Walking on the Wild Side

My first kiss happened when I was ten years old. It was wet. It was soft. It was tender. It was from a beluga whale.

Her name was Ruby.

All my life, I’ve loved animals. As a kid, I doted on our family dogs and cat, and I also cared for a hamster, mice, fish, and a succession of pet snails. I was a budding entomologist, collecting caterpillars and roly polies in little plastic terrariums and supplying them with leaves and soil and water. I was never afraid to get my hands dirty, and when I wasn’t reading, writing, drawing, or playing video games, I spent most of my time outside, playing games of make-believe with my friends as we explored the world around us and the creatures we shared it with.

I was blessed to have loving, supportive parents who were able to encourage and nurture my interests. They gave me books about animals that captivated me, including nonfiction and works by Jean Craighead George, Jack London, and Gary Paulsen that left me with a deep and abiding love for wolves and Arctic landscapes, though we lived in the Mojave Desert in southern California. They signed me up for summer camps, including the wonderful SeaWorld Camp in San Diego (site of the aforementioned kiss). My mom and I swam with dolphins, a humbling experience I will never forget. We visited and volunteered at Wolf Mountain Sanctuary in Lucerne Valley, where I had the incredible privilege of meeting and getting to know real-life wolves.

Me and one of my wolf friends, investigating each other. Heck yes, that’s a wolf shirt.

While still in elementary school, I had a fateful encounter on a field trip to a college fair in Los Angeles. (Perhaps it sounds presumptuous, taking elementary kids to a college fair, but I was part of the GATE program at my school so this was par for the course). I met two friendly women tabling for a school in northern California called Humboldt State University. They told me all about HSU’s programs in wildlife and marine biology. Long story short, I fell madly in love.

I was determined to one day study biology at this mystical place, drawn by swirling daydreams of massive redwood forests, rugged coastlines, and myriad opportunities for learning and adventure. And then, in a stroke of miraculous good luck, my family moved to Humboldt County when I was thirteen years old, when my mom accepted a job offer in Arcata: home of Humboldt State University, my dream school. My Hogwarts!

I entered Humboldt State University as an undergraduate in 2011. College was a marvelous adventure, everything I had dreamed it would be but even MORE and BETTER. I took a graduate-level marine mammalogy course. I chased peacocks around a monastery with a parabolic dish, attempting to record their grating squawks. In the summers I did internships all over the States, studying fishers (handsome tree weasels), wolves, and even honey bees.

Yep, I did research on honey bees. Look up their waggle dance!

I also traveled with our Wildlife Conclave Team, attending research conferences in other states. I did my honors thesis on mesocarnivore foraging activity on our university’s campus relative to human activity levels, which involved putting out boxes baited with cat food and getting raccoons to leave sooty tracks in them. In short, I was in heaven, and I loved every minute of it.

Me on an HSU Wildlife Conclave trip to Wyoming. The coyote was sedated, not dead. Don’t worry.

I received my Bachelor of Science in Wildlife (Conservation Biology/Applied Vertebrate Ecology) with a minor in English Writing in 2015. Later that year, I became a field crew leader for a professor at Montana State University, studying wolf and coyote vocalizations in Yellowstone National Park. Through that project, I grew even more enamored of animal communication research, which has long been a field that fascinates me. And I met wonderful people who are still my good friends today. I worked with some of those people again in 2019, on a project studying wolf, coyote, and dog vocalizations in Wisconsin.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Between Yellowstone and Wisconsin, I went other places. First and foremost was Kenya.

A lion I saw in the Mara.

I studied spotted hyenas for eight months in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya with the Michigan State University Mara Hyena Project. Hyenas get a bad rap, but they are absolutely AMAZING animals, with complex societies and communication and unique adaptations to help them survive. They are intelligent, playful, nurturing, adaptable. I fell MADLY in love with them. I highly recommend Sy Montgomery’s book, The Hyena Scientist, which includes gorgeous photos and accessible scientific information that dispels the toxic myths that these creatures are ugly, stupid, evil, or boring (they are ANYTHING BUT those things!). Sy wrote the book while visiting us in Talek Camp, so I happen to be featured in it too. There’s even a two-page spread about me, actually. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073XCQ3YP

Obligatory cute hyena picture.

Anyway, enough about my past adventures. The real, important question is WHAT ARE YOU DOING NEXT?

And I have exciting news about that. I am absolutely THRILLED to announce that I’ve been offered a MSc position in Behavioral Ecology! Pending a few regulatory steps involving the admissions process of the university and my admittance to the country, I will soon be studying the vocalizations and behavior of wild rock hyraxes with Dr. Lee Koren at Bar-Ilan University in Israel!

For me, this is the natural culmination of a lifelong passion for animal communication studies that began when I was a kid, reading books by Temple Grandin (motivated in part by my desire to connect with my mostly nonverbal autistic sister, Kristy), John Cunningham Lilly (who was admittedly kind of a crackpot, but had some interesting ideas), and others, fantasizing about becoming Dr. Dolittle in the flesh and cracking the code of animal languages. I’ve learned a lot since then, namely that “language” is a loaded term and that animal communication is too complex and heterogeneous to be neatly deciphered into words à la Google Translate, but everything I’ve learned has sparked still more questions in my mind and strengthened my enthusiasm for these topics. In short, I am completely OVER THE MOON about my acceptance to Dr. Koren’s lab, and I can’t wait to start! I look forward to delving even deeper into my chosen area of research and experiencing the culture and sights of Israel along the way!

And if you don’t know what a hyrax is, go look it up right now. They are freaking adorable.