Raccoons, beavers, and ducks (oh my!)

You might be aware that I am a wildlife biologist. Or I was. I had a minor identity crisis as I began to learn more about my desire to begin birth work.  It was difficult to think that I might actually consider leaving my biologist career to do something so completely different.  I struggled with that realization for a while.

This past weekend, I had an incredible meeting with two women who are as enthusiastic as me about supporting our community of women in their childbearing year.  I have also been working with an inspiring and amazing artist to hone my brand and envision combined services and partnership. As I sat at that coffee shop planning for a major fundraising effort (big announcement coming soon), I was comfortable, energized, and content with where I am now.  I thought back to my days in the field with mostly men, enjoying working outdoors.  I was surprised at how easy it was for me to interact with, connect with, and admire these women.  But now that I am older, I realize that I thrive being around other women.  They inspire me.

Even though my work has changed, I am still a biologist. I still feel a rush when I hear the first whip-poor-will of the season or a barred owl in the woods at my husband’s family farm.  And I thought you might like to know the types of things I did in my first career, and the things I was passionate about when doing them.

In 1992, I started my wildlife classes in undergrad. I was not like other wildlifers. I had not grown up on a farm or in the woods. My dad had taken me bird hunting a few times, but that was the extent of it. Like most wildlife newbies, I had visions of studying some lions from a distance with binoculars, a “gorillas-in-the-mist” fantasy. I thought wildlife biology was what I watched on the Discovery channel. I didn’t really know what wildlife management and conservation was. In Wildlife Management 101, I realized my impression of the wildlife field was very narrow. My classes introduced me to what it really offered. All these southern men were in my classes and had grown up on farms, learning how to be stewards of the land from an early age. They knew that humans had impacts on wildlife, both good and bad. They had grown up in traditional homes where their brothers and dads, and sometimes even their sisters and moms, got up well before daylight, ate breakfast, planned hunting strategies, checked the weather, and went out for the opening day of deer or turkey season. I listened to them talk about their retrievers and springers and spaniels and tell stories about what they saw when they were in the woods. I knew I was out of my league, but I was so intrigued by their love and stewardship of the land. I stuck with my classes and asked them to take me hunting with them.

I learned that hunters can be the ultimate conservationists. I knew that I wanted to be a part of that tradition.

So for 4 years, I learned as much as I could about wildlife biology and management. I learned how to drive a tractor, plant millet for waterfowl, age birds, identify birds, identify fish, pull the jawbone out of a deer to age it, set up tracking stations for bears, radio-track trout, and more. I learned the difference between a rifle and a shotgun, the difference in calibers, and how to keep them cleaned and well-maintained.

In 1996, I started grad school. I wasn’t there for a week when I realized I had found exactly what I wanted to do. My major professor specialized in wildlife conflicts, and I realized that there would always be conflicts between wildlife and people. Talk about job security — people moving out of population centers, certain species thriving in or adapting to human habitats, less areas for hunting, a decline in the hunting population. And the field needed educated biologists to try to solve these problems. I started an internship with a federal agency. I had to get my foot in the door as these jobs are competitive. Most wildlife students eat rice and beans to be able to gain valuable field experience. Other than a couple of summer jobs and my coursework, I had little experience up to that point.

I’ll not forget the first day of that internship. I sat in my boss’s office, and he said, “now, we’ll order you a pair of hip boots and pay for them. But because you are only 5 feet tall, they’ll be custom made for you. They won’t fit any of the rest of us. Are you sure you want to learn how to trap beavers? It’s a $90 investment.”

That day I had learned that beavers cause millions in damage each year to timber industry in the southeast, and that because the fur market bottomed out in the 80’s, beaver populations were growing unchecked. I would have to “spot control” in areas where they were flooding roads or timber. I gulped when he looked me straight in the eye and asked me that. He also mentioned that these hip boots were snake-proof for my protection. I said, “I’m ready.”

The first time I set a beaver trap, I got my hand caught. We are talking steel jaw over my hand. The person teaching me just chuckled, while I held back the tears. Gads, it hurt! The first time I caught a beaver I was ecstatic. I called everyone I knew.

After that year, I added 16 more years to that career, and a few other countries and U.S. Territories. I’ve included some pics below of some of the projects I worked on.

It was a tough transition for me, becoming a mother.  I hope to write another blog post about that one day.  But because of those difficulties, I am now a doula, childbirth educator, and breastfeeding counselor.  Instead of traps, syringes, and resource stewardship, I work with warm rice socks, flicker candles, pelvis models, and I encourage mothers to be the stewards of their own resources: their pregnancy and their new babies.

And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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