What is your Job description?
I’m the senior wildlife biologist for the Catalina Island Conservancy. The Conservancy owns and manages 88% of Catalina Island, which is located about 20 miles off the coast of southern California. I’m currently in charge of managing the island fox recovery program.
What do you study now?
I’ve been studying Catalina Island foxes (Urocyon littoralis catalinae) for the past 3 years. These 5-pound canids are endemic (found only on Catalina) and are the island’s largest native mammal. The island fox population declined by approximately 90% (1300 foxes to less than 100) in 1999 due to canine distemper virus and as a result, were added to the Endangered Species List in March 2004. Canine distemper is a very fast moving and contagious disease that has also caused the decline of black footed ferrets, African wild dogs, and lions in the wild. We have been trying to increase the fox population on Catalina Island since 2000 through a captive breeding program, an island-wide vaccination program, and treating injured foxes in our veterinary clinic. The population has increased to just over 500 foxes, so they are well on their way to making a great come back.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I’m able to have a mixture of fieldwork and office work throughout the year. I’m in the field for 3 to 4 months at a time hiking in a beautiful place and handling foxes all day. It’s great. The other nice thing about my job is that I feel like I’m making a difference. Hopefully as the fox population continues to increase over the next few years, they can be removed from the Endangered Species List and I will feel like I was able to contribute a little to that success.
What is the worst thing about your job?
Being away from friends, family, and my dog. Although traveling to new and exciting locations to study wildlife never gets boring, it is often difficult to see my family on a regular basis. Also, having a dog is often out of the question while staying at research facilities, so my parents have become the proud owners of a German Shepherd Doberman mix while I’m away. We currently have a captive educational fox named “Tachi” living in an enclosure outside of our house on Catalina Island, but she’s a little difficult to take for walks and not very good at playing fetch.
What inspired you to first study science?
My dad was a 6th grade teacher, so we always had summers and vacations to go camping. My parents enjoyed hiking in new places so I quickly developed an appreciation for nature and a love of the outdoors. My 7th and 8th grade science teacher, Albert Kelley sealed the biology deal for me though. He was an amazing man that brought his life experiences as a US Forest Service biologist into the classroom and made us question the world around us using science. He fought locally against land development and showed us the power of a single person in protecting plants and animals in our area.
What do you do in a typical day?
Nothing is typical in my day, which makes it fun and challenging sometimes. Today I will probably spend the day at the computer entering data and writing reports. Tomorrow I may be flying in a small plane to listen for our 50 radio-collared foxes, and the next day I may be setting and checking traps.
My job is broken up a little by seasons and the summer trapping season is definitely the busiest. From July through September we try to estimate the size of the fox population by live-trapping them all over the island. Each fox gets a microchip the first time they are caught so we can identify them every time we catch them, they all get weighed, aged by looking at their teeth and examined for any injuries. Most foxes also get vaccinated against canine distemper virus and rabies and a blood sample is taken for genetic and disease testing. Some of them also get radio collars so we can track their movements throughout the year.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a biologist?
Do it because you’re passionate about it and you believe in it. You won’t exactly get rich working as a wildlife biologist, but the life experiences, people you meet, and the differences you make in the lives of animals can be priceless. Also, volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. If working with animals is something you think you might want to do, contact a local wildlife rehabilitation center and see if you can volunteer. Contact biologists via email and see if they could use your help during the summer. Skills you learn as a volunteer will help you not only in deciding if biology is something you’d like to do, but it will help you in finding your first few paying jobs. Most entry-level wildlife jobs involve assisting a graduate student with their fieldwork during the summer. These are great ways to learn a lot during your summer break, travel to a new area, and earn a little money in the process.
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