makes mating/dating a tough game.

Tinder profile: "Hi, my name is Serowphina, my beard is 19 inches long (beard pic sent separately) and I love to pee on things! Swipe right - I'd love to mark you as my territory."

The serow is endangered, and is often hunted for its meat and body parts, which are used in local medicine. Apparently, it is believed that the broth obtained by boiling a serow head is a remedy for arthritis. So drink up!

You know you wanna....

And lastly, admit you wanted to see the beard pic....

All 19 inches, baby!



The world's rarest antelope, the Hirola resides in Africa and is critically endangered. It is often called the Four-Eyed Antelope due to its large preorbital glands

"Call me four-eyes one more time and I'll cry pheremones on you."

The hirola doesn't receive much media attention, unfortunately, and its long-term future is far from guaranteed.

This might be the only sad, gay hirola left in all the world.

A sanctuary has recently been built in Kenya that has been surrounded by predator-proof fencing. Breeding of the hirola there is going well so far. 

"Whelp, guess we HAVE to have sex now. Dang."

To support hirola sex, you can donate here.


The saiga antelope is the derpiest antelope in existence, boasting a large humped nose that hangs over its mouth. The nose is flexible and inflatable to help it breathe clean air during dusty summers and warm air during cold winters.

"You wish you had a giant sea cucumber on your face, too. Derp."

The saiga lives in Russia, Mongolia, and some more places around that area, and is critically endangered as well. 

"If only my nose wasn't in such high demand!"

If you've ever watched Star Wars, then you've seen a saiga. Lucky you!

"I wasn't always this mean. I was born in the savannah-ghetto and am a recovering grass addict."

Threats to the saiga include over-hunting, demand for the horn (again with the Chinese medicine thing), habitat loss, severe winters and summer droughts. Hopefully this nose will prevail and the saiga will live long and prosper (err...wait...).


The pudu is the world's smallest deer, and quite possibly the cutest thing, ever. Destined to replace your ugly dogs and cats, the pudu resides in South America.

"Everything on me is tiny!"


There's the regular pudu, and then there's the EVEN SMALLER pudu!

Yer killin' me, homes!

Pudus are solitary animals and only pair up to mate. And, get this, the pudu barks when in fear, and bristles its fur and shivers when angered. There is absolutely nothing I'd like to see more than a tiny, barking, shivering mini-deer!


Pudus mark there territories with piles of pudu-poo (aka poo-doo) around the perimeters. That's probably the only thing that's not cute about them (and even that is debatable). 



It's a mouse! It's a rat! It's a pig! It's...Dumbo?? This can only describe the jerboa, a special pig-mouse-elephant hybrid in the rodent family.

Sticking with our Star Wars theme...

But seriously, these guys are oddly cute. Who can resist a giant pair of fuzzy pig-mouse-elephant ears?

"I heard that."


Jerboas are big-time leapers, which live in North Africa and Asia, and have hind limbs that are at least four times as long as their forelimbs along with long tails that add to their balance. And without further ado, I present this video of jerboic cuteness. Though it does not look super-healthy, this pygmy jerboa is certainly adorable. Hopefully it was a rescued jerboa and is still alive somewhere in the desert today, jumping happily after an unsuspecting dung-beetle...

Banded Linsang

What do you get when you cross a giraffe, a cat, and something with really large sexual anatomy? The Banded Linsang!

"Hey, my eyes are up here."

This animal spends most of its time in trees in the forests of Borneo, Thailand, Malaysia, and Sumatra, and is part of the civet family. A civet is a sorta-kinda cat that is a much fuzzier, less long-necked, angrier version of the Linsang.

"%^#* you!"

In fact, the most expensive coffee in the world is produced by the civet cat. Deep in the forests of Asia, the civet cat forages for juicy ripe luwak coffee beans and eats them. As they move through the digestive tract of the cat, they undergo chemical changes and fermentation. The bean itself is not digested and comes out in the cat's poop. Some smart people decided to process the bean from the poop and sell the resulting coffee. It has been described as having an "elusive musky smoothness" imparted by the cat's anal glands. Excellent.

Now that's something I'd spend $50 a cup on!


If you pick up a gram of this "special" coffee, you will pay upwards of $300. Since I know you're all ready to fly out the door to make this purchase, just be sure the coffee comes from a sustainable source. Otherwise you might not only be supporting disgusting coffee, you might be supporting civet cruelty (factory farms) as well.

"So much poop, so little time."


I pride myself on styling this blog after cracked.com. If you haven't visited them yet, prepare to laugh and check it out. Or visit my previous cracked.com-like owl blog here

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mount Evans and its Famous Mountain Goats

They're cool, they're calm, and they're hangin' out at 14,000 feet! It's the Mt. Evans mountain goats! I took a trip up the highest road in the continental U.S. to photograph the goats and to enjoy the beauty that is Mt. Evans, Colorado. I was lucky to see so many goats up there! The road just opened a couple of weeks ago, due to a particularly stormy spring and impassable conditions. The babies, who are normally born in June, are just weaning now, in August! Lucky for me...

Baby mountain goat and it's protective mama

Licking minerals from the rocks

Beautiful animals
The bighorn sheep and marmots were out in force as well. Temperatures at the top of the mountain were near 30 degrees, even though it was 90 degrees down in Boulder.

Just hangin out on the highest cliffs ever

The highest road in the U.S.


Yellow-bellied marmot
Though this was my first time ever seeing mountain goats in the wild, I had taken my first trip to Mt. Evans last Autumn. The mountain was carpeted in gold, and the lakes reflected the autumn colors. It's definitely a sight to be seen! It only took an hour to hike down to the valley, but 2.5 hours to get back up! At 13,000 feet, you forget that breathing itself is a task.

Hiking down the mountain

In the golden valley

Breathtakingly beautiful
If you visit the mountain, make sure you bring plenty of water and warm clothes. And say hi to the goats for me!

All photos copyright Jennie Burns.