When I first started working for Wildlife Preservation Canada it was as an assistant to the Lead Biologist for the Fraser Valley Wetlands Wildlife program, Andrea Gielens. Andrea has been working with reptiles and amphibians for fourteen years and I knew she would be going on maternity leave in December. The internship was my training time to prepare me to take over for her for a year and I had very big shoes to fill.
One of the phrases that Andrea used to say that was both comforting and terrifying was, “I’ve been doing this for fourteen years and I still see things that are new to me.” Great! I won’t ever know everything there is to know because people with many more years of experience than I haven’t even seen it all, no pressure. But then it’s also scary to think that there are problems that I will come across that no one will have an answer to, and that is just a reality of working with animals.
We work with two different species in the Fraser Valley Wetlands Wildlife program – the Oregon spotted frog and the western painted turtle. The turtles don’t cause too much trouble, but the frogs can be a bit tricky. They are a metamorphic species which means they undergo significant changes from when they are eggs until they become tadpoles, including growing arms and legs and reorganizing their entire digestive system to transform from herbivores to carnivores. The Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly is another metamorphic species we work with that does a lot of interesting things we’re not expecting. We’ve experienced everything from green slime from caterpillars to weird wings on butterflies and we have no explanation for what happened to them, what caused it, how to prevent it or the likelihood it’ll happen again.
I have an undergraduate degree and a Masters degree and school did not prepare to me solve any of these problems. It’s not the fault of the institution. They summarize all the information we have and go over situations that are most likely to occur and teach us newbie biologist what to expect if everything goes according to plan. But I’ve learned the only thing I can count on is animals doing whatever they want regardless of what I think they should be doing.
This aspect of conservation work is probably the most frustrating – like lose sleep, pull your hair out, shouting “why!” into the void frustrating – but it’s also the coolest part of the job. There are some things we witness as conservation biologists where we might be the first person on the planet, maybe even in known history, to see it. It allows us to challenge our understanding of a species and add new techniques to our repertoire (once we’ve solved the problem… if we solve the problem). There is no manual, no guide for what we encounter and that means we can write one once we’ve used the sum of our academic knowledge, practical experience and the greatest minds around us to figure out what the heck the animals are doing. So even if I think my M.Sc of “Global Wildlife Health and Conservation Biology” should be a a M.Sc in “What are you doing????” it’s still an amazing process to be part of.