Long time Santa Monica resident Georja Umano has published her first novel, “Terriers in the Jungle,” which has already won three prestigious awards. It’s based on her real-life affection for elephants and how this passion has taken her to Kenya six times in her advocating for conservation and protection of these remarkable animals.
On one of these trips, Georja took her dogs, thus the title “Terriers in the Jungle.” It’s the story of Kate (aka Georja) who rescues Romeo and Roxie, two street pups in Santa Monica, and turns them into loving pampered pups. The trio is happily enjoying the good life when conservationist Kate decides to help rescue endangered elephants in Africa.
So Kate moves the unusual trio to Kenya where her dogs encounter animals they’ve never seen before – mischievous monkeys, an imposing camel, frightening crocodiles, an elegant ibis and enormous African elephants.
This brings me to Georja’s fascinating personal evolution. (And considerably less fascinating, how she met me twenty-five years ago.) In 1997 Georja wanted badly to have a dog, something she hadn’t experienced since her early but difficult childhood. Georja’s first dog provided her with joy and unconditional love and allowed her to return the same.
So, with her husband’s blessing, author Gerald Everett Jones, Georja adopted Marcello, a Jack Russell Terrier. However, they faced an immediate obstacle regarding their Ocean Avenue rent-controlled apartment which had a spectacular ocean view.
Unfortunately their landlord insisted they move if they wanted to keep their pooch, so they did and never regretted it. (Impossible to imagine now, it was at a time when Santa Monica property values were tanking so they could afford a condo.)
In addition to her writing, I’d be remiss not to mention Georja’s many other talents. For example, she has been a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles, San Diego and eleven states; a film, TV and theater actress; a teacher and a journalist. She has a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Educational Theater.
Among Georja’s notable TV credits are “Off the Rack” with the late Ed Asner and the title character in the award-winning short film, “The Godmother.” She was also nominated for her theatrical performance in “Kabbalah” with the late actor/comedian Avery Schreiber.
That brings me to how Georja and I first met. Because of Marcello she began a campaign for a small beach dog park. “Unleash the Beach” resonated with dog owners who were thrilled. I wasn’t an owner but I was also excited.
You see, back then I walked my disabled neighbor Colleen’s seizure alert dog, Oscar, a beautiful Golden Retriever who dearly loved the ocean. Though it was highly illegal, I’d sneak Oscar into the water at sunset and throw tennis balls he eagerly fetched. He was so full of joy diving through the waves it mesmerized strangers on the sand who stood and watched in awe. I was drawn to “Unleash the Beach,” because of Georja’s optimistic and boundless energy. (Plus I didn’t want to get the dreaded $350 ticket.)
With her political savvy, Georja was twice able to get City Council to almost authorize a dog beach, with the key word being “almost.” But that setback only led Georja to a new calling, animal activist. In fact, Georja has organized, spoken and written about animal causes in the U.S., Italy and Kenya, in the fields of elephant and wildlife conservation.
In addition to educating readers about Africa’s dwindling elephant population, estimated 100,000 in 2011 and 40,000 today, “Terriers in the Jungle” is just great fun. Roxie and Romeo, the two canine narrators are filled with irrepressible and child-like wonder. In their many adventures exploring Kenya, often they’d inadvertently get into dangerous scrapes but manage to escape. Georja also is adept in weaving the dog’s adventures and the importance of wildlife conservation, promoting a world where elephants can thrive. She’s also an artful literary tour guide of Kenya.
One creative tool Georja deftly employed is her use of Kenyan artists Hilton Mghan Mwakima and Moses Mugasia Misigo, whose sensitive illustrations beautifully complement the storyline. It’s remarkable how much feeling of Kenya they project. Umano drew inspiration from her association with Kenyan charities such as the renowned Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that operates an orphan elephant rescue and wildlife rehabilitation program in Kenya.
As Romeo and Roxie adapt to their new home, they discover that heroes come in every size. Together, they face new and unexpected threats, including dognappers and poachers, and muster the courage needed to save the day.
“Terriers in the Jungle,” takes us on a sensational and inspiring journey into the world of endangered animals and presents a heartfelt dog’s-eye-view of the beauty and brutality of East Africa. (Plus I think it’d make a great movie!)