Published stories from George Miller, a journalist, photographer, educator, carpenter, world traveler, dog-lover and home owner. You can reach him at

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Drinking in Le Marche: the ultimate wine tour

This story was the cover of the Philadelphia Inquirer's travel section on February 4, 2007.

CAMERANO, Italy - Kees Dekker sipped a glass of Rosso Conero wine in the cantina of La Terrazza vineyard and pronounced, "You don't drink this wine because it's just wine."

I nodded, not really knowing if I could fully appreciate the subtle differences in flavor. Visiting the small vineyard, for me, meant drinking free wine in a chilled room on a blazing summer day - among the joys of visiting the less-touristed Le Marche region of Italy. Dekker, a Dutchman, savored the dry, fruity taste, paused, and then declared, "This is a serious wine; it has complexity."

He and his wife had vacationed here in Le Marche every summer for the last four years and they were in the process of buying a home. They had initially looked in Tuscany and Umbria, but found that Le Marche was cheaper, less crowded with foreigners, and far more diverse than anywhere else they had been in Italy.

"Italians say that Le Marche is Italy in one region," Dekker said with a sigh. "You have the sea, the mountains, all four seasons."

Le Marche, which is northeast of Rome by a ride of about three hours, begins at the Adriatic. As you go west, It develops into gentle, rolling hills and ends in the massive, mile-high Apennine Mountains. As the terrain evolves, there are minor disparities in people's attitudes and slight differences in cultures.

Residents of hilltop towns separated by only a few miles have different dialects and opposing outlooks on life. The special delicacy of one town may be unavailable in the next town down the road. The modest style of one city, while not necessarily noticeable to outsiders, may be different from the slightly less modest style of the next.

And that's the way they like things.

"In America, things are black or white," said Carlo Cleri, a friend who lives in the medieval city of Cagli. "We like variety, difference. There is a lot of range between white and black."

Wine is a prime example: More than 250 government-sanctioned varieties of wine are produced in Italy, a country smaller than California, which has fewer than 30 varieties.

Twelve varieties are made in Le Marche. Each, labeled "D.O.C." (denominazione d'origine controllata, meaning wine of controlled origin), has its own characteristics that vary, if only slightly, from other wines produced in the region.

Whether or not you can appreciate the difference between a full-bodied Rosso Conero and an ethereal Rosso Piceno, you could spend years exploring the hundreds of vineyards in Le Marche, from international production facilities to mom-and-pop farms. But you can also spend a day or two, by renting a car and driving from winery to winery. They are often concentrated in one area. The town of Morro D'Alba, for instance, has six of them.

"You're walking on wine," Gianluca Garofoli said with a laugh as we entered the original fermentation room of his family's vineyard.

The affable, English-speaking 25-year-old explained that below our feet, in concrete tanks, were thousands of liters of Rosso Conero, the garnet-colored red wine produced only in the area surrounding the nearby mountain, Monte Conero. The old cellar, ripe with the aroma of wine, was built in 1901 and is still used today, even though the Garofoli family has completely modernized the facilities.

"Each generation has built this business, step by step," said Gianluca, whose grandfather's grandfather started the vineyard in 1871 along the pilgrimage path to Loreto, where there has been a shrine to the Virgin Mary for 800 years.

A Red Sox-loving baseball fanatic, Gianluca said his family was among the first vintners to put wine in bottles, rather than jugs, in the latter half of the 19th century. In the 1950s, they were among the first in Italy to have a fully automated bottling plant. "We totally changed the distribution of wine in Italy," he said.

Gianluca eagerly walked us around the state-of-the-art plant where machines filled 5,000 bottles per hour. The mid-sized winery distributes 2.2 million bottles around the world annually.

Then he offered us wine, "And now we drink?"

So we sat for a few hours, sampled several bottles of Garofoli's finest, and talked to Gianluca, the leftfielder for the local squad, about life in Le Marche.

"Monte Conero is beautiful," he said, referring to the mountain that is a popular resort for vacationing Europeans. "Everyone knows it around the world. This is a very good region to live."

Actually, Monte Conero and the Le Marche region are little known to most Americans, especially in comparison to famed Italian destinations like Rome, Venice, and heavily trafficked Tuscany. But Le Marche, due east of Tuscany, is a trove of charming hill towns, pristine beaches, and stunning vistas.

On any random drive, you can find vast fields of radiant sunflowers, ancient castles perched high upon mountaintops, and enchanting villages full of friendly people who don't speak a lick of English.

And wine. "Lacrima grapes are a special type of grape," said Cleri, my friend from Cagli. "It's traditional, it has the flavor of old wines."

We were spending the afternoon touring the Stefano Mancinelli winery, with Stefano's parents, Fabio and Luisa, as our guides. The factory, which specializes in the rose- and violet-scented Lacrima, was just a basic production plant, and the family couldn't have been nicer to us.

Luisa sliced a blackberry pie and invited us to sample the wines. Fabio explained, in Italian, how he began making wine for himself about 50 years ago from grapes grown on the hills near Morro D'Alba, a castlelike city. His passion became his son's business and now they are among the few vineyards certified to produce the velvety-smooth Lacrima di Morro D'Alba.

"To me, this is the best wine," Cleri said. "It is a wine I usually open with a girl."

The fresh, white Bianchello del Metauro wine from the Guerrieri vineyard tastes like Le Marche. You can smell the dry farmland in the glass and savor the sea air that wafts over the fields.

The grapes are grown in the Metauro River valley, a few kilometers inland from the Adriatic Sea, on 500 acres of land that has been cultivated by the Guerrieri family for more than 200 years. The grape variety, however, is much older and carries a sense of pride for the locals.

Legend has it, Luca Guerrieri told us, that the Bianchello del Metauro saved the Roman Empire. The great Carthaginian general Hannibal had already taken much of southern Italy when his brother, commander Hasdrubal, began advancing upon Rome from the north.

On a hot summer night in 207 B.C., Hasdrubal's troops made camp along the Metauro River and found a farmer with vast reserves of Bianchello del Metauro. The Carthaginian army reportedly drank gallons upon gallons of the refreshing drink and when the Roman legions attacked in the morning, the Carthaginians were either too drunk or hung over to survive.

Or so the story goes.

Nearly every day, we visited another winery.

In Camerano, Silvano Strologo showed off massive, 27-liter bottles of Rosso Conero at his family-operated vineyard. We watched locals fill up five-gallon jugs with Lacrima at the Vicari vineyard in Morro D'Alba. We visited the tourist-friendly Conte Leopardi winery in Numana, where the owner handed visitors a glass of wine as soon as they entered the shop.

In Staffolo, Sandro Finocchi, clad in brown sandals, a black tank top and shorts, offered to give us a tour of his 20-acre property even though he was in the middle of eating lunch.

He walked us down a gentle, sloping hill thick with grapevines and olive trees. Finocchi explained that the land had been in his family for generations but that he began producing and selling wine in the mid-1980s, with most of his product going to restaurants in Rome. He pulled a small, rubbery branch off a tree and showed us how he used the twigs to bind grape vines to fencing.

"Everything is organic," he said, with his daughter Elena, 16, acting as translator. "We only use a minimal amount of chemicals to keep away parasites."

Finocchi and his two daughters gather the grapes, bottle the wine, and label and box the final product.

"I live upstairs and I work here," Finocchi said. "I don't leave too much!"

Two middle-aged brothers poured copious amounts of delicious wine for us at the Capinera Winery in Morrovalle. We were a rare excuse for them to practice their English.

A gruff worker at the Moroder vineyard in Ancona briskly escorted us through the cellar but never offered us wine. So we left.

"Of course, Tuscany is always first," said Laura Baldinelli, an employee at the Umani Ronchi winery in Osimo. "But Le Marche wine is very popular now as well."

Baldinelli led us to the 58-degree cellar designed to look like the inside of a jewel mine. "Here, there are not diamonds but our top wines," she said.

As stylish as a nightclub, the moist, dim room housed 500 barrels, each holding about 300 bottles of wine, and that is only a portion of the vineyard's production. The winery turns out 4.5 million bottles every year.

In a slick glass showroom afterward, Baldinelli filled and refilled our glasses as though we were old friends visiting from out of town.

Hours later, I left with several bottles. Back home in Philadelphia, my trip would live on.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mookie has his mind probed

This story is the cover piece in the 12.20.06 Philadelphia Weekly.

MOOKIE IS LYING ON HIS SIDE, fast asleep on my bed. So I call his name and scratch his butt. I'm worried he can't have his mind probed while he's sleeping. Or worse, I envision the pet psychic communicator I'm speaking with on the phone appearing in his dreams Freddy Krueger-style.

That wouldn't be good.

“Yo, Mook,” I call, followed by a quick whistle.

He rolls over, offering his hairy belly. Then he falls back to sleep.

When I call his name again, he snorts. It's the sound he often makes when I turn off the lights at night, the last sound I hear before I fall asleep. It's the sound of a content dog.

I describe Mookie to the pet psychic communicator: He's a 4-year-old, 13-pound shih tzu, black and white, with a white beard on an otherwise dark face.

“He has hair in his eyes?” she intuits. “That's what I keep getting.”

He does.

Then there's silence.

“He says, ‘What?'” the pet psychic communicator says, apparently speaking for Mookie.

I ask her if Mookie likes the new kitten we've recently adopted.

“What do you think, stupid?” she answers. “He's saying that to me. He probably wouldn't be that disrespectful to you.”

She says Mookie is indeed upset that we've brought this frantic, playful creature into our house, and she says he wants to know, “Why didn't you warn me?”

I have no idea how to respond.

“She says, ‘I like him, I like him!'” the pet psychic communicator then says, now apparently speaking for Sunny, our 4-month-old kitten who's running around chasing a speck of dust. “Oh, she's a brat.”

“She's not afraid of me,” she says, speaking again for Mookie. “Why does she bother me?”

“Honey, she probably wants to play,” she replies in an elementary school teacher's voice, directed toward Mookie.

I feel like I'm listening to an after-school special. Mookie, meanwhile, is squirming to get comfortable on the bed. I rub his belly, trying to keep him awake.

“I don't want to play,” Mookie moans, according to the pet psychic communicator.

Then I hear heavy panting over the phone. The pet psychic communicator's ailing 13-year-old yellow lab Kodi has arrived at her side.

“The animals that come to us are such gifts,” she says. “They all bring such a gift to us.”

I smile, thinking about how much I love my dog. He's my best friend in the entire world. He goes with me when I get my hair cut. We chase squirrels together. And I take him to work when I can.

He sleeps with my girlfriend and me. He shares my meals. We walk for hours every day, and we play constantly.

But my best friend has been leaving me presents lately, and I'm not sure why. Since we brought the kitten home in September, Mookie has peed in our house about a half-dozen times. The reason seems obvious, but I can't say for sure there's a connection.

Which is why I'm consulting the pet psychic communicator.

Elizabeth Woelfel, 51, goes by Liza at work. Her family calls her Lee. If she had her druthers, she says, she'd be named Katie.

But on evenings and weekends, when she's on the phone, consulting with people and communicating with their pets from her home in Upper Dublin, she's Liesl—the conduit between humans and their animals, a Dionne Warwick for the four-legged crowd.

She claims that for a mere $25 she can bridge the gap between the species, act as a translator of sorts for you and your dog, cat, horse, pig, monkey, parrot, squirrel, whatever. During the 15-minute consultation she'll provide an opportunity for you to learn what your animals are thinking, and let you share your thoughts with them.

“I think everyone can communicate with animals,” she says. “But once people start speaking as children, we don't need our telepathic skills anymore. Our skills diminish, and that's how animals communicate.”

She's just managed to hold onto her telepathy a bit more than most.

“Why our home?” Mookie wants to know, says Liesl. “Why does she have to live here?”

I look at my sleeping dog lying upside down, his dirty white paws dangling in the air, and I can't imagine him really being this much of a pain in the ass. He can be stubborn and unwavering, but he's not often a whiny pest.

The new kitten was as much sprung on me as she was on him, I tell Liesl. My girlfriend wanted a cat. And she ran into some friends in the neighborhood who happened to come across a litter of strays.

There is silence.

“I just asked him if he can be friends with the kitty,” Liesl says. “He's not ready to make a decision yet.”

“I don't want her eating my food,” Mookie gripes, she says.

“Honey, I don't think she will,” Liesl says out loud.

“He's being very protective of his space, of his territory right now. And this is an intruder. Does he go to bed with you? He doesn't want to lose his spot in bed.”

I don't like the Mookie persona Liesl is presenting.

I ask her if Mookie is peeing because he's unhappy with the kitten.

“What do you think, stupid?” she says he answers.

A corporate relocator in Montgomery County by day, Liesl first realized she had a gift for understanding animals when she was 6 years old, and putting clothes on her cat.

“I could hear him so clearly,” she says. “He said, ‘Go away! Leave me alone!'”

She ran to her mother, but her mother said it was just her imagination.

When Liesl returned to the cat who was sporting a bonnet, she heard the cat say, “I mean it!”

Of course she didn't actually hear a voice. She says she just knew it. It was a feeling that came across her, an awareness of the animal's thoughts.

She continued to sense animals' feelings as a hobby, often helping friends, until 1990, when she began her consulting practice. Now she speaks with two or three clients every evening and a handful on Saturday mornings. She's helped people with sick and dying animals, lost pets and animals with behavioral problems.

On occasion she's even communicated with dead animals and people, but she says she finds that exhausting.

Liesl doesn't take credit cards and she doesn't send bills. She just tells people her rates and then waits for checks to arrive in the mail.

“I'm hardly ever disappointed,” she says.

All of her work comes through word of mouth. She has no website, no advertising and no psychic friends network.

I first learned about Liesl from a high-powered Philadelphia attorney while attending a party full of corporate big shots and political movers and shakers in a Main Line mansion. Liesl had discovered the attorney's dog had an allergy to grass that vets hadn't detected.

(The attorney asked not to be identified, and provided the following explanation: “I totally believe in her capabilities, as she was dead-on with what she said about our pets. Unfortunately, most of the lawyers in the city will think I'm a bit loopy if I'm quoted in this story. So as much as I'm behind Liesl, it could hurt me professionally to be directly quoted.”)

She's performed consultations for people around the region and as far away as Washington state, Hawaii, Canada and London. Her clients have included breeders, doctors, Indian chiefs, dog-show contestants, Katrina survivors and lots of regular folks.

“You just have to be open to it,” says Cindy Balzer, a veterinarian who started the Girard Veterinary Clinic in 1995.

About a decade ago Balzer operated on Wilbur, a rescued potbellied pig that had been mauled by a dog. Wilbur's wounds eventually healed, but his spirits were slow to recover. He just moped around, demoralized.

“I could treat the physical problems, but I couldn't deal with his mental issues,” Balzer says. “So I called Liesl.”

Liesl communicated Balzer's thoughts to Wilbur—he'll always be safe, he won't go back to the home where he was attacked, and he needs to take his medicine so he doesn't get an infection.

“He has no problems taking his antibiotics but he doesn't want you to trick him,” Balzer recalls Liesl saying.

“From that day on he took his pills, no problems, and he's been a confident, well-adjusted pig ever since.”

Not everyone in the scientific community is as accepting.

“I'm perfectly prepared to admit some people are remarkably sensitive to signals provided by animals,” says James Serpell, director of Penn's Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society (CIAS). “I find it very difficult to believe they're communicating on anything other than the physical level.”

Serpell says the study of human interaction with animals—and vice versa—is a relatively new field of academic study. CIAS was founded in 1979, but it withered and was reestablished in 1997. Only in recent years have scholars started presenting their findings about animal behavioral development, the connections between animals and religion and the effects of cultural influences on animals.

“The way we speak with animals is much like the way in which one communicates with another person with whom you don't speak the same language,” Serpell says. “We manage to get through to each other, but the communication isn't always perfect. In other words there may be misunderstandings because animals don't communicate their feelings in exactly the same way humans communicate their feelings.”

The idea that animals are sending messages through their actions—such as Mookie and his peeing—is preposterous to Serpell.

“I think that's being anthropomorphic,” he tells me. “What may well be the case is that your dog is unsettled by the arrival of the kitten and maybe concerned about his territory. Maybe peeing is a reflection of that.”

Dogs may become disturbed when their routines are disrupted, but to assume a dog has the cognitive process to become upset and then retaliate with an action like peeing, Serpell believes, is giving the dog too much credit.

“I think you're going too far when you say the dog is expressing himself—literally—as a means of telling you he's unhappy,” says Serpell. “That's not what it's about.”

The morning after my first conversation with Liesl, my girlfriend steps in a moist patch of pee on our carpeted stairwell landing. I try the Dog Whisperer method of stern talking, acting like the pack leader.

Mookie just looks scared.

As I scrub the carpet Mookie sidles against me, his butt down, head hanging low and his tail wagging tentatively as he nervously licks his nose. His big brown eyes stare up at me pathetically.

He knows he did something bad.

Liesl cautions that the animals don't always listen.

“I just have to trust what I get from the animal,” she says. “Whether it makes sense to me or not, I'll just relay it to the person I'm talking to.”

The large number of people who now seek her services, she says, speaks to how much people care for their animals. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Americans will spend about $38 billion providing care and nourishment for their animals this year.

Liesl stresses people should do what it takes to keep their pets happy and healthy. She's but one option available to them.

But sometimes more scientific methods are required.

At the Orianna Hill Dog Park in Northern Liberties, Mookie strolls over to his friend Rocket, a 3-year-old fox-colored collie-shepherd mix, and gives him a quick sniff. Mookie's tail flutters, but Rocket, sitting under Susan Crawshaw's legs, is intently watching other dogs frolicking in the park. Then Rocket shoots off to join the merriment, jumping over a bichon-frise and dancing around a scottie.

“Here he's like the mayor of the dog park,” Crawshaw says. “He was a terror in our house.”

Shortly after being adopted about a year ago, Rocket would go crazy when he heard noises outside his house—people, trucks, the mailman. He'd spin in circles, bark, growl, chase cats and tear up the rug. He shredded the mail that came in the door slot, and one day he bit Crawshaw's hand while she was accepting a package. She had to be treated by a hand specialist at Jefferson.

“He thought his territory was being invaded,” Crawshaw says. “We were afraid he was going to hurt himself.”

Even the phone sent him into an uncontrollable rage. With just a few rings, the otherwise sweet dog turned into a savage beast.

Rocket did fine in obedience training, but that didn't resolve his issues at home. Crawshaw tried massage therapy—stroking pressure points by his ears. She tried positive reinforcement training with treats. She experimented with a choke leash, and even tried flipping him on his back and lying on him for 60 seconds like someone had recommended. She took him to see a Penn animal behavior specialist. She tried three different herbal remedies and an electric aromatherapy treatment called dog-appeasing pheromone.

“We plugged it into an outlet near the door, from where most of Rocket's anxiety seemed to stem,” Crawshaw says. “He promptly growled at it, went on a barking frenzy over its intrusion and bit it out of the wall.”

Penn specialist Karen Overall said Rocket suffered from anxiety disorder, protective aggression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She prescribed a cocktail of medications that would balance Rocket's neurochemical makeup.

“We felt like we were failing him and relying on the pharma industry,” Crawshaw says. “But she said there's a very sweet dog in there. His brain's just not working right.”

So Crawshaw bought generic Prozac from Target, and started feeding it to her dog.

When the meds didn't kick in right away, Crawshaw considered contacting a pet communicator. She was desperate. She even considered finding a new home for Rocket, but she knew that would only make his life worse. He'd been re-homed several times, which was likely the source of his anxiety.

Then the drugs kicked in.

Within months Rocket was a mild-mannered dog, peaceful at home and playful at the park.

But he's still in training following a regimen of “protocols for deference” ordered by the Penn specialist. The protocols teach the dog to rely upon the owner to help make the right decisions. That places a massive burden of responsibility on the owner.

“Either you're training the animal or he's training you,” Crawshaw says.

“I'm open to anything that would be good for my pigs,” says Susan Magidson, owner of Ross Mill Farm in Rushland, Bucks County. She has 130 potbellied pigs, 80 of which are up for adoption. Since she entered the business 14 years ago, she's placed more than 1,000 of the 120-pound porkers.

Magidson started calling Liesl about 10 years ago, when a pig named Fester started nipping at potential parents.

“He was a very nice pig to everyone, but every time I had someone who was interested in adopting him, he'd snap at them,” she says.

Liesl communicated with the wrinkle-faced black pig, and discovered he was worried about where he'd be taken.

Magidson spoke to Fester through Liesl, “He can make the decision about who he goes with. I'm not going to make it for him.”

Fester continued snapping at people for several months after the consultation. Then one day a couple asked to take Fester home. Magidson put a crate inside Fester's living space and said, “It's up to him.”

Then she watched the pig walk right into the box.

“It was so clear to me that Fester was fine with them,” Magidson says.

He's been with that family ever since.

“Liesl could see her,” Brenda Koller says of her cat Precious, who'd been missing for a week. “She said she was alive, surrounded by tires, and she could see pine trees and a hay wagon.”

Precious told Liesl she'd return to her Bucks County home in two days. To show there were no hard feelings, the cat told Liesl she'd leave a dead mouse at the house the next morning.

“The next day I find a mouse on the front step,” Koller says. “And the day after that, the cat walked right in the front door.”

After Zelda was spayed, she wouldn't eat and wouldn't use the litter box.

“She just curled behind the toilet and wouldn't move,” says Gina Downs, a rescuer of stray cats and owner of the Fairmount-based pet-sitting business the Pet Nanny.

After three days of inactivity, Downs called Liesl.

“First, she says she has a name,” Liesl told Downs. “Her name is Sassy.”

Downs wanted to take Sassy to the vet to make sure she was recovering properly from her surgery so she could be released into the wild. Liesl expressed Downs' thoughts to Sassy, and the next day Sassy ate, used the litter box and walked into the pet carrier, Downs says.

Like many of Liesl's clients, Downs now speaks with Liesl several times a year.

“It's not like she performs miracles or anything,” Downs notes. “But I learn how to modify my behavior and make things easier for the animals.”

Real estate agent Janet Lippincott calls Liesl at least once a year just to see if any of her animals has anything to say. She most recently spoke with Liesl after she brought a sixth cat to her Chestnut Hill home.

“No more cats!” Ambler, one of the original cats, told Liesl.

Mookie likes fluffy dogs, so when he sees Hugh, an 18-month-old American Eskimo, he heads directly for him. But Hugh, a 35-pound ball of white fur, lunges at Mookie, straining at the end of his leash, barking loudly and flashing sharp white teeth.

Denise LeGendre tugs Hugh's leash and apologizes.

When Hugh calms down and sits at her feet, LeGendre offers him a piece of string cheese and says, “That's a good boy.”

For a few moments Hugh is quiet, but then another dog walks by. He springs toward that dog, and then at Mookie, who's hiding behind my legs. Before I realize it, Hugh snaps at me and bites my jeans.

“It's a combination of frustration and excitement,” LeGendre tells me remorsefully.

A moment later I rub Hugh's ears and pat his back, and it's as if nothing ever happened.

Since he was just a puppy, LeGendre has taken Hugh to various training classes—puppy kindergarten, obedience classes, agility programs and a tricks course. She's tried click training, treat training and various other methods people suggested.

But Hugh remains a defiant dog who barks and growls and can't socialize with dogs or people because he makes bad choices uncontrollably. He barks at bikers and he lunges at people on scooters.

“He has that George Bush mentality—attack first,” LeGendre jokes.

Finally, a few weeks ago, she consulted a different pet psychic, Lillie Goodrich.

“He feels lost and confused when you aren't paying attention to him,” Goodrich told LeGendre. “He's going to be 5 years old before he's the dog you want him to be.”

The psychic made a few personal observations that made LeGendre a believer, and it gave her a little optimism. Now she's trying to limit Hugh's ability to make mistakes, she says, and she vigilantly rewards him for his good behavior.

The coming days are as difficult on our pets as they are on people.

“Holidays are a time when routines tend to go out the window,” says Serpell, the Penn researcher. “It's very confusing and loud and noisy and boisterous, and strangers are walking in and out. I think animals do find that quite an unsettling time.”

Between the parties and the shopping and the being left home alone for long periods of time, I'm worried my sensitive little dog might pee in the house again.

“Mookie, no more peeing in the house,” Liesl says the next time we converse by phone. “Only outside, sweetie.”

Then, in silence, she consults Mookie about the kitten.

“I suggested to him that he help Sunny learn the rules,” Liesl tells me.

“I'll try, but she doesn't listen,” Mookie allegedly responds.

“Well, tell her how important it is to you, honey,” Liesl says.

She tells me Mookie wants me to understand his feelings. I nod.

“Well, I hope it works,” Liesl tells me. “Just secure him more, okay? Make sure he knows he's a special boy.”

It's hard for me to be kinder to him—he means the world to me and always has. But I try. We walk a little longer than before, I let him sniff more than usual, and I slide him a little more ham at lunch.

Since my last consultation with Liesl, Mookie hasn't peed in the house.

But who knows if there's a connection.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Outta Here: Why the elephants are leaving Philadelphia

This is the cover story from the Philadelphia Weekly that is in boxes now:

BETTE SCOOPS UP THE the rubber tire with her tusks and jerks her head back, yanking the metal chain securing the tire to the ground. Her long trunk rises regally into the air and the tire wafts up, momentarily resting above her head. Then she catches the tire on her tusks.

An 8,000-pound African elephant, Bette seems happy, like a kitten batting around a cottonball. Her floppy ears are tucked back, her mouth is slightly ajar and her dark, tiny eyes are wide, lively. Her ionic column-like legs are slightly bent - poised for action - and her front right hoof is raised in the air.

“Mom, this is great!” says Kyle Donnelly, 11, of Audobon, NJ. “We usually don’t see them doing this much.”

Bette tugs the chain a few more times and then plunks the tire down to the ground. She backs up slowly across the dry, dirt field at the Philadelphia Zoo and then wanders around the edges of the 1/4-acre exhibit, her probing trunk reaching into the crevices of the rock-formation barrier on the perimeter of the grounds.

Where Petal is dignified, Dulary is chatty and Kallie will do anything for a treat, Bette is the plotter.

“We’re not sure what she’s plotting but she always seems to be plotting something,” says Andy Baker, the zoo’s animal manager.

Bette sniffs for hay on the rocks, slowly making her way from the far side of the exhibit to the front, and she stands directly in front of a group of young children maybe ten feet away.

She is stoic and still as little kids stop, stare, squeal, snap pictures and then scurry off.

A pair of squirrels dart past her on the rocks and she doesn’t flinch. A nearby lion roars and the New Jersey Transit line rumbles on the tracks about 100 yards behind her.

Jack Coons, 7, and a few of his first grade classmates from the Wilmington Friends School sidle up to the exhibit and lazily lean against the chipped black metal railing in front of Bette.

“Why are they taking the elephants away?” Jack asks his first grade teacher, Chris Marshall. “Are they going to trade animals?”

“They’re moving to a space that is better for them,” Marshall responds melodiously, sweetly. “It’s a good thing.”

Jack seems bored as he listens to the response. He hangs from the railing with his back to the elephants.

Then little Jack Coons sprints off to see other animals, apparently not caring that he will probably never see another elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo ever again.

After nearly a decade of serious thought about the health and welfare of the elephants exhibited at the zoo, administrators decided that the iconic mammals are better off somewhere else.

Last month, the Philadelphia Zoo, which has maintained elephants since the it opened its gates in 1874, formally announced that the four female pachyderms will be shipped off in the spring. The three African elephants will go on permanent loan to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and Dulary, the lone endangered Asian elephant, will roam 2,000 acres at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.

The short answer for why the elephants are leaving is funding. The zoo doesn’t have the cash to replace the 65-year old elephant home and they don’t want to spend millions on a temporary fix that would quickly become obsolete.

“If you put it in terms of what is in the best interest of the elephants, the decision to move them really wasn’t that hard,” says Pete Hoskins, the former zoo president who stepped down in May after 13 years at the helm of America’s first zoo.

The decision to move the elephants was made about one year ago, Hoskins says, while he was still running the zoo.

“We knew that we couldn’t continue to provide the highest standards at that site,” he says. “No matter how much you love those elephants and no matter how much you want them to be with you, the only right thing to do is to move them to where they can get those standards.”

However, the loss of the elephants - one of whom has been a member of the zoo family for nearly 50 years - goes beyond a simple cash shortfall.

It is a reflection of the evolving mission of zoos around the world. It speaks volumes about new understanding and appreciation of wild animals and their traits, as well as their needs.

And it is a monumental lesson for a financially strapped cultural institution that receives precious little economic support from the municipality it proudly represents.

The Philadelphia Zoo was chartered in 1859 but the onset of the Civil War delayed the actual creation of a facility. Fifteen years later, the zoo opened with more than 3,000 people paying the 25 cent admission fee to enter the complex which remained under construction.

On display were 200 mammals, 67 birds and 15 reptiles.

An elephant chained to a tree is said to have been among the inaugural attractions.

The Victorian complex with a Frank Furness-designed entranceway was established on 42 acres of city-owned property but the zoo was - and continues to be - run as a private, non-profit company. The basic mission was to entertain and educate people about the world away from their own. It was to be a scientific institution as well as an ornament for the city.

“It was a pretty enlightened mission from the beginning,” Baker says.

During the first year of operation, the zoo averaged more than 1,000 visitors daily, an admirable figure considering that included the cold winter months. The idea of making the complex free to the public was debated during the first few years but ultimately it was decided there was no other way to permanently fund the operating costs of the zoo.

Even then, there was a constant battle between the economics of running the business and the altruism of educating the public about nature.

“What winds up happening over the first generation is what happens at a lot of zoos: the ambitions of the founders and directors run up against the realities of public perception,” says Jeffrey Hyson, a St. Joseph’s University professor who is writing a book about the cultural history of America’s zoos. “People want to go to zoos to see exotic animals doing interesting things close-up.”

It was necessary to draw visitors in order to earn money, and to draw visitors, the zoo’s role changed. Rather than serving the sciences, Hyson says, the zoo became more of a menagerie where people gawked at lonely, exotic animals trapped behind bars, in sterile, concrete cells.

In 1935, respected zoology professor Roderick Macdougal was selected to become the president of the Philadelphia Zoo. According to Hyson, Macdougal declared, “The zoo is not merely a menagerie where people may be amused by the spectacle of a monkey scratching himself and eating peanuts.”

Rather, he thought of the institution, “as a zoological university where biology would be offered for contemplation by all.”

Macdougal resigned in defeat less than two years later.

The idea of zoos as tourist-type spectacles continued for nearly a century, Baker says. While the concepts of conservation and preservation had previously existed, they didn’t catch on until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Since then, there has been a steady learning process and zoos have drastically changed their methods of exhibiting and housing their greatest assets.

“One hundred years ago, you went to the zoo and looked and pointed,” says Steve Feldman, the spokesperson for the 211-member Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “The zoo you visit now may not even be the same zoo you visited as a child.”

Modern zoos now present animals in naturalistic settings that mimic native habitats, with trees and rocks and lots of enrichment for the animals. Creating such displays, however, is a costly endeavor, especially when it comes to elephants, the largest animals on the planet.

Eleven American zoos, including Philadelphia’s, have recently eliminated their elephant exhibits or plan to do so in the near future, according to the AZA. Money is the primary issue in the majority of cases.

“We have these very high and rising standards for all animals, specifically elephants,” says Feldman.

The Philadelphia Zoo will save about $300,000 annually by not having to maintain the four elephants. The Maryland Zoo estimates that they will spend about $120,000 per elephant every year.

The Philadelphia Zoo wanted to create a new elephant savannah but estimates for a new facility were priced upwards of $22 million. Some money was raised but not nearly enough.

In the end, zoo officials could not justify keeping elephants in the outdated facility that was built at the start of World War II.

“The trend is changing,” says Carol Buckley, co-founder of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where Dulary will soon reside. “Organizations like zoos are learning more about elephants and recognizing that the way elephants used to be kept – ten years ago, five years ago, even now – is not appropriate for the species.”

For instance, she says, elephants may wander up to 30 miles per day, and older more traditional zoo exhibits have merely fractions of acres for elephants.

“Elephants are migratory creatures,” Buckley states. “They immerse themselves in the habitat and they are forever engaged in everything about it.”

Zoos seem to acknowledge these recent findings and many now are creating elephant exhibits that incorporate long trails for the animals to travel. Feldman of the AZA reports that 40 American zoos are expanding or have plans to build new elephant exhibits.

“It was a slow catch-up on knowledge and an even slower catch-up on the facilities,” Buckley says.

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is spending $16 million to update their elephant facility including the creation of a 3/4-mile trek with water stations, scratching posts and dust baths.

“Maryland is definitely not as bad as the Philly Zoo,” says Marianne Bessey, founder of the Friends of the Philly Zoo Elephants.

“But it still has the space constraints, the climate issues, and it doesn’t have the live vegetation that elephants thrive on.”
Bessey, who was banned from the Philadelphia Zoo in February after allegedly making threats towards former zoo president Pete Hoskins, now employs monitors, dubbed “Ele’s Angels,” who frequently check on the conditions of the local elephants.

“Now that the weather is getting colder and there’s not as many patron’s here, they don’t clean up the manure as often,” reports an angel who asks to be called “Ann” so as not to reveal herself to the zoo’s staff. “The last time I was here, I wanted to lose my lunch the smell was so bad.”

Compounding the plight of the elephants at the Philadelphia Zoo is the fact that in August, 2005, Bettte and Dulary had a serious skirmish. Dulary was gored near her eye and now the African elephants and Dulary cannot be together. The Africans and Dulary rotate using the outdoor yard, meaning that the elephants only get about 4 hours outside every day.

The 20 hours per day inside the cement-floor barn, activists say, is damaging to the animals mental health. Elephants are believed to be among the most intelligent animals on the planet.

For a long time, the zoo did not disclose the names of the elephants because officials feared visitors would drive the giant animals crazy by screaming their names all the time. Elephants, you see, recognize their name. They can even recognize themselves in mirrors, according to a Bronx Zoo study released last week.

“Zoos need to put more emphasis on the biological and psychological needs of the species,” says Suzanne Roy, the program director of the activist group In Defense of Animals. “If they can’t, they shouldn’t have those species.”

Another recently accepted notion about elephants is that they are matriarchal and they live in large packs. With that in mind, the AZA is encouraging zoos to increase the size of their herds to make the animals more comfortable.

“In the wild, female elephants stay with their mothers for life,” says Lisa Wathne, the captive animal specialist for the animal-activist group, PETA. “They are incredibly social animals. Its not uncommon to have herds of seven or eight elephants who are together forever.”

PETA is opposed to any wild animals being kept in captivity but the organization is happy to see Dulary going to the sanctuary, which, Wathne says, is the best option available to the 42-year old girl.

The sanctuary features spring fed ponds, valleys, pastures, forests, rolling hills, a subtropical climate, a 10-month growing season, live vegetation year round, heated barns and three scheduled feedings daily on a massive compound surrounded by 20 miles of fencing. Dulary will live amongst 15 other Asian elephants.

“We are the band-aid solution for a horrific situation for an endangered species,” Buckley says. “The solution is to preserve the native habitats and let these animals live where they thrive, which is in the wild, not in captivity.”

Next spring, the sanctuary will be receiving two other elephants in addition to Dulary. But Buckley hopes that one day her services will no longer be required.

“We hope to put ourselves out of business,” she adds.

As part of the zoo master plan that was set into motion in 1996, the Philly elephants were supposed to get the grandest treatment possible for captive elephants.

There were to be two large, separate yards for African and Asian elephants, a new barn and a 1/4-mile trail that would meander through other animal exhibits. Along the trail, there were to be a forage area, mud baths and a dust bath area, according to Baker.

High off the success of building the PECO Primate Reserve in 1999, the zoo went into fund-raising mode for the new elephant savannah, which was expected to cost around $22 million.

Unfortunately, they were also trying to raise $20 million for a big cat exhibit. And they were trying to come up with the same amount for a grand new bird house. And they needed another $20 million to create a children’s zoo.

Not to mention the standard capital improvements throughout the zoo that are necessary every year.
“You’re talking about a campaign that was in the $100 million range,” says Hoskins. “That’s a lot of money.”

Major donors were found for the cats, birds and the children’s zoo.

The elephants never had a chance.

“The reality was that to fight on all those fronts at once, fund raising-wise, was foolhardy,” Hoskins laments. “We just couldn’t raise that much money.”

Many zoos across the country actually receive funding from their municipal governments. The Denver Zoo gets about 50 percent of their capital budget from the city. The Seattle Zoo gets nearly 40 percent. The Pittsburgh Zoo receives about $6 million annually through direct taxes for the arts and culture. The zoos in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland all benefit from dedicated municipal levies.

The Philadelphia Zoo, since 1991, receives nothing from the city for their operating budget.


Since memberships, concession sales and other earned income cover only about 80 percent of the annual $25 million operating budget, administrators must beg private donors for as much as $8 million annually just to keep the zoo running.

The commonwealth only chips in about $900,000 yearly with money generated through the sale of zoo license plates.

Where other cultural outlets can bring in short-term exhibitions to draw crowds - remember Cezanne at the Art Museum in 1996? - the zoo must annually create new attractions, either through renovations or new construction. It is a constant battle to keep their dues-paying members interested for another year.

“Inherent in the zoo as an institution is this almost impossible tension between education and entertainment,” says Hyson, the professor.

The zoo averages spending around $7 million per year on capital projects and for the past few years, they have received nothing from the city.


“It is a struggle,” says Peggy Amsterdam, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. “The city is not supporting arts and culture in the way it should.”

Amsterdam wants business leaders and representatives in City Hall to stand up for the arts and realize that culture is a major economic catalyst for the city. According to Vik Dewan, the zoo’s current president, the $20 million Big Cat Falls project, which opened in May with 44,000 visitors that first weekend alone, will pour $50 million of spending into the region.

Even prior to the new exhibit, the zoo had about 1.2 million visitors in each of the last two years.

“Without our cultural institutions, we would just be another city,” Amsterdam says.

“By moving the elephants now, there is still the possibility down the road that elephants could be brought back,” Hoskins says. “That’s an option.”

There are long-term, not-fully-flushed out dreams of creating that elephant savannah at the south end of the zoo, where the current Children’s Zoo is. That would put the elephants near their African brethren – the wild dogs, the cheetahs, and all the residents of Carnivore Kingdom – in one large “Africa” display.

Of course, there would always still be the issue of paying for the elephant exhibit. The bird house and the new children’s zoo are not even fully funded yet and they are next on the construction list.

“For the next three to five years, our heads are down trying to create the two exhibits on our plate,” Dewan says.

And the reality is that the shaky finances of the zoo, combined with the narrow physical constraints of the facility, means that the big, affable creatures are probably gone for good.

Activists will take credit, elephant lovers will shed tears, and life will go on.

It’s happened before.

“One of the first decisions I made as president, and it wasn’t very popular, was to move the chimpanzees,” says Hoskins.
“I’m not sure anybody even remembers it now.”

“Good bye elephants!” two women and three small children scream in high-pitched unison as the women push strollers past the elephant house. “We wish you could stay!”

Where Dumbo was cute and funny, Babar was adventurous and wise, and Stampy – Bart Simpson’s prize pachyderm from a radio contest – was a lovable, lumbering bruiser, most elephants are rather boring and, well, kind of ugly.

Petal, for instance, is a monstrous mass of monochromatic gray dullness, with skin that sags over her broken tusks, wrinkles all over her Jabba the Hutt-like figure, a few strands of straggly black hair dangling at the end of her long, wrinkly tail, and just enough chin hair to make you think of somebody’s crazy old aunt who has conversations with her numerous cats.

The 50-year old pack leader often has dirt tossed onto her back, she regularly unleashes copious amounts of urine without warning and she regularly drops massive piles of dung all around the exhibit grounds.

And yet, there is a fierce attachment to the old girl and her herd.

“I like to come see the elephants,” says Gerri Bolden, a retired social worker from West Philadelphia who is studying to be a docent – a specialized volunteer - at the zoo.

Bolden says that she has been visiting the elephants regularly since she was a child. Her father was a janitor at a nearby synagogue (now a Baptist church) and he used to take her to the zoo on weekends.

“We would come every Easter,” she recalls. “In our Easter clothes.”

She continued that tradition by bringing her daughter every year, and then she visited annually with her four grandchildren.

She understands why the elephants are leaving – it was explained in a special lecture given to the aspiring docents – and she says she will survive their departure.

“I will be visiting them in Maryland,” she says. “I’ll go down and check up on them.”

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Soul of the City: The rebirth of University City

This is the cover story of the Philadelphia Weekly this week (Sept. 6, 2006).

THERE ARE MOTHERS pushing strollers, young people pushing bicycles and dogs roaming off-leash beside their owners at Clark Park during the twice-weekly Farmer’s Market on 43rd Street.

A heavy-set black man reaches into a tray of peaches, picks out a furry fruit, rubs it in his hands and then chomps into the refreshing treat.

“I had to bite it,” he tells his friend as he laughs, the juice squirting from his lips. “I just had to!”

He keeps chuckling as he pays the farmer, who smiles in return.

There are older white men with ponytails, pregnant women who look ready to give birth and a lone girl with her right eyebrow pierced, sitting on a bench near the market, wearing a brown dress with white polka-dots, typing on a laptop computer. A grungy homeless man sleeps on an adjacent bench, his tattered clothes and soiled shoes lying on the ground beneath him.

A thin Asian man wears his dress pants hiked up to his elbows. Two grey-haired men shuffle through the crowd, their hands clasped in an intimate embrace. A mom and her teenage son sort through ears of corn, both of them with baseball mitts tucked under their arms.

There are dashikis and sarongs, Army fatigues, dreadlocks, straw hats, a retro Phillies cap, shaved heads, Afros and a muscular man in a sleeveless shirt, carrying an umbrella with a skull’s head on the handle.

What is glaring, after a while, is what you do not see: there are no suits among the crowd.

The nucleus of University City may be the mammoth University of Pennsylvania, the primary catalyst – positively and negatively - behind the majority of large-scale activity in the area.

But it is Clark Park that represents the ethos of this small pocket of the city.

There are Shakespeare performances, pick-up games of petanque, Uhuru Solidarity Movement sponsored flea markets and annual Charles Dickens’ birthday parties. Here, you can find Anarchsists, Somalians, inter-racial couples, Orthodox Jews, Liberians, college students, Europeans, lesbians and Eritreans. Together. Mingling. On just about any day of the week.

This park is the soul of the socially conscious community.

That is why when a Penn researcher, Vladimir Sled, was stabbed to death about one block away from here on Halloween in 1996, this community was incited to take action.

It triggered them to collaborate in a most unprecedented way.

What is now considered University City is actually a collection of similar yet distinctive neighborhoods: Spruce Hill, Cedar Park, Powelton Village, Garden Court, Squirrel Hill, West Powelton and Walnut Hill, as well as the vast university campuses.
Shortly after Sled’s murder, the neighborhood associations, politicians and major institutions in the area all met at the table for the first time ever, putting aside long-standing grudges, to explore solutions to the persistent problem of crime in the area.

The result was the 1997 creation of the University City District, a donation-funded special services agency charged with increasing safety, assisting residents and businesses, keeping the area clean and promoting the attractions of the colorful 2.2 square mile neighborhood.

“Ten years ago, we [University City] were known for crime, for being dirty,” says Lori Klein Brennan, UCD’s senior director of marketing and communications. “Nobody wanted to come here.”

Things have changed dramatically since the formation of the District.

Overall crime has dropped around 43 percent. Hundreds of new people have purchased homes here. Two-dozen cultural organizations have moved to the area. Numerous businesses have opened shop and large-scale development is underway mimicking that of Center City – from the gleaming Cira Center to the pending Dock Street Brewery.

“Never did we have private development interest like we have now,” Brennan adds.

Barry Grossbach, a 36-year resident and three-time president of the Spruce Hill Community Association, says, “We are in debt to Vladimir Sled for the serious changes that have happened here.”

Sled, a Russian native known to his friends as Volodya, and his Swedish fiancée Cecilia Hagerhall were walking home from their Penn research lab around 11 pm that Halloween.

As biochemists, they regularly worked long hours and they often checked on experiments in the middle of the night. Afterwards, they always walked back to their home at 4405 Osage Avenue. That’s why they lived in a neighborhood that they had been warned was dangerous: it was close to work. It appealed to their European sensibilities.

They were around the corner from their home, standing where thousands of costumed, candy-loving children had scampered about only hours before, when a man jumped out of nowhere and tried to steal Hagerhall’s purse.

Sled, who had celebrated his 38th birthday three days earlier, refused to release the bag and a struggle ensued. An accomplice arrived, stabbed Sled and ran off with the purse.

Sled was left crumpled in a pool of blood.

“We didn't know anybody living on Larchwood Avenue where the attack took place but in only a few minutes, several people responded to my cries for help,” Hagerhall writes from Sweden where she now resides. “They left the safety of their homes and came running to assist us.”

But Sled died less than an hour later.

The senseless death was the culminating tragedy in what had already been a bizarre semester at Penn.

There had been 30 armed robberies on or around the campus in September alone. A local activist had immolated herself in front of the main library. And a Penn senior was shot during an attempted robbery while walking home from Smokey Joe’s, the college hangout.

Parents were already clamoring for action.

“More than one person called us up or e-mailed us or said in a protest session, ‘Put a damn fence around the campus,’” says John Fry, former executive vice-president of Penn and now the president of Franklin & Marshall College.

And then Sled was killed.

City councilwoman Jannie Blackwell reached out to Penn president Judith Rodin.

“Listen, this is major,” Blackwell says she told Rodin. “He lives in the community but he works on your campus and therefore, we need to be united.”

Blackwell offered to meet Rodin on campus. But Rodin, a West Philadelphia native and Girl’s High graduate, told Blackwell that she would go one step further and organize a candlelight vigil from the campus to Sled’s home.

Within days, Penn, Drexel, the University of the Sciences, the Science Center, the community groups and politicians began formulating plans to reverse the downward slide.

“My job is to be the eyes and ears of the community,” says Eugene Blackson. “And keep the place clean.”

The 47-year old former SEPTA bus driver is radiant in his yellow UCD shirt, slowly cruising along Chestnut Street on a gun-metal grey mountain bike. As one of the 34 UCD ambassadors – unarmed safety patrols - he glances in a different direction every few seconds, constantly observing the scene.

One of the primary functions of the UCD is to have a reassuring presence - to aid the residents and police - and Blackson is part of the effort.

He rides up 39th Street, goes west on Ludlow and north on 41st to Market. He spins through a parking lot that has been known for trouble in the past. He goes east on Market, drops down 34th Street, turns east on Walnut and then stops suddenly at 33rd.

“FYI,” he says into his two-way radio. “There is graffiti on the back of the ‘No turn on red’ sign on the northwest corner of 33rd and Walnut.”

He writes up the paperwork and then states, “They’ll come out here and clean it off. It will probably be gone next time I loop around.”

He pedals off, north on 33rd, then right on Market and then over to 30th Street Station. He dismounts and walks his bike through the crowded terminal.

During the one year that he has been an ambassador, Blackson has aided a woman who locked her keys – and her infant strapped in the baby-seat - in her car. He stumbled across a fist-fight between a car owner and the thief who broke into the car (“The thief was calling for me to help him!” Blackson laughs). He has escorted numerous people safely home. And a few weeks ago, he gave confidence to an elderly woman who was scared to walk the street.

“Three young boys were walking towards her when she was coming out of her house,” he says. “She was scared, about to go back in, but she saw me coming on my bike. She walked out and said, ‘Thank you.’”

He weaves through cab drivers outside the train station and head’s towards Drexel’s campus. He spots more graffiti, near 32nd and Filbert, and calls it in. At 36th and Market, he finds a shuttered newsstand that has been tagged multiple times.

“You wouldn’t believe how much graffiti will mess up somebody’s business, deter people from going inside,” Blackson says while looking at the adjacent office buildings. “The main thing is to make University City safe. If they can bring people in, that will make it safe, and that brings in other people.”

Police, who have a substation adjacent to the UCD office at 40th and Chestnut, are reluctant to give too much credit to the ambassadors but crime is decidedly reduced from before the UCD’s existence.

In the District in1996, police recorded 5,500 major crimes – from homicides and rapes to point-of-gun robberies and aggravated assaults.

In 2005, there were 3,158 total.

“Since 1996, every crime category has decreased,” says John Fenton, the UCD’s director of operations.

Rapes, murders, point-of-gun robberies and burglaries are all down this year compared to the same period in 2005, according to Philadelphia police department statistics.

“Safety is one of the fundamental building blocks,” says UCD executive director Lewis Wendell, whose grandfather was a catcher for the Phillies in the 1920’s. “Before you can have anything else, you have to have clean and safe.”

“You’re not just buying a house,” says Tom Lussenhop, a private developer and former managing director of Penn’s real estate division. “You’re buying a neighborhood, too.”

This spring, Lussenhop built 9 condos – 6 in a new building and 3 in an adjacent, renovated rowhome. They sold out about six months before they were finished.

“I had no doubts there was a very solid market for new housing,” he says.

He believes they are the first new, privately-developed homes constructed in the neighborhood since the 1960’s. And he has plans for more projects in the neighborhood. Ten years ago, however, he says he couldn’t imagine a project like his occurring here.

University City was in a situation many urban universities were facing in the mid-90’s – the steady cycle of poverty in the surrounding area: few employment opportunities, drugs, crime, poor public education.

There were fears among the universities that top quality students and faculty would select other institutions in environments perceived to be safer.

The UCD stepped in to address the quality of life crimes, putting 300 new lights around the District, placing trash cans on street corners and bicycle racks at strategic locations. They employed a team of 26 maintenance workers to sweep the streets and sidewalks and remove graffiti.

In 1997, Penn began offering a mortgage assistance program to employees who moved to the neighborhood. Because of that program alone, more than 400 families have moved to the area.

The average home sale price rose from $78,472 in 1995 to $292,222 in 2005.

And the area has retained its blend of cultures and liberal values.

“I don’t see a Republican takeover of the neighborhood,” says Mike Hardy, a board member of the University City Historical Society and a founding member of the Friends of Clark Park. “The people that are coming here are the kind of people who embrace the spirit of the community.”

In 1998, an unusual partnership between Penn, the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Federation of Teacher’s created the Penn Alexander School, a high quality elementary school in the very center of the District. The school has helped retain families who previously would have moved to the suburbs when their children reached school age.

“It has become a lot easier nowadays to recruit outstanding faculty from other cities, even from Boston, Atlanta, Miami and the state of California,” says George Tsetsekos, dean of Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. “The city is not a negative issue anymore. Actually, it is an attracting point.”

“There certainly was a period when Penn behaved as if it were in the community but not of the community,” says Penn professor Ira Harkavy, the founding director of the Penn Center for Community Partnerships. “And they viewed West Philadelphia as a problem rather than a community that we should work in partnership with. Penn behaved in arbitrary fashion to actually separate itself from the community.”

This notion peaked in the 1960’s when Penn led the other major institutions in the formation of the West Philadelphia Corporation – which received no input from community residents – and began bowling through crumbling but long-established neighborhoods, most of which were predominantly black.

That caused a major lack of trust within the community.

“It was universities trying to swallow up neighborhoods,” says councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.

By that time, the majority of the wealthy people had left their ornate Victorian mansions in West Philadelphia. The homes were chopped up into multi-unit rentals and left to deteriorate. Many students, faculty and staff moved to Center City and beyond rather than live in fear in University City.

A new breed of urban pioneers – artists, conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War and other socially disenfranchised people (black, gay, liberal intellectuals, etc) - moved into the stately homes. They basked in the diversity and tolerance of the area and they established the foundation that remains today.

In 1983, Penn president Sheldon Hackney changed the West Philadelphia Corporation to the West Philadelphia Partnership and invited residents to participate in the shaping of their own communities.

That marked the beginning of a new era.

“The word ‘gentrification’ gets thrown around so much it doesn’t even make sense anymore,” scoffs Gail Fisher, the UCD’s commercial corridor manager, while strolling along Baltimore Avenue.

Fisher walks the strip several days per week, talking to business owners about ways to improve the area. UCD offers matching grants up to $10,000 to businesses that spruce up their storefronts, and Fisher helps with design. Fourteen businesses have taken advantage of the service in the last two years alone.

“This is fairly unique to University City,” says Carolyn Blackwell, UCD’s director of neighborhood initiatives. “We provide clean and safe and we provide business services.”

There are painted facades with large windows and colorful displays along the strip now, and several more businesses are on the way. A sign maker is moving in from New Jersey. Dock Street Brewery is opening at 50th Street. A new state liquor store has been approved.

In 2003, when Roger Harmon was planning his restaurant, Abbraccio, just off Baltimore Avenue near 47th Street, he had a hard time finding a bank to lend him the money.

“We were turned down by 80 financial institutions,” he laughs.

The UCD vouched for Harmon, a former economist with 25 years in the restaurant business. And when the last bank finally gave in but only lent half the amount needed, the UCD helped Harmon find smaller loans from various groups.

“I owe so many people, it’s ridiculous,” he says.

His Italian eatery with a large wrap-around porch and seating for 160 is now a focal point in the community. He even offers a Sunday brunch special that kicks back a percentage of the price to community groups.

“I think we have the most diverse clientele of any restaurant in the city,” he says.

Penn contributes $1.6 million to the UCD’s operating budget of around $5.7 million. The Penn Health System, which is separate from the university, throws in another $600,000. The remainder of the money comes from the other major institutions in the area – Drexel, the Science Center, Children’s Hospital, the University of the Sciences – and from foundation grants and private donations.

“Every contributed dollar that goes to the University City District is a voluntary dollar,” says John Fry, who helped shape the UCD while at Penn. “No one is being compelled. There is no formula.”
Fry points out that the major institutions have their own security and maintenance staff, so they don’t use UCD services on their campuses.

“Basically, all the services are paid for by the institutions,” he says, “And all the services are provided to the neighborhoods.”

“Maybe next year,” says Jared Reed, co-artistic director of the Curio Theatre Company.

He lovingly looks around the degenerating shell of the once grand sanctuary at Calvary Methodist Church at 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue. The ceiling is cracked, the plaster is peeling off the walls and the faux-marble columns are crumbling. At the front of the room is a 3,000 pipe organ where Reed imagines future performance space. Some of the pews are shoved off to the side to make way for the anticipated repairs.

“It’s not about preserving the space as a church,” he says. “It’s about creating a community cultural resource.”
Reed, a Julliard-trained performer, and his partners approached the UCD when they were looking for a place to call home in 2005. Curio had been a traveling troupe, performing in England and across the United States, with temporary facilities in Delaware County. The UCD took Reed to Calvary.

Here, they found an interesting mix of people: low-power FM radio activists, international musicians, the University City Historical Society, Alcoholics Anonymous and people of multiple faiths. They also found a temporary performance site in the chapel and a future home in the sanctuary.

“They were just looking for an excuse to renovate this room,” Reed says.

It is roughly a $1 million job but $200,000 will make the room safely functional. Ten years ago, no one could have predicted that this structure, built in 1906, would be an anchor in the community.

For three years in the mid-90’s, the dilapidated building was listed for sale with no takers. The closest it came to selling was when a Chicago millionaire attempted to buy the two 28-feet tall, 22-feet wide Tiffany stained-glass windows and two ornate, stained-glass domes.

When community groups learned of the sale, they freaked out.

“You don’t want us to sell the building, what do you want to see happen here?” asked Rich Kirk, president of the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, as the site is now known.

They wanted community space, cultural amenities and to continue being a house of worship.

Now, Calvary houses 14 organizations including a revolving door of religions.

There are separate services for Methodists, Mennonites, two different Pentecostal congregations, Quakers and Jews. A progressive Muslim group plans to start meeting here soon. Ethiopian Mennonites, Liberians and an LGBT group have recently inquired about holding services.

“We just don’t have any more room on Sundays,” says Kirk, a University City resident since 1972.

The center is alive with diversity – of faiths, ethnicities, sexual orientations and races. Just like University City itself.

“It’s a thought-out ethos here – why shouldn’t this group be a part of the neighborhood?” says Kirk. “I don’t know many places where you can get that level of conversation.”

Sunday, July 02, 2006

A South Philly native cooks in Italy

I wrote this story while on a teaching assignment in Italy. It was the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News food section on June 29, 2006.

CAGLI, ITALY -- THE TELEPHONE RANG as Donna Galletta was preparing the potato dough.

“Pronto!” she bellowed into the phone while continuing her gnocchi-making demonstration. She gently brushed small spheres of soft dough against a fork, creating parallel grooves – perfect for catching sauce.

Then she launched into Italian for a few minutes and the ten people watching eagerly waited, basking in roasted onion and garlic smell of the stewing sauce. Galletta’s use of the language only added to the atmosphere of the cooking class, set in the comfortable kitchen of her hillside home in the Le Marche region of Italy.

“Sorry,” she said in English after hanging up. “That doesn’t happen on television shows.”

But cooking shows also don’t let you roll your own pasta or eat the fruits of your labor while the green, rolling countryside of the Apennine Mountain range sprawls outside the windows - another special feature of the South Philly native’s culinary classes.

Galletta, 52, grew up near 17th and Porter but has been living in Italy since 1988. She and her Italian husband, Franco Mansi, operate The Atrium, an Italian language and culture institute in the charming medieval town of Cagli. Mansi teaches the language to visitors from around the world and Galletta offers hands-on cooking lessons with recipes ranging from regional specialties like olive ascolane (fried, stuffed olives) to classics like tiramisu.

“I love to cook,” Galletta said with a smile. “I always have.”

Food has been a focus of her family’s life for several generations. Galletta’s great grandmother owned a trattoria and her grandfather had been a butcher in the Abruzzi region of Italy. In the 1920’s, the family immigrated to America - like many Italians who fled their then impoverished homeland - and they brought their traditions with them.

In South Philadelphia, the family opened two bakeries - M&M at Wharton and Warnock and Tally-Ann at 9th and Snyder. Galletta’s mother later opened Galletta’s Galley, a restaurant in Princeton Junction, NJ.

Along the way, Galletta’s mother taught her how to cook in the traditional Italian style. Many of the utensils Galletta now uses in her own kitchen – knives, spatulas, the ricer, etc - were brought to Italy from America by her mother, who now lives in Yardley.

Galletta cooked her way into her husband’s heart while he was a graduate student at Rutgers University and she was studying at nearby Douglass College. They have been married for 30 years now. Their two children, Gabriella, 28, and Antonio, 20, were both born in New Jersey.

When Galletta and her bi-lingual family moved to Italy, she became a chef at a restaurant and pizzeria.

“My life has come full circle,” she laughed. “My grandmother couldn’t wait to get away from Italy and here I am.”

Now Galletta strolls to work every day through the ancient city gate, down narrow cobblestone streets and past the bustling piazza, to the stark, former seminary where The Atrium ( is located. She knows practically everyone in the small city of 10,000 people and she regularly stops to chat on the way to the school.

She handles the business side of the institute and she freelances as a translator for companies throughout Italy. In the evenings, she shares her passion for food with visiting students.

“You’re my Italian mom,” Elise Berry, 21, a college student from Knoxville, Tennessee, told Galletta.

As Galletta and her students shaped the small potato dough sacks, Berry gently placed the pasta into a large pot of boiling water.

“You drop them in, they sink to the bottom and when they pop to the top, they’re done,” said Berry, who was attending her second cooking class of the week - both of which featured gnocchi.

When the pasta was ready, the students sat down at the long, wooden dining table and started passing plates around. Salad, wine and fresh, unsalted bread (a regional tradition) circulated around the table.

“As long as you keep holding up plates, I’ll keep filling them,” Galletta told the ravenous group.

“I want you to be my Italian mom, too,” Carolyn Kennington, 20, of Tom’s River, NJ responded.

Galletta’s husband ambled into the kitchen in time to get a few scoops of gnocchi - lightly draped in the red meat sauce, and then a cup of homemade lemon cream with fresh fruit for dessert.

“You lucked out – gnocchi twice in one week,” Galletta said to her husband.

“We should eat like this every day,” he joked.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Tortured Justice: Philadelphia fighting for abused Iraqis

This was the cover story of the Philadelphia Weekly on April 19 - 25.

Susan Burke and her team of lawyers and researchers hope to help right some of the wrongs committed in Iraq.

LAWYER SUSAN BURKE STARES at the photograph of a 43-year-old former Iraqi police officer glowing on her computer screen. The man appears dignified. He has a strong chin and piercing eyes, and the pockmarks on his cheek are barely noticeable in the dim light. He looks dapper in a crisp white shirt and dark suit and tie.
Looking at the image you'd never know what the man had been through.

American soldiers raided the man's home, and he was taken away in front of his wife and five children. The details of why he was detained are sketchy. But he told Burke and her legal partner Jonathan Pyle that he was taken to a prison camp in Northern Iraq and kept in a steel cage roughly 3.3 feet wide and 3.3 feet deep.

He was held there for several days, restricted to the box when not being questioned by soldiers. During interrogations he said he'd been shoved against a wall and poked in his chest with a stick while blindfolded. He also told Burke and Pyle he witnessed horrible things.

He spoke of soldiers ordering a young Iraqi prisoner to punch his father, who was also a detainee. When the son refused, he was ordered to dig a hole in the ground. Then a soldier ordered the boy to lie in the hole and the father to shovel dirt on top. But because the father had only one arm, the burial was long and slow. The soldiers then made the boy crawl out of the dirt and ordered the father to ride the boy like a donkey.

Burke walks away from the image on her computer screen and stands in front of the large window on the second floor of her Powelton Village law office. She takes off her glasses and stares out at the busy intersection of 36th Street, Race Street and Lancaster Avenue. Cars traverse the wet roads and people stroll by with umbrellas. Tears well up in her blue eyes. She's quiet for a few moments and then returns to her computer.

She's just learned the man in the picture was killed in front of his home.

"An unknown gunman shot him in front of his family," she reads from an email.

He's the third of her clients to be killed in recent days, the fourth overall. It appears he was targeted, but Burke can't be certain why.

"We don't have any indication it's because of us," she says, pausing to compose herself. "But it's something we're concerned about."

Susan Burke and her team of Philadel-phia attorneys and researchers are leading a lawsuit against a pair of corporate military contractors whose employees, starting in 2002, allegedly conspired with government officials and military personnel to rape, pistol-whip, threaten, electrically shock, molest, verbally assault, kick, sodomize, urinate on and otherwise torture Iraqi nationals both in Abu Ghraib and other locations across Iraq.

So far, after four visits to the Middle East, they have statements from 144 former prisoners-including the former police officer who has just been killed-detailing episodes of violence, ignorance, spite and cruelty against people who were usually blindfolded, sometimes naked, often with their hands and feet bound.

"I'm of the view you can't torture anybody, whether they're criminals or not," says Burke, a 43-year-old mother of three who sports brown cowboy boots under her black dress slacks. "But these people are completely innocent. The people we've spoken to were all released without charge. There was nothing other than bad luck that got them picked up. And then they get tortured? It's just disgraceful."

Burke speculates the cost of the case, which was originally filed in June 2004, is already in the millions. Out-of-pocket expenses alone have run more than $250,000. A Maryland man provided $100,000 to Burke and Pyle's firm, but the rest comes out of money they make from other clients. The attorneys at the firm spend a significant amount of time working on the torture case-writing briefs, investigating legal options and poring over documents. And dozens of Penn law students have spent countless hours reviewing thousands of pages of documents. Recently Temple law students have begun helping as well.

An attorney in Michigan is also heavily involved, as is the Center for Constitu-tional Rights in New York. But the torture case is primarily a Philadelphia-based project whose goal is to right the alleged wrongdoings perpetrated by people representing the United States.

And Burke's spartan office is the epicenter.

While the death of Burke's client is horrifying and sad, there's more news expected today. Anxiety is already high. The defendants in the case-Titan Corporation, CACI International Inc. and five specific former employees-are expected to deliver a motion to dismiss to the court. They have until midnight, and chances are an email will arrive at the firm at 11:59 p.m. with the paperwork.

Burke and her team are well aware of the likely stand the defendants will take.

"They had a contract with the government, so therefore they should be entitled to something called the 'government contractor defense,'" Burke explains. "You're not liable because the government wouldn't be liable. The government has a lot of immunity from tort suits. So if all you're doing essentially is acting as an arm of the government, then you have some immunity too."

As a legal entity, she says, the United States is prohibited from torturing people, and that clouds that argument.

"The difficulty for them is that this stuff was illegal, so the government cannot legally order that it be done," Burke says. "They're in a bit of a fix in trying to prove that all they were doing was following government orders."

The class action suit doesn't directly fault the United States government or the military-a tactical move, according to Burke.

"We know there were some high-level people involved in this-Rumsfeld and others," she says. "Although our case is against two companies and the individual torturers, it's a conspiracy case. All these people worked together and formed a conspiracy and did torture these people. Naming them makes it more likely we'd embarrass the government into stepping in to try to shut the case down."

The lawsuit refers to government officials, military officials, soldiers and contractors equally as "torture conspirators."

"There's just a voluminous amount of evidence that this stuff happened," Burke says. "There's no way anyone can claim it didn't."

It's already taken 18 months just to settle arguments about where the case should be heard. A district court judge in Washington, D.C., has finally been assigned the case.

The motion to dismiss is the first stage in what's likely to be a process that lasts several years. Burke and her associates have until May 8 to respond to the motion (the judge is expected to return a decision by summer). If the case is deemed worthy of trial, they'll enter a discovery phase-an exchanging of information that could last more than a year.

Burke guesses the case may not be resolved until 2008.

"We're pushing as fast as we can," she says.

"Whenever you look at wartime, there are always things countries have done that they shouldn't have done, whether it's the My Lai massacre or the internment of the Japanese," says Burke. "As a nation, we've got to step up and hold these people accountable and correct them. It's an important part of our democracy."

The daughter of a retired Army officer, Burke started investigating reports of abuse from detainees in Guantánamo Bay and Afghanistan in 2002. At the time she was the head of Tenet Healthcare's regional law offices, and investigating the torture was nonpaying side work. When dealing with both her regular job and the pro bono work became too cumbersome, she left Tenet and became a partner at Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads LLP, one of Philadelphia's grand old law firms. There she got other lawyers from the firm involved in the case, including her current partner.

Pyle, 29, wears his long brown hair in a ponytail that stretches halfway down his back. Dressed in a blue flannel shirt, green T-shirt, moss-colored corduroy pants and tan work boots, he looks more like a peace activist than an attorney handling a huge international case with potentially damning implications.

But Pyle, originally from western Massachusetts, was educated at Swarthmore College, graduated from Penn Law and served as a class action defense attorney for three years.

In April 2004 the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and everything changed. Burke and Pyle immediately shifted their focus to Iraq, especially after the report made by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba was leaked to the media. The report detailed a litany of abuses performed against detainees, and concluded that "several U.S. Army soldiers have committed egregious acts and grave breaches of international law at Abu Ghraib."

The report also listed abuses by contractors, which is when the attorneys realized they had an angle: You can't sue the government, but you can sue those working for the government.

The torture case dragged on, and Burke spent many hours working on it without institutional support from her employers. Last August Burke and Pyle opened their own law practice, Burke Pyle LLC. City Councilman Michael Nutter, a friend of Burke's, is among the new firm's clients.

"It got to the point that it was so politically unfavorable that it was easier to work on it as a smaller firm," says Pyle.

"[Burke] has done this at tremendous personal risk," says Judith Chomsky, an Elkins Park attorney specializing in human rights cases. "She left a big law firm to pursue this case."

Chomsky, who's working on the torture case through the Center for Constitutional Rights, has a long history of fighting corporations that allegedly violate human rights. She was among the attorneys who represented Burmese villagers in a suit against the California oil company Unocal for alleged use of forced labor in Myanmar. The case was settled out of court in 2005. She seemed a natural to join the torture case team.

"There aren't a whole lot of cases like this," says attorney Anne Heidel, 28, a member of the Burke Pyle firm. "It's a lawsuit against private companies on foreign soil involving non-American citizens."

Heidel came to the firm from the powerful law firm Ballard, Spahr, Andrews and Ingersoll LLP, where she handled environmental litigation. Last summer she was approached by Pyle, a classmate at both Swarthmore and Penn, about joining the firm. Another Penn classmate, Heather Allred, also joined the firm and torture case.

"It's a unique opportunity," Heidel says. "You read about this in the news and you think you can't do anything about it. These are people who are profiting on these human beings. This is a way to get accountability. I'm helping atone for what happened."

"When you hear their stories, it really affects you," says Pyle as he recounts tales he heard during his most recent trip to Amman, Jordan, where he interviewed former prisoners.

The stories involve prisoners being forced to stand for hours on end, with some detainees upright for up to 20 hours straight. In many cases they were deprived of food and bathroom access. Some had words written on their faces, and others were forced to touch other naked detainees, male and female.

In one particular instance, five teenage boys were taken into custody during a raid in Baghdad. In blindfolds and handcuffs, they were shuttled to an airport facility and stored in small wooden cells too low to stand in. The boys were allowed to use the bathrooms only twice a day for only 30 seconds each time-and even then they remained handcuffed behind their backs.

"So even if they were in the middle of taking a dump and the time ran out, they could be yanked away," Pyle says.

After a week in the cells the five boys were chained together with other detainees and led onto an airplane runway. They were forced to walk in front of blazing hot engine exhaust that caused people to jump back and jerk around the others who were all tethered.

"The soldiers were laughing," one 16-year-old boy told Pyle.

The boys were then led onto a plane where they were told they were being taken to Guantánamo Bay. Less than two hours later the boys exited the airplane unsure of whether they'd gone anywhere. They were placed in a black interrogation room that had the words "ADMIT IT" written in Arabic in red.

Pyle says soldiers forced the boys to dance, and then they molested them.

In another case a woman carrying her 4-year-old daughter was killed when soldiers broke down her door. The daughter was killed as well. The father had a hood placed over his head and was escorted out of his destroyed home by soldiers.

"They allowed him, as he was being walked blindfolded, to step on the body of his dead wife," Pyle says.

A 17-year-old Iraqi boy was blinded when soldiers tossed a sonic grenade into his house.

"If he had money, he could have his eyes repaired," Pyle says.

The lawsuit lists even more egregious acts of malice. One client says he was tied to 11 other prisoners, all attached with ropes on their penises. Another client was forced to wear women's underwear. Several were threatened with growling, barking dogs. One man, according to the suit, was made to watch as his father was tortured to death.

The abuses continued long after the Abu Ghraib scandal hit the press. And they occurred at several detention centers.

When one prisoner had his head stepped on by a "torture conspirator" while praying inside a prison, he asked, "Why do you torture us and prevent us from worshipping God?"

According to the lawsuit, the torturer responded, "You are under our authority. We can do whatever we want with you."

At times Pyle seems uncomfortable talking about the stories, offering an awkward laugh at odd times.

"You don't know what to say to them," Pyle says of the former detainees. "On behalf of my fellow Americans, I'm sorry this happened to you."

"The most angry groups I saw were the Marines and soldiers who were out in the villages and provinces who were trying desperately to connect with people, to build credibility," says Anthony Zinni, retired United States Marine Corps general. "To them, Abu Ghraib pulled the rug out from under them."

A Philadelphia-area native, Zinni has come to town to promote his new book The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose.

The square-jawed 35-year military veteran briefly pauses outside the Comcast studios on Columbus Boulevard to talk about the prison abuse scandal. "I think there are some questions that have to be answered," says Zinni, who served as chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, from 1997 to 2000. "I don't think there's been a satisfactory answer about how these young NCOs [non-commissioned officers] and enlisted men and women came up with these techniques."

The abuses-nakedness, verbal assaults, touching people in culturally inappropriate ways-were too institutional and routine to be random, he says. Reservists from West Virginia or Montana wouldn't coincidentally perform the same brutality in multiple detention centers.

"Those things aren't things that were conjured up somehow at their level," Zinni says. "These are obviously very sophisticated techniques-you talk about what it takes to intimidate an Arab male. That's the question that never got answered with satisfaction to me: Who's responsible? I don't know."

Since retiring, Zinni has been one of the most outspoken members of the military establishment against the way the Iraq war has been handled. And while he's been sharply critical of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration in the past, he won't say they're to blame for the prison scandals.

"I'm not going to speculate whether it was a matter of policy, or whether it was the people using these techniques," he says. "Were these approved? Where did they come from? How were they designed? Who was in on the interrogation? Where were these learned? Those questions have to be answered."

Having the abuses heard in court is vital, he says-for the military as much as for the victims.

"One of the most important things we value in the military is a sense of justice, making sure that if something's wrong, there are people held accountable for it," says Zinni. "It's really important in the time of war to keep the moral compass straight."

"More than retribution, they want justice," Pyle says of his clients. "What they want more than anything is to sit in the witness box, say what the person in front of them did and have that person punished for what they did."

Most of the prisoners, Pyle says, were gathered by the military simply because they were within proximity of someone who was thought to be a suspect. Their houses were barged into and severely damaged. During each raid dozens of people-men and women, from young teens to senior citizens-were blindfolded, cuffed and taken away without being given a reason.

The photos of the abuses have become famous, and some of the people in the images are plaintiffs in the case, including the man claiming to be the person in the black robe and hood, standing on the box with electrodes on his hands.

"These are people who are suffering, physically and mentally," Burke says. "To bring them some level of justice and accountability, some sort of compensation, that's the least you can do."

And seeking justice for these people has nothing to do with politics.

"We would've done this even if a Democrat were president," Pyle says.

CACI International's motion to dismiss rolls in around 6 p.m. Titan's arrives at 11:13. In all, there are about 280 pages of briefing to dissect.

John O'Connor, an attorney for CACI, says their motion is complex and hard to summarize, but "basically it's a contention that the complaint fails as a matter of law to state a claim."

The motion reads, "Plaintiffs continue to seek to inject themselves and this court into the process of establishing and overseeing the United States' foreign policy and the manner in which the federal government is waging the war in Iraq."

O'Connor says CACI was under the supervision of the United States military at all times. The motion doesn't address whether the abuses and mistreatments actually occurred because that's not appropriate at this stage of the legal battle, he says.

"CACI has at all times denied those allegations," says O'Connor. "But in a motion to dismiss, you have to start with the assumption of truth."

And now it's time for the plaintiffs' lawyers to really flex their legal muscles to ensure this case goes to court.

"These victims are counting on us to make sure their hopes for accountability don't get dashed at this early procedural stage," Burke says.

If the case goes to trial, many of the victims will come to America to take the stand.

The dead 43-year-old former Iraqi police officer won't have that opportunity.

Just to meet with the attorneys last month in Amman, Jordan, he had traveled at great risk for 15 hours by taxi on a dangerous road. But when he arrived, Pyle says the man was affable and loquacious, sharing stories-both good and bad-and telling jokes.

"What's the difference between a lawyer and a liar?" Pyle recalls the man asking in English.

The attorneys may never know if the man was killed because he cooperated with them.

"The politics are more complicated than that," Pyle says. "If our clients are heard to be hanging out with Americans, they can be targeted. If they are heard to be working against Americans, they can be targeted."

And the violence in Iraq continues.

"It's just kind of surreal," says Burke. "You meet these people-and then they're dead."