Ketzel Levine is sitting in a vegetarian restaurant in Cuenca. She pauses in her narrative of how she went from a long career at National Public Radio to animal advocacy in Cuenca, and checks her watch. She has an important commitment to keep.
Then she continues, "If I hadn't been laid off from NPR, would I be here? Probably not."
No doubt. After all, Ketzel worked for 30 years as, variously, an arts producer, sports director, international reporter, and senior correspondent. It was a dream job — and it makes her something of a celebrity in the Cuenca expat community.
Ketzel grew up on Long Island, New York, with a strong background in classical music. While attending college in Schenectady, New York, she volunteered at the public radio station. On her third day, she was offered a full-time job writing the program guide; within a year, she had become the station's programming director, sitting in a library of 10,000 records and selecting the day's classical music.
She moved to Washington, D.C. to become a classical-music radio announcer. A former colleague at the Schenectady station worked at NPR and recruited her to fill in for a marketing employee on a leave of absence. That was in 1977, when NPR was less than five years old.
"This was the most exciting time of all to be at NPR, when the network was creating itself," Ketzel recalls. "It was a passion and a calling and a movement. We were all in our early twenties and we worked twenty-four hours a day. It was great."
In 1979, NPR launched the show "Morning Edition."
"All of us arts producers were moved over to 'Morning Edition' and, on the basis of being a Yankees fan, I became NPR's Sports Director," Ketzel laughs.
"It was pretty wild, because I didn't know anything about sports. All day, I'd field story ideas about the Bucks and Canucks and Saints. Then I sat down with a friend who told me that the Bucks were Milwaukee's basketball team, and the Canucks were Vancouver's hockey team, and the Saints were New Orleans's football team."
After two years, Ketzel was transferred to England, where she was attached to the BBC World Service sports unit. Then she became an overseas general-assignment reporter for NPR and covered human-interest, culture, and arts stories in the U.K. and Europe.
"In the journalism business, you don't get any legitimacy until you've left the U.S. and been an international correspondent," Ketzel explains. "Few reporters show up on the radar until after they get out of the country."
After three years abroad, she returned to Washington and spent another several years, through the mid-1980s, as a reporter, till she burned out on the traveling, writing, production, and deadlines.
"I sought refuge in gardening," Ketzel says. "One thing led to another and I left NPR to go to George Washington Landscape Design School in horticulture."
She finished school and launched a landscape maintenance company, but kept her hand in radio, becoming the Doyenne of Dirt on NPR's "Weekend Edition" show. "I could never seem to get away from radio."
At the same time, Ketzel didn't like the service business. "In horticulture, you have to deal with the attitude that plants are like furniture. But it was good training for my life today, which is about animal advocacy, and there's a lot of work to do in trying to change attitudes about animals, especially dogs."
Fast forward to late 2008, after Ketzel moved to Portland, Oregon, she freelanced for gardening magazines, wrote a book called "Plant This!," and returned yet again to NPR as a senior correspondent.
"I figured I'd be on NPR till my seventies. It's radio, not television, so I could age. But then, at the end of 2008, sixty-five of us were laid off."
Ketzel glances at her watch.
"Working for the station, I couldn't do anything that wasn't representative of NPR, which meant that I couldn't really be out there for any cause. That neutralized me politically. One of the only good things that came from losing my job was that I got my political voice back and I instantly became an advocate for animals."
After hearing about Cuenca from friends, Ketzel came to visit and study Spanish for a couple of weeks in 2010. While here, she met the premier animal advocate in Cuenca, Valentin León, who in 2003 founded ARCA, one of the largest animal-rescue organizations in Ecuador; currently, ARCA shelters 180 dogs and 20 cats.
"Valentin is a trained classical pianist and a conservatory professor who's devoted her life and salary to animal rescue," Ketzel says. "We bonded immediately and I kept up with ARCA, raising money for them and developing a plan for myself. So I came back and got involved."
Ketzel recently launched an animal-advocacy organization, PANA.
"PANA´s first, second, and third priorities are spaying and neutering. We're also involved in dog adoptions and humane education.
"I also have my own pet project." Ketzel checks her watch again. "It's in Chiquita, a tiny town about an hour from Cuenca, where I live — and where I have to be in an hour and a half. I now teach English classes for children, where the fee is providing one dog or one cat to be sterilized."
Ketzel Levine stands, picks up her purse, and walks to her car, where her own dog waits patiently in the back seat.
"You see, I'm not just asking that people treat animals like sensitive creatures with needs and feelings," she says. "I'm also giving something in return, teaching the kids English. And that, to me, is a great trade."
Reposted from the Miami Herald International Edition, January 24, 2012; Photo caption: Ketzel Levine and two close friends.