Photograph by Tim Laman
Photograph courtesy Lisa Dabek
Birthplace: New York, New York
Current City: Seattle, Washington
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
At eight years old, an animal trainer. I always wanted to work with animals somehow and help them.
How did you get started in your field of work?
With a love of animals, nature, and biology in high school, I did an internship at the American Museum of Natural History studying electric fish and then did a project on beluga whales. In college I studied marine mammals and animal behavior, but also got introduced to environmental studies. This got me started on the pathway of conservation biology. After college I was a research assistant at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo and did further work on marine mammals. By the time I finished graduate school (where I studied the behavior of tree kangaroos) I knew I wanted to combine my interest in animal behavior with helping to save endangered species. This is when I started to work on saving endangered tree kangaroos.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to tree kangaroos?
Tree kangaroos are absolutely fascinating animals, and that is what brought me to Papua New Guinea to study and conserve them. It is the local indigenous people that I work with that are so inspiring to me. The opportunity to work collaboratively with the local communities to make sure the tree kangaroos are protected and do not go extinct, while making sure there is support for these remote communities, is incredibly gratifying. I was raised to give back to the world in some way; this is a way that I can contribute to the world and help wildlife and people. As difficult and trying as the work is sometimes, there isn't a day that goes by that I do not feel lucky to be able to do the work I do.
What's a normal day like for you?
There is no normal day! I am sometimes based at my office at the Woodland Park Zoo where I write reports, articles, grant proposals; do fundraising; give talks; and work on projects with colleagues. Other times of the year I am in Papua New Guinea tracking tree kangaroos at our high mountain research site, attending meeting in the villages about the Conservation Area, hiking from village to village, and working with my staff. It is never a dull day!
Do you have a hero?
I have had two heroes since I was growing up: Martin Luther King Jr. and Jane Goodall. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught me the importance of standing up for what you believe in, even at great cost. He showed me how important social justice is and that everyone deserves freedom and rights. This has been the basis of my work with communities in Papua New Guinea. Jane Goodall's book, In the Shadow of Man, which I read in high school, showed me a world in which it was possible for a woman to travel to the farthest jungles and study animals. I have followed her work ever since and have seen how much of a difference she has made in the world. She is a model for me!
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience was the very first time I saw the elusive Matschie's tree kangaroo in the wild. We had hiked for days and on the last day finally found one. I had always wondered why the tree kangaroo was red-orange in color and then I saw that the moss in the trees was the same exact color. It was the most beautiful sight—perfectly camouflaged in the tree! And then when we used the National Geographic Crittercam on a tree kangaroo and actually got to see what the animal was doing high up in the canopy—that was absolutely incredible. Physically the most challenging aspect of fieldwork is the hiking up and down steep mountains to the field site.
What are your other passions?
I love animals, so I have dogs, first Jessie and now Shelby. I am passionate about my nieces and nephews, yoga, and about being outdoors in nature. I also love movies and live music.
What do you do in your free time?
There is nothing better than walking on the beach with my dog. And on beach walks I love to collect sea glass. At other times you will find me biking, swimming, birding, kayaking, or cross-country skiing. And of course spending time with family and friends.
If you could have people do one thing to help save rain forests, what would it be?
If I could have people do one thing to help tree kangaroos and rain forests, it would be to take care of wildlife in your own backyard or community. If we all do what we can locally it will make a difference. Plant a bird and butterfly garden, volunteer at a local animal shelter, help plant a community vegetable garden. Learn about great community-based conservation programs and get involved, whether it is locally or internationally!
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These hard-to-reach "plush toys" on Papua New Guinea have been outfitted with "Crittercams" for the first time.
Tim Flannery, who has discovered more than 30 mammal species, explains why one type of tree kangaroo in New Guinea is considered sacred.
In Their Words
If I could have people do one thing to help tree kangaroos and rain forests, it would be to take care of wildlife in your own backyard or community. If we all do what we can locally it will make a difference.
The endangered Matschie's tree kangaroo's habitat in Papua New Guinea is part of the country's first nationally designated conservation area.
Hear an interview with Lisa Dabek on National Geographic Weekend.
00:09:00 Lisa Dabek Audio
Dr. Lisa Dabek is the director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program based at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, WA. Dabek recently traveled to Papua New Guinea with members of the National Geographic Crittercam team to fit the elusive tree kangaroo with a camera. The team was successful and as Dabek tells Boyd, the breathtaking treetop footage is already answering many questions about the mysterious kangaroos.
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