Acts of Impact

How Tamara Blazquez Uses Photography to Advocate for the Wildlife Of Mexico City

August 25, 2022 Nicholas Hill Season 1 Episode 21
How Tamara Blazquez Uses Photography to Advocate for the Wildlife Of Mexico City
Acts of Impact
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Acts of Impact
How Tamara Blazquez Uses Photography to Advocate for the Wildlife Of Mexico City
Aug 25, 2022 Season 1 Episode 21
Nicholas Hill

Today, we interview Tamara Blazquez about her work as a wildlife conservation photographer. We’ll discuss the wildlife of Mexico City, the Zoo Crisis, the protection of land (such as the threatened lake areas of Xochimilco), and how Tamara once got more than she bargained for trying to photograph a ring-tailed cat.

To support Tamara, see her amazing photographs, follow her on social media, and discover more ways to help, visit her linktree.

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Special thanks to Tamara for sharing her time and stories. Music by Alex Grohls.

Show Notes Transcript

Today, we interview Tamara Blazquez about her work as a wildlife conservation photographer. We’ll discuss the wildlife of Mexico City, the Zoo Crisis, the protection of land (such as the threatened lake areas of Xochimilco), and how Tamara once got more than she bargained for trying to photograph a ring-tailed cat.

To support Tamara, see her amazing photographs, follow her on social media, and discover more ways to help, visit her linktree.

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Special thanks to Tamara for sharing her time and stories. Music by Alex Grohls.

Nicholas Hill  0:00  
You're listening to acts of impact the show where we interview those who are making a positive difference in the world around us. On today's show we interview Tamara Blazquez about her work as a wildlife conservation photographer. We'll discuss the wildlife of Mexico City, the zoo crisis, the protection of lands such as the threatened Lake areas of Xochimilco. And how Tamara once got more than she bargained for trying to photograph a ring-tailed cat. Our next guest is full of possibilities. Let's get started.

Nicholas Hill  0:46  
Hello, and welcome to acts of impact. I'm your host, Nicholas Hill. And we're here with today's guest Tamara Blazquez. Tamara is a wildlife conservation photographer and environmental advocate from Mexico City, where she helps to spread awareness about the amazing species that exist and build connections between citizens and nature Tamara, thanks so much for joining us. 

Tamara Blasquez  1:09  
Thank you, Nick, for having me. I'm very excited to talk with you. I was wondering if we could start tomorrow by just talking a little about why you chose wildlife conservation photography, what introduced you to photography as a medium and to this cause, of course, well, ever since I was a little girl, I always love photography. And my father gave me one of these old Polaroid cameras, you know, that would give you instant shots. So I would just walk around my house taking pictures of my pets and my toys, and at school with my friends. So I was I always felt this passion for this kind of art. And also I grew up watching all these documentaries on the Discovery Channel, reading magazines, like National Geographic. So I was really inspired by all the work being done by the photographers by the videographers, and all these people trying to make an impact and change our world for the better using imagery. So when I grew up, I said, I want to do the same. So I started photography, and have been focusing my art on nature and wildlife conservation ever since.

Nicholas Hill  2:21  
I remember when I was a kid having one of those little Polaroid cameras, and the film was so expensive. But when you're a kid, when you're a kid, you don't know that you don't think about it. And so you're taking all these pictures of everything, and your parents are trying to slow you down. Don't take all the photos at once. 

Tamara Blasquez  2:38  
Yeah, exactly. My father wants to say like, come on. I just bought you the film. I can believe that. You already wasted everything. 

Nicholas Hill  2:44  
Yeah, yeah, that's like No, but I took seven pictures of us. Yes. I'm curious. Why do you think photography works really well as a medium for the message that that you're trying to spread? 

Tamara Blasquez  3:00  
Um, well, firstly, because images. I know this sounds cliched. But images are a universal language, you know, so you can reach much more people with photography with images than with a thesis or with articles or with even science. I mean, especially in a country like Mexico, or illiteracy is still pretty high. And many people are not able to access all the scientific information, all the data regarding species and ecosystems. I think with photographs, you can like break these barriers reach these people communicate with them in a much better way than budget by just throwing data out there. You know, so, yeah, I think it's really great. And with photography, you can also tell stories that can create empathy, raise awareness, and just touch people's hearts. Because sometimes we believe that raising awareness and fighting for nature is all about the science, but it's also about the emotions. So you know, apathy is what's driving all this mass destruction, all this war, war nature that we're living. So by creating empathy, raising awareness, enriching people's hearts, as well as spreading information, I think it's the way to go. And images are just the best tool for this for this goal. 

Nicholas Hill  4:23  
Yeah, I think about some of the most powerful images I've seen and how they'll sit with you a lot longer than an article will. What are some of the things that you do you know, you talk about spreading awareness other than some of the amazing photography on your website? What are some other things that that you do to spread awareness? 

Tamara Blasquez  4:45  
Well, I have been working on an educational project, which is precisely for raising awareness about the wildlife in Mexico City. But it's not just about taking the photographs and hanging hanging them up in exhibitions or posting them online. I have also given some workshops and classes in several elementary schools and even universities. So using the photography as my base, I can start talking with the students, we can play different kinds of games, we can discuss the species, we can discuss the science surrounding the species and their ecosystems. And that's a great way to connect, especially with children, you know, when they are bored at school, they are done learning that. So you suddenly come in with a workshop that talks about animals and with pretty pictures of them. And you can really break this wall between you and the students and just establish a dialogue and debate and have a great time while learning and making education a lot more fun than just, you know, reciting a scientific article. So I make I try to make this science much more accessible and much more fun, especially for little children. And so I've also dedicated part of my career as to the environmental education in my city. 

Nicholas Hill  6:02  
I remember when I was a kid, it seemed like everybody wanted to be a marine biologist. And I think animals really have a special connection with children. And so I think that's a really great way to do some of those workshops that you're talking about. Can you tell us a little bit about your project? It's FLNA de la ciudad de Mexico. I hope I got that. Right. Can you tell us a little bit about kind of what the message is that you're trying to get across with that project?

Tamara Blasquez  6:32  
 Yeah, sure. So fauna, Alaska, Mexico, or Mexico City's wildlife. I was a project born in 2017. When I was coming back home from a photo trip, well, well, you know what, more like a photo hike in my city. So I live in southern Mexico City, or Thankfully, there's still a lot of natural environments and protected areas. So you can still run into several wildlife species. And so I came across a dead possum, that sadly, I think it was poisoned by one of my neighbors, because it didn't show any any injuries or any sign of having been attacked by a dog or run over by a car. So after examining it, examining it, and realizing that it was a male that didn't have a pouch, or any babies that I should rescue, I just took a photo and sat with the body for a little while thinking, why do people do this? I mean, is it just because people are evil, they hate animals? Or maybe because there's a lot of myths and misconceptions about Parsons, that they are rats that they spread rabies, they are going to your dog or something like that. And I think it was because of that. So it's because of the ignorance all this meets all the lack of information, because I was telling you before, all this scientific information regarding this animals is not available for the regular public. And that's a shame. So I thought, well, as a photographer, as a conservation photographer, what could I do to further advance conservation regarding the urban species residing not only in my neighborhood, but the whole city, because it's it's really interesting that Mexico City despite it being one of the biggest, most populated and polluted cities in the world, still hosts a lot of species. There are 2254 different wildlife species living in this city. So it's very important for people to know about them. So by using photography, combining my art with all the science, surrounding this species, I decided to create this project, in which I would try and document as many species as I could, because you know, documenting more than 2000 species on my own, I don't think I live long enough to do that. So I'm trying to document like the most charismatic ones, or the ones that people people are most likely to find in a daily basis, or those that are, I don't know, more famous than others, and even those that are not as charismatic, but somehow play a very important role in the ecosystem. So I have been trying to take all these photos and combining them with science, I created this project that consists on the school workshops with children, teenagers and young university students, but also trying to take the information and the pictures to public venues, you know, through exhibits, art shows, whatever I can, so that I can not only show the photos to the people in the city, but also interact with them. Talk with them explain about the situation, why animals are so important, why preserving their ecosystems is just as important because the reason why Mexico City which is so large, and so overpopulated hasn't collapsed. It's because 58% of the city's territory has been designated as as protected natural areas, so 58% of the city is still conformed by natural ecosystems that provide us with water, oxygen, and even food. Because in many of these areas, agriculture is still the main activity for people to live off. So animals also, you know, provide it the the services for these ecosystems to work properly, with pollination, spreading seeds, population control, everything like that. So the main character of this project, so to speak, is a possum, because it's an animal that the people in the city, they run into problems all the time, they think they're ugly. So I've also tried to take the cutest pictures of these animals, as you said, and try to make people look them in a different kind of light, you know, they're kind of cute, they have these really big pink noses, large ears, they local, you know, like these little stuffed animals, so, but of course, also spreading a message that we can all coexist, that it's important that we learn to coexist in a very respectful way towards the animal. So maybe you don't get to love them, that we can at least try to respect them for everyone's sake. So that's like the message I am trying to spread. I like there's a couple of things to unpack there. 

Nicholas Hill  11:22  
I love the message of you know, maybe we don't have to love them, but coexisting and respecting nature and the wildlife around us. And I also like just thinking about how we've become disconnected, a little bit from how much nature and wildlife plays a role in all of our day to day. And I think that what you're talking about with the city, relying on this, to avoid that claps is just a perfect example of that. You've taken all of these amazing photos. I'm curious, do you have any favorite places that you go to take pictures or places that just stand out to you and your work? 

Tamara Blasquez  12:06  
Yeah, of course, there's a place here in the city, which is called such Milko. Well, for those of you that may not know this, back then, you know, like 500 years ago, Mexico City was part of a huge lake, five different lakes actually formed this territory. It was a basin. So when the Spanish colonizers got here, and after the fall of the ancient Aztec empire, all this, all this basin was slowly dried out, so that Mexico City as we know it today, it could be born. But a small part of the city still remains a lake ecosystem, a wetland, which is such a miracle and a little part of an another territory called flower. So these spaces are not only a crucial for the city's survival, because they provide us with water and food. As the main economic activity there is agriculture. It's also a refuge, a haven for wildlife. From the 2254 species, you can find 212 bird species in the area alone, from resident species and migratory species, also, around 100. And I don't remember correctly, but 100 and something species of mammals and a lot of amphibians also. So it's a really great place to photograph wildlife, it's a great place to also learn about Mexican culture and the culture in that area, which even ever since, you know, the ancient days, they have learned to coexist with the ecosystem with the lake ecosystem with the species residing there. So it's really great to learn from this people, and how they are actually fighting to preserve this ecosystem, because they know that not only wildlife relies on the health of this ecosystem, but their families, and of course, the whole city. So it's a great experience to photograph wildlife there to photograph the people. You can see the most wonderful sunrises there from all of the city. And really, I mean, you can just go there with your camera and come back home with a list 200 different photos of a lot of species. So it's a great experience. 

Nicholas Hill  14:28  
Yeah, yeah. It sounds like it's a really great combination of the availability of wildlife that you can see there, but also kind of that rich history. I'm curious, can you take us through what a day when you're out taking photos? What does a day in the life kind of look like? I mean, are you are you waking up at five in the morning to get out there really early? Are you having to hide for long periods of time? Like what does that look like when you're actually out there getting your photos?

Tamara Blasquez  14:59  
 Sure. Well, Oh, it depends, you know, first before going out to the wild to take these photos, I have to study a lot about the biology and ecology of the species I want to photograph. So of course, if if I want to see birds, then yeah, I have to wake up at 5am or even earlier, sometimes depending on the distance to where I'm going. And you know, I packed my gear I put on this camouflage clothes, you know, really, really ready to go unnoticed. In the field, I put on my boots, it's very important to wear, you know, really good hiking boots so that you don't slip, there are no accidents. And if they can be like, ankle high, that's the better because there are a lot of snakes here. So you can get bitten if you're not careful. So I put on those on my sunscreen, my hat, that's very important. And so I go to the area that I want to see the species and I find a good spot. For example, if it's waterfowl, I try to find a hiding splay a hiding place near a lake or some kind of body of water. Or if I'm looking for hummingbirds, then I try to hide near a bush or a tree or a plant with a lot of flowers. And I also have like this kind of blanket, you know, that is camouflage. So I put that over myself and my gear. And I just sit there and wait. And sometimes I can wait for hours without getting a single shot. Sometimes, I'm not even done hiding when the animals are starting to get active. And I just have to be Oh God, and get my camera and start shooting. And sometimes I'm not ready and the shot just doesn't come out the way I want to. And sometimes I have to sit there surrounded by mosquitoes and it's torture and but you know, just put up with it. Because you keep thinking to yourself, you know, this is for greater good, you want that shirt, you need this story. So put up with it, you can do it. So something I also tried to do because I also teach photography courses. I try to also incorporate the ethical part of photography here, which is that first and foremost, your subjects, well being comes first 10 Getting your photograph, so don't fake the animals don't play back, especially for birds don't play back the coals. Don't risk the animals for photograph, their lives are worth more than your shot. And also, you have to note that it's the animals that are going to decide if you get the shot or not. So if they say like Sorry, mate, this is not your day, go back home and try again. Then you come back home and try again another day. And sometimes they're like, Oh, look at this poor human, she's trying to take a shot, let's do something for her, you know, so they decide. But something that helps me a lot is is turning beforehand about these pieces so that I can know where to wait for them. When to go looking for them if it's at night, if it's during the day, if it's a dawn or a dusk because if you don't study about them, you can just go you know, with your gear and visit someplace and you will not find anyone there to shoot. So yeah, it's a process. But it's also very fun and very gratifying. Because when you get the desire shot, the desire story that you want to tell, when you get to share this special and intimate moments with the wildlife. It's a privilege. And I'm honestly very grateful for all the experiences that I've been able to share with this animals in my city. 

Nicholas Hill  18:37  
I can imagine the payoff that you must feel when you put in the work and the research and the patience and you know, making sure you're in the right place. And then when that finally that perfect shot comes along where the animal says, Okay, I'll reword all of that today. I think that's, that's wonderful. And some of the pictures on your website are certainly miraculous to look at. I know that on top of the photography that we're talking about something else that's really important to you is activism. And I'm wondering if you can tell us just a little bit about some of the things that that you've been supporting and advocating for? 

Tamara Blasquez  19:18  
Sure. Well, I have been an animal's rights advocate since 2016. In my early career years, I volunteered at one of the local zoos here in the city, especially about birds of prey. So birds of prey, you know, they're the love of my life. I just adore them ever since I had the opportunity to work with them. But sadly, I also saw all the bad things that could happen in a zoo. All the mistreatment, neglect and even trafficking that goes on behind closed doors. So when I finished my volunteer period, a lot of the birds I cared for were were killed, you know, because of neglect. So that actually scarred me and made me realize that there's still a lot of work that we have to do for animals regarding their conservation. And that even though captivity can be a good tool for conservation, when used correctly, we're not always doing our best for them. Because, you know, there's no point in having an elephant in Mexico, I mean, how can you really impact the wild populations in Africa from over here, so it would be best if this facility is focused on the species that reside here. That way we could help them in a much better way. But that also led to the environmental activism that I also do, because I believe that even though sometimes activism is looked at as troublemaking actually, it's the active part of conservation because you're they're having an active fight for protecting, for example, such a miracle. So Jamil go is the last flat area of Mexico City, the rest of Mexico City that hasn't been urbanized are mountains, and mountain forests. So building in these areas is really tough. It's very problematic. But you know, draining the wetlands is relatively easy. Putting concrete on these areas would be extremely easy. And setting up a shopping mall would be, I don't know, a goldmine for all these real estate companies. So they're, the people over there are fighting to protect this area, which I mean, it houses so many of the species as I was telling you about. Xochimilho gives us food and water. So I thought to myself also that if I'm working on a project about Mexico City's wildlife, but I'm not doing anything to protect their ecosystems, I'm not actually doing conservation, because taking photos and posting them on Facebook is not conservation. Conservation photography is about what you do with those photos. The Conservation part of that comes after you take the photograph, either you publish it or an article, racing awareness about what's happening. Either you use that for environmental education, or you use that also to help the people fighting to protect an area. So the activism that I do is mostly amplifying the voices of those that are fighting for this environmental issues as amplifying the voices of the animals, because I do believe animals have voices, we just don't know how to listen. And I try to also when I do photo tours, or expeditions to certain areas, to also educate the people about what's happening and invite them to join the fight, to use their photography to tell their stories to raise awareness with their families with their friends. So that's also a way of doing activism, which not only involves, you know, yelling and screaming and making trouble putting it to better use and also being brave enough to also speak up about what's wrong in conservation and how we can make it all better.

Nicholas Hill  23:11  
I'm curious if someone is listening to this now, what is something that they can do in their communities or just something that they can do in their day to day to help support some of the causes that you advocate for?

Tamara Blasquez  23:28  
While to help support some of these causes, you can always support the collectives through social media, if you are a journalist or something of the sort, maybe interview them and help their stories reach even some international forums, you know, because sometimes governments react better when the pressure comes from the outside then from the inside. So that's a great way to help. But also I would advise the day get informed about what's happening in their own communities. Because as Jane Goodall says, you know, it's better to start local and small than to try to grasp all this issues going on around the world that maybe they feel too overwhelming, too big, for example, I mean, if you say how can we support the Amazon rainforest? I mean, surely there are ways that you can also further help conservation and the environment and nature in your own community. I'm sure there's something that you can do locally, making groups collectives with your neighbors, maybe changing the way we view our front and back yards that we you know, we we have this idea of yards have to be just lawns, maybe you can start a hummingbird garden there and plant flowers that will also help the bees. So there's always something we can do. So my best advice would be like do your research about what you can do in your own community because small actions you know, they, at the end, they will come together and create some Think huge. And that's the way that we can actually impact conservation. 

Nicholas Hill  25:05  
Something else that I know is that we recently celebrated World Environment Day. What what is World Environment Day? Is that a day to just celebrate the environment around us and the connection between us? Or is that a day of advocation? What does that day mean? Mean for You? 

Tamara Blasquez  25:24  
For me, it's a day for advocation. But it's also a day to look back at what we what we have done to the planet, and when we are not doing for the planet. Sadly, it's also a day that has been kidnapped, so to speak by all these enterprises, governments, and so that, yeah, it's World Environment Day, and we have planted 1000 trees to make up for this, I don't know for deforesting a whole forest. And it's like, no, no, that's not it. I mean, World Environment Day should be every single day. I mean, we are in a climate crisis, we are facing an environmental crisis, mainly because we are not doing anything. And I hate this speech that people say that individual actions don't matter that because it's only one or 2% of the population of the planet that are causing all the pollution and the climate crisis. Sure, that's true. But individual actions do matter, especially this actions are pressuring politicians, governments to create change, even these big companies, if we don't pressure them, nothing is going to happen, they will continue as they have. So for me today to raise even more awareness, it's the day to advocate even further and to speak up even louder than we have been been doing it. But since on this day, a lot of media attention also covers a lot of environmental issues. We take advantage of that, to spread our message harder and try to get it to much more people, you know, many more people out there. But yeah, it should be a day that should be celebrated every single day of the year. 

Nicholas Hill  27:07  
I have to admit something here, I think I have made the argument of well, isn't it just the corporations that are doing all the polluting? And why do I have to use a paper straw? 

Tamara Blasquez  27:19  
Sure. And we've all been been guilty of that. I think every single one of us has said it at some point, because it's a lot of pressure. And it's overwhelming. And you know, recognizing that all of us just by being human, we're in to some degree part of the problem. It's not easy. But we can also be part of the solution. So instead of looking at those, yeah, we're all part of the problem. No, we are all part of the solution. I like to say that way we can all do something because maybe we don't see the results in our lifetime. We will certainly plant seeds for the next generations to see the results of what we're fighting for. I love that sentiment. 

Nicholas Hill  27:57  
And Tamara. I'm just curious, maybe a little bit more of a fun question. But what is are there any species out there that have been historically difficult for you to capture one that's just really, really tough to get a good photo of? 

Tamara Blasquez  28:13  
Oh, there have been many, but one that is imprinted in my mind is the ringtail cat. Here in Mexico, it's called Cat comics play. So you know, a lot of people don't even know about this, this little animal that it lives here in Mexico City. And I have the good luck that a colony of this animals live in, in the apartment complex that I live in also, because there's a small natural reserve right next to it, but it's a nocturnal animal. So first, photographing the eternal animals is really hard, because at night, you really don't have any light. They're very smart, very astute and very elusive also, so I had to resort to a camera trap. So during the pandemic back in 2020, I noticed this little this little animal that do used to come to my garden, searching for food and maybe because for water because we leave a small water bowl for the local wildlife, you know, so I noticed they would come every single night very punctual, you know, like a little German train at 8pm Every single night at 8pm they would work on this fence, you know, like a catwalk and then climb down. So I thought putting the camera on the fence would be a great, great place to catch this little guy. And while I was hiding the first night, this is the ringtail cat came along towards the camera. And when the camera was activated and Flash was activated, it got really scared I need run towards the street. And I was like, Oh no, I'm gonna cause this animal to get run over by a car. So I did the flash and I decided to use the street times for illumination and get a different kind of shot, maybe not as well lit as I would have liked. But as I was telling you, my subjects well being has to come first before my shot, always. So I decided to get this kind of silhouette look where you know, the camera would also get the whole panorama of the cars from my neighbor's two buildings. And just this the shadow of this animal, you know, like an urban ghost or something like that. So, it took me two months to get the shed because, you know, from sometimes the motion sensor would not react in time, or I would not set the camera correctly, or I would shoot too slowly, you know, the shirt, the shutter speed was not on the right value or the thesis, this instability setting. And also what happened was that, for some bizarre reason, when the ringtail cat was getting closer to the camera, my neighbor would decided it was time to get the trash out and come out of the building. And I was like, No, it just wait a few minutes. But one night, it was a Friday. I remember correctly. I was hiding behind a car with my blanket. I had set up my gear, it was at 8pm and 802. The ringtail cat came along the night was strangely quiet, my neighbors decided to stay home, thankfully. And that's when I got the shot. Also, I noticed that a cat was chasing the ringtail cat. Thankfully, nothing bad happened. But I got the shot that I wanted, you know with the backlight and the silhouette and everything like that. So the next few nights, I thought maybe I can get another shot. So I tried to set my camera I hit and then he comes at a pm he was coming towards the camera. I looked at him and I put on my blanket, but I didn't hear the camera go off. So I thought that maybe I had said the motion sensor wrong again. But no. So I I came out of my hiding and I saw that he was not on the fence. And for some reason I turned to my right. And there he was sitting in front of me looking at me like, Hey, you I know what you're up to. Hello. I know like, Oh, okay. Okay, you when they caught you caught you. Yeah, yeah, he caught me. So that's when I said, Okay, I got the shot. You already know what's happening. I will now leave you alone. Because you are clearly smarter than me.

Nicholas Hill  32:37  
It's just I almost feel like they gave you the shot like, okay, get in the shot. And then wait, she's coming back. Why are you Why me alone, I already gave her the shot. And I can imagine the name the poor neighbor trying to come outside and just having you like, \

Tamara Blasquez  32:57  
get on top of the security of the apartment complex, you know, because there's a weird person hiding on the sidewalk and the police came along are like, What are you doing? Like, I'm taking photos. I live over there. Don't worry. I'm not taking photos of my neighbors and taking photos of the animals just to clarify.

Nicholas Hill  33:16  
It's like yes, technically, I am stalking an animal. Yeah, it's like, yeah, I must talk her but not a human stalker. Not a human stalker. Just that just for this poor ringtail. Cat over here. Exactly. 

Tamara Blasquez  33:29  
Yeah, it was fun. Yeah, it was really fun. 

Nicholas Hill  33:32  
That's wonderful. Well, Tamara, I want to just say thank you so much for joining. And for talking with us today. I know that I've learned a lot. And I would encourage my listeners to go to Tamara's website to see some of the projects and some of her portfolio as well. You can learn more about some of the advocacy work there. There's a lot to learn. So I'll put those links in the show notes. More importantly, just thank you for what you're doing and for spreading the messages and advocating, we hope that you continue to do great work and the rest of the year. 

Tamara Blasquez  34:10  
Thank you, Nick, thank you for reaching out and for having some interest in my projects and also for your words. They mean a lot. And yeah, it's it's been a pleasure talking with you. And I hope we can talk again in the future and you know, share more ideas and I don't know I mean, conservation is for everyone. You really don't have to be a scientist to do nature and wildlife conservation. You only have to want to do it yeah.

Nicholas Hill  34:51  
Today's show was directed and produced by me with music from Alex Grohl special thanks to our guests for their time and insight. If you like today's episode So please follow us wherever you listen to podcasts and consider leaving a review as it will help us to spread the word about the show you can view more information about today's episode online at acts of Thank you for listening