by Elizabeth Coady
Jessica Dimuzio cannot shake the sounds of the zebras and elephants and lions and wildebeests that inhabited her life as a scientist and conservationist working in Kenya. For two years, the grunts and growls and murmurs and cries emanating from animals living as her neighbors in the wild were the soundtrack of her life. And they became permanently etched into her psyche.
So in 2006, when she was sidetracked from her current work as an conservation educator by a knee injury from a boogie board injury, Jessica revisited those memories when a librarian friend suggested she enroll in a children’s writing class taught by Vivian Grey Miller at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I said, ‘She writes for kids,’” recalled Dimuzio, who worked with her husband in Kenya on environmental conservation and baboon research projects shortly after they both received their doctorate degrees, hers in veterinary medicine and his in behavioral ecology. “What do I know about writing for kids? And apparently I do know a lot.”
This is not braggadocio but an accurate self-assessment backed by critical success of her three children’s stories, two published in book form and now a third, “African Animals’ Lullaby,” made into a short film selected for showing at the Women’s Film Festival in Philadelphia from March 14 to 23.
The seven-minute short, produced by Dimuzio and Rodney Whittenberg of MelodyVision in Plymouth Meeting, is a sensory feast that recounts the sounds and sights of the Kenyan outback in the language of a children’s picture book. The film was debuted in Philadelphia at the festival Saturday, March 16, to an appreciative audience.
“It’s a wild ride, and I’m enjoying it,” said Dimuzio,who grew up in Roxborough and graduated from Springfield High School before attending UPenn for both undergraduate and veterinary schools. The scientist takes pride in the film’s meticulous telling and recreation of what she experienced first-hand as a scientist in the outback, first working to document the meat-eating habits of a 100-member baboon troop, then later teaching conservation education with her husband to graduate students.
The film is narrated by the evocative storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston, a recipient of a Pew Fellowship In the Arts, and was previously selected to be an entry in the Cut To The Chase Film Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
“African Animals’ Lullaby” was the first children’s story Dimuzio ever wrote. “I wrote it as a lap book,” said Dimuzio, who lives in Norriton with her husband, Timothy Halverson. “I used some of our photographs to illustrate it, and everybody that night wanted to buy it … That was one heck of an introduction to writing for children.”
Although she went on to write two other children’s books, “Bark! Bark! Bark for My Park!”and “Bow Wow Wow! Green Beans Now?,” Dimuzio never published “African Animals’ Lullaby” as a book “because it totally relies on sound. And so without that, it’s a nice story, yes. And nice pictures, yes. But it’s the sound that I wanted to concentrate on.”
She signed on to make the movie when Whittenberg pitched the idea. She scoured the internet for audio and visual material to use for the film to recapture her experiences as authentically as possible, and borrowed other photos from a colleague who was in Kenya at the same time. Sadly, her own photos from those years were lost in a house fire.
Dimuzio said Whittenberg, who co-produced the movie and was its sound editor, told festival-goers that “working with a scientist can drive you crazy. Jessica is absolutely meticulous. It had to be the right animal vocalization … at the right time of day with the right kind of ambient sounds at that time of day … He said he learned a lot and that I raised the bar, which was amazingly nice of him.”
The founder of the educational program Nature Tales and Trails uses sound as a teaching tool during visits to schools where she gives multimedia presentations.
“Basically,” she said, “it’s a chance to go on safari in Africa without paying anything and without passport and no vaccinations.”
Dimuzio’s previous two children’s books both won the Moms’ Choice Awards for excellence. “Bark Bark Bark Bark for My Park!” was also recommended by the U.S. Review of Books as well as actress and animal rights’ activist Betty White. The second book, “Bow Wow Wow! Green Beans Now?” was endorsed by Mike McGrath, host of the NPR show “You Bet Your Garden.”
Though her time as a scientist in the bush has long past, Dimuzio still travels extensively with her husband. Past trips included visits to Uganda, Borneo, Thailand, Australia, Brazil, Pakistan, Indian, Nepal, Taiwan, Japan and China, often to see animals in their natural habitats.
Of conservation, she says: “This is not a career; this is a lifetime choice. We live it, we breathe it, we absolutely adore it.”
To book Dimuzio for a visit to a school or organization, visit naturetalesandtrails.com, where you can also order her children’s books. While the movie is in the festival circuit, we are not allowed to put a link here for it. You can follow Dr. Dimuzio on Facebook at NTandT.DrD.