Monthly Archives: February 2011

Interview with Jillian Harris


One year ago, I was standing in the freezing cold at the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” jobsite in Oklahoma.  By persevering for hours after the rest of the media left, one other interviewer (from a county paper) and I managed to score an exclusive interview with celebrity designer, Jillian Harris.  I’ve been unable to sell the story to any magazine—so I’m releasing a transcription of the interview to the online world.  Jillian was excited and delightful as she talked about her then-secret design for the Skaggs’ ranch house.

Jillian Harris on the site of the Skaggs' Extreme Makeover. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Jillian Harris, a Canadian who landed a role on an American reality show called The Bachelorette, is an interior designer by trade.  When the opportunity arose to use her skills as the celebrity designer for a 2010 episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, she tackled the task with alacrity (and very little sleep).  In an exclusive and emotional interview at the construction site, Jillian explained why it was personally important to her to design the perfect home for a struggling rancher in Oklahoma.   

Jillian Harris Interview:

Amy: How did you “get into the heads” of the Skaggs family to design a home that they would love?

Jillian: What was great is that we got to spend time with (the) family, interviewing them, and took a little tour of the home.  Because I’ve done design in the past, it was so easy to see what really was special to them.  I think Audra did great job of managing with what she could and could see little bits of her in the house.  I could tell she loved teal, and loved the family, and had that rustic cowboy taste, but still with polished charm to it.  Walking through the house, talking to Audra and talking to Merritt gave me such a good indication of how to design it.  

Amy: Are there any specific treasures you can tell us about that will be featured in the home?

Jillian Harris reading architectural plans for the Skaggs' home. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Jillian: I can’t tell you specific treasures, but can already tell you that this will be such a tear-jerking episode in the happiest ways possible.  The house will be beautiful.  I’ve watched the show since day one, and I can already tell that this home is going to capture the family beautifully (I’m already tearing up).

Amy: How did you volunteer to do this?

Jillian: I’ve watched the show forever, so I’ve been a huge fan, but having this crazy life in the last year–appearing on the Bachelor and Bachlorette–my life has changed a lot.  And I realize how fortunate I am (I’m such a baby, I’m tearing up again).  I’m so, so fortunate for the things I’ve been able to experience, and love the support I have not only of friends and family now, but my fans. 

I’ve always loved interior design, obviously, but I love being part of charities.  I love giving back, I love family, I love design, I love construction. To me it’s a perfect fit.  I’ve been here a couple days now, and I’m having the time of my life.  It feels so good to see everyone else giving back and for me to be able to give back.

Jillian Harris in a lift above the Skagg's construction site. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

I said to my mom the other day, it seems like the world needs a lot of love right now.  People aren’t giving enough love, so with this, you see how people are giving back and it’s so inspiring.  Makes you want to pray for strangers.  And smile at strangers and ask them how they are doing—and go back to the good old days. 

Amy: Is there something you will want to say to the family when you see them?

Jillian: If I can keep back my tears and keep from sounding like a baby—I’d thank them for inspiring me. I think sometimes we take life for granted and we think we’ve got it tough, and then you see a family like that who clearly is so strong and has so much love to give, and is just having a tough time, but they still keep their heads up and are still proud.  Very inspiring, So if anything, I would just thank them.

Other Interviewer: Has this been a good time?

Jillian: I think anyone who has the opportunity to volunteer, this is something that sticks with them forever, an incredible opportunity to be part of it.

Other Interviewer: Would you do this again? 

Jillian: I hope so, I said to them earlier, Yep, I’ll take the job, where do I sign? 

Other Interviewer: What do you think about this Oklahoma weather?

Jillian Harris with Merritt Skaggs. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Jillian: As you know, I’m Canadian, so when we rolled out the other night, I said to a cab driver, “So, is this pretty typical?”  He said, “No, not at all.”  But I’m Canadian so I’m used to the weather.  The only downside to that is that I’m thinking I’d be on the construction site wearing a cute little plaid shirt, my new little white boots and I’m in marine-type boots and jacket.  But that’s not what matters.  That’s not what matters.  It’s cold, but people are running around, their blood’s pumping.

Amy: What will you be doing the next few days?

Jillian: In between building, you see we’re doing a lot of filming, but between filming, we still have to do a design.  You stay awake late at night to make sure the design is being done right and you’re working with the right people to get it done.  Because it’s my first time, so I want to be very, very involved and to make as many decisions as I can.   I’m not sleeping much because I’m so excited for the family—just energy everywhere.  Hard to lie down and fall asleep.

Amy: Are people out buying [decorator] things for you right now?

We actually went yesterday.  We bought a lot of stuff.  I think, well, I hope someone’s out there buying stuff–otherwise this interview is over and I have to go!

(Link to article “One Extreme Ranch House” by Amy Dee Stephens:  Extreme Ranch Makeover, article scan; Extreme Ranch Makeover, text only

Other celebrity photos taken at the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition site

Ty Pennington. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.Ty Pennington. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Xhibit. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.Xhibit. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Xhibit, Jillian Harris and Michael Moloney. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Xhibit. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Ty Pennington. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.

Michael Moloney. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.Xhibit, Jillian Harris and Michael Moloney. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens.


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How Do Zoo Animals Survive a Blizzard?

Like most of the Midwest, I’m cozied up to the fireplace and watching blizzard coverage on television.  I got to stay home from work today because I’m considered a “non-essential” employee.  Somehow, in these weather conditions, that title doesn’t bother me at all. 


Pity the poor zookeepers and ground crews who are working to shovel their way to the animal exhibits today.  You may be wondering just how the zoo animals survive such conditions.  Well, it so happens that I recently wrote an article on that subject for the ZooSounds Winter issue…

 Baby, It’s Cold Outside! 

Tundra Geese are well suited to cold climates. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens


 Oh, the weather outside is frightful.  What keeps the animals warm and delightful?


Well, far too many practical and creative ideas to simply put in one verse of a song.  Many of the zoo’s two-thousand animals do need some sort of modification to survive Oklahoma’s volatile weather.  But first, let’s address the number one winter-weather question that zoo employees hear: “When do you close down for the winter?”

We don’t!  (Except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day).  Of course, if you’re one of those loyal members who bundles up to visit your favorite animal on a chilly December morning, then you know our zoo secret—that you will encounter a surprising amount of  animal activity, an uninterrupted view, short restroom lines, and cheerful greetings from the staff, who are shocked to see other humans outside.   


ZooSounds Issue

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!             

            True, some zoos in the northern U.S. do close for the winter because of extreme conditions.  Oklahoma, however, has enough nice days to attract visitors and many of the animals can tolerate our “mild” climate and occasional snow.  Also, careful planning has gone into designing most exhibits with indoor/outdoor alternatives that suit both people and animals.

            “Most species have high and low temperature parameters that we use as a tool to determine whether an animal will go out on exhibit or stay inside,” said Laura Bottaro, Curator of Mammals.  “Keepers really keep an eye on the weather forecast, and in emergency situations, we have back-up generators on standby.” 

            Mammals are the most tolerant of cold weather.  It’s no surprise that snow leopards are the cat least bothered by low temperatures, although all the cat species have “hot rocks” in their exhibits. 


Two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree

            In or out of a pear tree, birds are the most susceptible to freezing weather.  With so many tropical species in the collection, keepers must move some of them indoors for the whole season.  An entire building, called Overwintering, houses the birds.  It is off-exhibit to the public, but you can imagine what a noisy and raucous place it is right now!

            Fortunately, the bird quarters in the new Children’s Zoo are fully equipped to handle the winter.  The macaws, flamingos, and lorikeets have indoor barns attached to their exhibits. 

            “Oklahoma Trails also has a bird-holding area between the aviary and the nocturnal barn,” said Darcy Henthorn, Curator of Birds and Children’s Zoo.


Winter wonderland

            The reptile and amphibian keepers have an entirely different approach to the winter.  The nearly-ninety-year-old Herpetarium is built of granite stone, and each wall experiences cold, wet and dry periods. 

            “When we get new animals, ‘Which wall?’ is always the first question, not ‘Which aquarium?’” said Joe Branham.  “Some animals can spend their whole life on one side of the building, and others have to be switched during different months.”

            Varied temperatures and controlled light cycles are actually used to induce hibernation, which is important to many of the reptiles’ life cycle.   Some species will spend three months in a large walk-in refrigerator called the Hibernaculum.

            It’s a regular winter wonderland!

            “The public usually doesn’t know about how we create these micro-environments, but this is what herpers do,” said Branham.  


We’re snuggled up together           

            Speaking of hibernation, what about the bears?  When do they snuggle down for the winter?

According to keeper Jonathan Redding, the bears eat less in the winter months, and they grow thicker coats, but Oklahoma is too warm for them to need to hibernate.

            “They don’t hibernate, but they are hardwired to dig a den anyway—and that’s a natural behavior we encourage,” Redding said. 

            Each fall, the grizzly bears push aside dirt and rock until they have dug an underground cave large enough for both of them.  Although it is in the same place every year, in the center of the yard, the den is particularly visible this year. 

            “Underneath is about an 8-ft by 10-ft circular room,” said Redding.  “Eventually it will collapse.  In the spring, I’ll use excavator equipment to fill it back in so they can dig a new one next year.” 


            See why it’s so interesting to come to the zoo in the winter?  From bird barns to bear dens, interesting things are going on.  Bundle up and enjoy the front row view.  After all…

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!


Here is the PDF version of this story, as well as two other articles I wrote for this ZooSounds issue: Baby It’s Cold Outside; How Zoo Animals Survive; Butterfly Conservation; Zoo Masterplan 2011

 Baby, I’ts Cold Outside  


Filed under Published Article Announcement, Some Writing Humor, Zoo