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questions and answers with brooke bessesen

Interview with the Author: a Q&A with Brooke Bessesen

What is a “naturalist”?

A naturalist is someone who studies animals (or plants) and their natural habitats. Naturalists typically major in biology or some other natural science in school. But after graduation, true biologists are involved in scientific research, while naturalists study more by observation. But naturalists do stay up on general research and often share knowledge with the public.

How long have you been a writer?

I have been putting words on paper since I was a little girl. I have written many stories, poems and articles through the years, and much of that writing has been about animals—my favorite subject! I used to check out lots of animal books from the school library and research facts in our family set of Encyclopedias. Then I would sit down and write reports about different animal species. I remember finding elephants particularly fascinating!

two-toed sloth

What is your favorite animal?

Whichever one is in my arms. Ha! No, seriously, this is one of the most common questions I am asked and the answer may surprise, even disappoint some people. I don’t have a favorite. I appreciate every living organism, from the largest whale to the smallest ant. Nearly all of them pull my heartstrings; however, I’m drawn to many unusual species… like octopuses, spiders and sloths.

Which habitat do you like best?

This is an easier question for me to answer. I think you’ll agree, all biomes are interesting and beautiful! But I feel a special connection to the ocean. That’s my favorite. I am intrigued by the underwater world… so many weird and wonderful creatures. I really like to dive, and there’s something very magical about floating in a small boat surrounded by the wild blue.

How long does it take to write and illustrate a picture book?

Well, depending on the book it takes me between 2 weeks and 3 months to write the text. It takes me much, much longer—almost a year—to do illustrations. Then, everything goes to the designer for a few months, and finally off to the printer. There are also some other little steps between. So, my books typically take about 2 years, start to finish. It’s a long process!

Where did you get the silver whale tail you wear and what does it mean to you?

whaletail necklace
Brooke's whaletail necklace

I have worn my whale tail for about 20 years on various necklaces. I believe Mother Nature is the best artist and I think that shape is very stirring, both aesthetically (how it looks) and for the extraordinary animal it represents. You would think I’d remember where I got such a treasured item but, shockingly, I don’t. (I’m pretty sure it was in the Caribbean.) The tail itself obviously means more to me than the circumstances of purchasing it.

What inspires you to write your books?

Ideas often come to me while I’m traveling or immersed in a rich habitat. They can also be sparked by a comment from a friend, a TV show or a memory. Or just day dreaming. I write because I love and respect the natural world... by sharing ideas and knowledge about wildlife, I hope to get everyone excited enough to protect animals and their habitats.

Have you ever been hurt by an animal?

People who work with animals must learn important techniques to handle them. Safety is a priority for both the human and the animal. I have been bit, scratched and bruised a few times but, fortunately, never badly injured. I focus on keeping the animal as calm and comfortable as possible. I don’t want either of us to get hurt.

brookie and her lamb
Brookie and Her Lamb

Did you always love books?

Yes! I love to read! When I was little, my mom was a librarian and she turned me on to reading. The first book I was ever given came from my Grandma Evans: Brookie and Her Lamb. Appropriate, don’t you think? I still have it.

How did you get to work with animals and what do you like best about it?

I feel so lucky to work with animals! But I believe my good fortune bloomed from hard work. I have studied the earth’s inhabitants since I was a child. I checked out lots of animal books from the school library and I still read tons of books and articles about every species imaginable. One of my favorite things about animals is that you can never know everything about them—there’s too much information and more facts still undiscovered. It never gets boring and every tidbit I learn seems more amazing than the last. If you like animals, too, I hope you’ll check out my photos and videos.

What do you carry in your purse?

Not much... from going to foreign countries, I’ve learned to travel light. Just ID, cards, a pen and a few extras like gum and sunglasses. Oh yeah, my phone and a notebook, too.

Were you ever a teacher?

Not in the traditional sense. Most of my early experience as an educator revolved around animals. As the Phoenix Zoo’s on-camera naturalist, I took all kinds of cool animals on TV and taught people about them. I was also a summer instructor at Camp Zoo. Later, I developed and presented private programs for resort visitors through my own business, Arizona Wildlife Programs, focusing on the extraordinary wildlife unique to the desert Southwest and joined Liberty Wildlife’s wonderful education group, where I made my first visits to schools.

ruby shampoo
Ruby shampoo

Have you ever written something really unusual?

One of my favorite projects was penning the creative copy for “ruby” shampoo, bottled by the famous skin care company philosophy®. Cristina Carlino, the incredibly dynamic woman who started philosophy® loves elephants and she gave me the honor of writing in memory of Ruby, the Phoenix Zoo’s famous painting elephant that died in 1998. Click the bottle to read the copy.

Do you still produce television?

ruby shampoo
California condor

I don’t really have time to produce television any more but a couple years ago I worked with my friend Mike Wallace from the California Condor Recovery Team shooting documentary footage for the San Diego Zoo’s endangered condor program. My visits to the condor release site in Baja were exhilarating! The condor is one of the most interesting and... yes, beautiful... birds I have ever seen! If you want to see some of the footage, click video. I have photos, too.

Does it make you sad to see animals that are injured?

Absolutely. When I was young, I didn’t think I would be able to handle seeing an animal who was sick or bleeding... but it feels good to have the knowledge and training to be able to help those animals in need. The rewards definitely outweigh the emotional pain. I still do rescues for Liberty Wildlife. It’s a wildlife rehab organization in Arizona that helps up to 4,000 animals a year. Southwest Wildlife is a great foundation, too.

How would you describe yourself?

I’m the kind of person that likes a lot of different things. I appreciate a variety of music, art, cultures and ideas. I enjoyed nearly every subject in school and I always get into learning something new. I love to dance (jazz, lyrical and hip-hop), fly planes and visit places I haven’t seen before... because all those activities stretch my mind and my capabilities. That’s what makes life exciting!

Do you have a famous quote you like to share?

I have two:
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” - John Muir
“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” - anonymous

How can kids help animals and the environment?

A great way to start is through some of these really cool INTERACTIVE WEBSITES. They have all kinds of games, facts and resources to get kids involved. You may even consider creating a club at school that raises environmental awareness, starts a recycling program or does fundraisers for wildlife conservation. If you want to keep tigers, wolves and whales alive and well in the natural world, I hope you’ll join me in making a difference.