Local vet, ex-Springsider, worked for African wildlife
by J.B. Hyppolite
Local author, veterinarian and wildlife researcher, Jessica Dimuzio, who has dedicated her life to preserving and healing animals both big and small, wild and domestic, is the author of “Bark! Bark! Bark for My Park!” Her dog, Johnny Angel, is the co-author. The story is a recipient of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators International Kimberly Colen Memorial Grant Award. Many adventures, including traveling throughout Africa and Asia on behalf of wildlife conservation, led to the creation of this book.
“It’s our story,” said Jessica, who attended Springside School from 2nd to 10th grades and then graduated from Springfield High School. (She started attending the University of Pennsylvania in her senior year.) Growing up, she often skated at the Wissahickon Skating Club and hiked the Wissahickon.
“Bark! Bark! Bark for My Park!” is a true story that focuses on the viewpoint of a five-pound Papillon puppy and the struggle to save Norristown Farm Park from being turned into an unneeded PGA golf course in 2000. “We have like 26 golf courses in the area and no parks,” said Jessica, displeased with the attempt to remove what she described as “the only really large piece of greenery we have around this area.” Norristown Park is also a part of the original grounds of Norristown State Hospital and is considered a “working farm park.” Jessica, also an environmentalist, was distraught by the news.
“I came home, we had been at the park when we heard the news, and I was pacing and said, ‘What can I do? What can I do to save this park?’ Johnny Angel was barking and barking, and I’m going, ‘Quiet, Johnny! I’ve gotta think!’” Johnny Angel continued to bark until Jessica asked, “What do you want?” That’s when the story idea emerged.
“JA and I went to a town meeting where we both spoke. That wasn’t enough. I wrote a petition, and JA carried it in his backpack and we got signatures. With the help of other concerned citizens, we got 4000 signatures in 6 weeks. And we won!! I think it’s kind of interesting that a dog had to remind me that in a democracy we sometimes have to speak up for what we want,” said Jessica, who has no two-legged children.
Jessica sat down, began to write and quickly decided to make Johnny Angel the narrator after realizing her tiny two-year old (at the time) Papillon would be the best way to connect with children. The only words spoken by Johnny Angel are “Bark, Bark, Bark!” Jessica has read the book in front of second and third graders and has been doing school visits for three years. While discussing her book, Jessica touches on persuasive writing, saving the environment and empowerment; she feels strongly about those three specific messages.
“It was really funny. I was saying to somebody, ‘I don’t apologize that my book doesn’t have magic or
superheroes or capes.’ It’s just a story about how one voice can make a difference if you have passion and a plan.”
The overall, simple and exceptionally straightforward message of the book is to show that no matter what age or size (or species, as the website points out), there’s always an opportunity to make a difference in the world, especially with your voice, your passion and a plan.
“Bark! Bark! Bark for My Park!” is Jessica Dimuzio’s third children’s book, though it might be the first to include a dog as a co-author. In addition, for five years Jessica has led a critique group for people who write children’s books. They meet the third or fourth Monday of every month at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, with every genre of children’s book writing represented. “It was after seeing the enthusiasm of students in naturalist programs I led that I started writing children’s books,” said Jessica. “I wanted to connect more kids to the mysteries of the natural environment by relating true events from my work and community involvement.”
The interesting aspect about “Bark! Bark! Bark for My Park!” is that whenever Jessica attends a promotional event for the book, whether it be accepting an award or reading it to a young audience, Jessica has Johnny Angel by her side. When Jessica and Johnny accepted the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators International Kimberly Colen Memorial Grant Award recently in New York City, Johnny was with her at the podium.
“Over 1,000 people were there,” said Jessica. “I was a nervous wreck, and I carried Johnny Angel up on stage, but he was not nervous; he was looking for the camera. He was perfectly fine, and he got his award, which was a squeaky bone, and I got my award, which did not squeak, but I’m very proud of it anyway.”
Jessica wrote for adults before writing for children. A friend from the Norristown Public Library had recommended that she take a course on writing for children from Vivian Grey, an author at the University of Pennsylvania. Jessica was hooked after starting the class and found more passion in writing for children than for writing for adults.
“Children’s book writing is very different from writing for adults. We have a lot of different rules,” said Jessica. There are different page lengths depending on the genre of children’s books one is authoring. This even includes word choice and sentence length that focuses specifically on how a child reads and what grade he or she is in. For example: picture books are no more than than 32 pages.
“You have a lot more freedom with adult writing.”
Part of the reason Jessica ventured into writing is because of her extensive experience in wildlife conservation projects in Africa and Asia. (She asked us not to mention the dates of these trips.) “When people learn I am a veterinarian,” she explained, “most assume I am a practitioner, but I went to veterinary school to work in wildlife preservation.” Jessica won a scholarship for original research on olive baboons. The project had been going on for 10 years, and it had been found that olive baboons began to eat meat sparingly and eventually gathered into troupes in order to kill and eat baby gazelles. Jessica was brought on to help figure out how much meat eating was going on by each troupe.
“That sort of changed my course,” said Jessica, who at the time went to University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School for wildlife preservation, specializing in nutrition and reproduction. “I thought if I understood that, then surely I’d be able to protect and preserve wildlife,” she said. “Unfortunately, during Jessica’s research project, the land was sold, and the new owners began killing off the baboons.
“All the researchers involved with this particular troupe tried desperately to save as many as we could and ended up transferring them to a different habitat, where we could not follow them easily at all. That was my awakening. I realized that if we did not save the habitat, we would not save wildlife.”
When Jessica and her husband, Timothy Halverson, returned to Africa, they started a conservation education program that incorporated studies of animals, their habitat, the use of the habitat, culture and economics. They began at a college level and eventually ended up teaching children.
Jessica has also been to India and Thailand. In Thailand she was brought on board a project concerned with releasing wildlife into their natural habitat. Jessica was a part of the only American group present for that project.
Jessica Dimuzio is originally from Roxborough but spent most of her formative years in Springfield Township. She currently lives in Norristown. Anyone seeking more information in “Bark! Bark! Bark for My Park!” or in Jessica Dimuzio’s wildlife conservation work can visit www.naturetalesandtrails.com