Ecologist/Big Cat Conservationist
Photograph by Steve Winter
Photograph by Drew Rush
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A field biologist. It's always been a biologist—someone working in remote areas surrounded by wild creatures and wild landscapes. Someone separate from people and in a location where work and adventure become impossible to disentangle.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I started catching animals shortly after I could walk. At five years old, I caught my first rabbit by hand under the careful instruction of my grandfather. After parading it proudly about the house, clutched close to my chest, I released it at the burrow entrance (British rabbits live in warrens) into which it had nearly escaped several hours before. At seven I was rushed to the hospital brandishing a feral rat bite, the last in a string of varied animal bites, and there was lectured by two doctors who told me not to approach wild animals. Unabashed, I informed them that when I grew up I wanted to be like Jane Goodall, surrounded by wild creatures. I went on to spend years tracking and following wildlife, thus developing a distinctive skill set biologists often need. I started out in conservation research as the "find-and-catch" guy on various projects, but returned to graduate school to pursue opportunities in leading research rather than just participating in it.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to researching wildlife and wildlife conservation?
How one falls into a particular focus and why one sticks with it are certainly different questions but let's focus on why I'm still working with mountain lions. I continue to choose mountain lions because we lack the science to make sound conservation decisions regarding their management and conservation, and just as important, because they capture people's imaginations. Mountain lions flare passionate responses whether they be anti-mountain lion livestock owners or pro-mountain lion city slickers. Everyone has an opinion about mountain lions—they engage people and thus provide unparalleled opportunities to influence positive change.
Further, the world over, large carnivores continue to be persecuted due to ignorance and fear. Thus, mountain lions, which live invisibly among us over much of their remaining range, are the ideal species to work with to test new strategies in supporting the peaceful coexistence of people and large carnivores.
What's a normal day like for you?
Mountain lion conservation is equal parts research and education. I'm either in the field, tracking, catching, or monitoring mountain lions and their families (I spend more time around dead animals killed by mountain lions than the lions themselves) through interpreting tracks and other signs, or with remote camera technology, or I'm closer to civilization. I spend considerable time analyzing our data to share with the larger scientific community, writing blogs, and giving presentations, and such to share with our much broader community, and inevitably, fund-raising to continue the work I love so much.
Do you have a hero?
I have endless heroes. People like Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin, because their persistence through incredible conditions, their fantastic lengthy expeditions, and their creative thinking born of isolation and endless hours pondering life are such romantic notions for me, a modern biologist tied to a desk and always rushing about like a rat on a wheel. I envy them as much as look up to them. Jane Goodall, George Schaller, and Paul Beier, who work tirelessly for conservation rather than just pure science. And David Attenborough, E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, David Quammen, and others for bringing natural history, science, and conservation so eloquently to everyday people.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
Favorite experience: I'm lucky to have so many. Crawling into bushes and while completely stuck, coming face-to-face with a large male puma—those frozen moments where we locked gazes and I wondered whether I was in serious trouble. That was a good moment (in retrospect, of course). That's just one of many.
Challenges. These too, I've had so many. They are always to do with people and bureaucracies. How can we save carnivores when so many systems are set up to persecute them? How do we start again, when so much mythology is perpetuated to maintain sport and trophy hunting and larger killings surrounding conflict with livestock?
What are your other passions?
Writing, storytelling, reading, hiking, following footprints, bird-watching, sitting peacefully in places where I cannot hear any human-made machine or noise. Curling up in front of a woodstove during snowstorms, or in beachside cabins during violent storms. Being with friends and family, sharing food and laughter.
In Their Words
The world over, large carnivores continue to be persecuted due to ignorance and fear.