Hiya, folks! Today marks the release date for the first book of my friend and fellow researcher, Dr. Arik Kershenbaum: The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy! This nonfiction book discusses how life evolved on Earth and how what we’ve learned about organisms on our own planet might apply to life elsewhere in the galaxy. It’s sure to be an interesting read for animal lovers, science fiction fans, and every curious human who’s ever looked up at the stars at night and wondered what’s out there!
Hello, friends! I just wanted to let you all know that there’s a cool talk coming up tomorrow in the Long-Term Animal Research Seminar Series! My advisor for my upcoming MSc at Bar-Ilan University, Dr. Lee Koren, and Dr. Amiyaal Ilany will be discussing the rock hyrax project in Ein Gedi Nature Reserve that I will be joining this fall, and the many findings they have gathered from monitoring the same populations of animals over twenty-two years. The link to the talk can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOwv_iVOyF8 It will be streaming live on Zoom at 9 am PST, but you can also watch it on YouTube anytime afterwards. It’s going to be a great presentation, so I hope you will all tune in!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
“Animal Attributes in Furry Writing” has been published in From Paw to Print by Thurston Howl Publications! This essay I wrote discusses zoological topics writers might consider when crafting anthropomorphic animal characters. As both a wildlife biologist and an author, I’m thrilled to share my thoughts about this subject with you! Proceeds for the anthology go to the Furry Writers’ Guild.
My research teammate said this repeatedly over the past few days as we braved the ice and snow of central Wisconsin, following gray wolf tracks through the forest. We examined scent markings wolves had used to announce their presence, set up acoustic recorders to collect their howls. We listened with bated breath to the silence under the stars, hoping to hear them sing.
On Christmas Eve, my teammate got her wish.
The night began with a howl survey. Such surveys involve driving a road in an area of likely wolf activity, howling into the darkness and waiting for replies. This was our third night of conducting such surveys, and no one on our team had yet received a response. For the first time, I was the howler, and I was incredibly nervous. I had practiced earlier that day, howling to myself while alone inside our team’s living quarters. I was worried I sounded like Scooby Doo with laryngitis, afraid I’d be the reason we wouldn’t find the wolves.
At the fourth stop along our route, I called out to the wilderness. My broken voice carried through the crisp, cold air. We listened intently to the perfect silence, waiting for an answer.
From across the distance, a chorus of coyotes cried out to us, their eerie, beautiful sounds giving us a glimpse into their wild, wandering lives. For a while, we relished the music.
And then the wolves sang too.
Low, mournful howls sent shivers down our spines. My teammate pointed a microphone in their direction as the songs rang out through time and space, connecting us briefly to a world that will never be ours. My heart soared as I savored the moment. For the rest of the night, I was floating on air.
Based on the direction of the howls, we placed a recorder at a new site in the forest. After a rendezvous with the rest of the team, we headed home. My teammate drove us carefully through the shadows and mist. And then, all of a sudden, she stammered and pulled over.
She’d seen a wolf. A wolf on Christmas Eve. Standing by the side of the road, staring right through her. We turned around and drove back, but we never found the wolf again. It vanished like a ghost. But it was there.
A Blackfoot legend refers to the Milky Way as the Wolf Trail. For the past year, I’ve wondered frequently about my place in the universe, whether I’m walking down the right path. But I think, like the wolves, we forge our own paths, carving trails through the snow to where we’re meant to be.
Sometimes, the stars align to reward us with a blessing that takes our breath away. Some call this God, or else fate, the auspices of the universe, or a mere result of stochastic events. Throughout the world, for thousands of years, humans have celebrated the triumph of light over darkness, the presence of hope and community amidst the loneliness of winter. Life’s myriad ways of persisting against impossible odds never fail to astound me. I will never forget Christmas Eve 2019, when the wolves sang to us. And I’ll never forget how my friend got her lupine miracle.
Today marks the official theatrical release of the live-action remake of Disney’s animated film The Lion King in the United States.
Check out these majestic jerks.
I have a bone to pick with The Lion King. As a kid, it was one of my favorite movies. It remains a beloved, classic film, using a wonderful score and beautifully animated talking animals to tell a tale of self-discovery and social responsibility. I still enjoy the original movie, to a certain extent. There’s just one problem: The Lion King did (and continues to do) deplorable damage to the reputation of my favorite creatures, hyenas.
Tell me I’m ugly. I dare you.
Back when I studied spotted hyenas, I wrote a whole post for the research project’s blog about The Lion King‘s misrepresentations of them. That blog post can still be read here: http://msuhyenas.blogspot.com/2016/09/the-trouble-with-lion-king.html Please don’t hesitate to share it with your friends who’ve been blinded to the truth about hyenas by The Lion King, as I was for so many years.
I for one will not be buying a ticket to the remake of The Lion King. If you’d prefer more hyena-positive media instead, please check out Sy Montgomery’s award-winning nonfiction book The Hyena Scientist (and not just because I’m in it!): https://www.amazon.com/dp/0544635116/ And if you have an interest in anthropomorphic animal fantasy à la Watership Down, feel free to also take a look at my hyena novelette Beyond Acacia Ridge: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949768899
I hope you will do your best to spread hyena love, not hyena hate. I will step down from my soapbox now. Thank you for your time.
Firstly, Sy Montgomery’s book, The Hyena Scientist, has been published. This is a middle grade nonfiction book about zoologist Kay Holekamp and the Mara Hyena Project. I had the good fortune of being a research assistant on this project while Sy and photographer Nic Bishop were in Talek Camp working on the book, so I am featured in the book along with some colleagues I worked with in 2016. If you want to learn about hyenas, strong female scientists, the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, and the career trajectories of several zoologists (including myself), you should check it out. It’s a beautiful book that sheds some light on a very misunderstood mammal.
Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! Since it’s important to think about where you’ve been and where you’re going, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my accomplishments this year and my goals for next year.
-I worked as an intern for the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program in Alpine, Arizona for six months. I tracked wolves with radio telemetry, helped to care for pups and release a young adult into the wild, monitored carnivores with trail cameras, investigated tracks and scat in the woods, and more!
A cute Halloween decoration in Alpine. It reads, “Just RAVEN about how much fun we had in Alpine.”
-I was listed as a coauthor on a scientific paper for the first time, an article about feral cat vocalizations, with some amazing colleagues I met while working as a field crew leader at Montana State University:
-My first novel, Mist, was published by Thurston Howl Publications.
-I made my first professional, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America-qualifying fiction sale, my short story “The Moon Fox” to the zine Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.
-I had three other short stories and two poems published. At least three more of my short stories will appear in anthologies sometime next year.
-I won NaNoWriMo in November, wrote 17 new short stories and various poems over the course of the year, and significantly rewrote an older story (“The Moon Fox”) which was then accepted for publication.
-Keep learning more about the art and science of editing! My aforementioned positions as editor and editorial assistant are the first ones I’ve ever had in this field, so I’m still learning and growing, and I’m eager to do the best job I can!
Personal Goals: Become a more loving, compassionate, enlightened human being.
Thank you all SO much for following my updates and progress this year! Here’s to all of us learning and adventuring and growing together more next year!
As a wildlife biologist, I’ve gotten to be involved in a lot of cool research. Here is a paper some colleagues and I published in Current Zoology earlier this year about feral cat vocalizations. Fun fact: you can make a visual representation of a sound using a graphic called a spectrogram. If you’ve ever wondered what cat sounds look like, you should check this out! Visual classification of feral cat Felis silvestris catus vocalizations | Current Zoology | Oxford Academichttps://academic.oup.com/cz/article/doi/10.1093/cz/zox013/3056230/Visual-classification-of-feral-cat-Felis