Growing up, I more or less lived outside. Every day me and all my neighborhood friends would come home from school and instantly retreat to our adventures in the outdoors; whether that was building tree forts, fighting with swords made from broken off tree branches, or stomping around in the creek behind my neighborhood. Now I understand what a pain it was to reel me and my buddy’s in to come eat dinner. We simply could not get enough outdoors, and I find this funny because I grew up in a Metro-Atlanta suburb where most kids my age occupied their time on the X-box or Game-Cube and not romping around sopping-wet in a creek. This love of the outdoors didn’t stop in my childhood either. As soon as I had a car and a drivers license my neighborhood friends and I would retreat to the mountains to backpack nearly every weekend of our junior and senior years of high school. I think I determined sometime during our countless weekends on the trail that I had to pursue something in college that would allow my passion for the outdoors to continue.
Fast forward a year, and I am an incoming freshman at the University of Georgia. When I showed up at my orientation date on a stifling day in late July I was declared as a biology major in one of the largest schools within the university. When we split off to get advised at orientation I noticed that there was one tour group of maybe 5 or 10 kids headed to the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, a school I didn’t even know existed in the first place. Meanwhile, I was scheduled to be advised at Franklin School of Arts and Sciences with some 500 other incoming freshmen. In that split second I hastily made the decision to board the bus going to Warnell rather than Franklin because Warnell just seemed more fun. Little did I know, when I changed my major to Wildlife Biology that day, I was altering my life in a drastic and incredible way.
I went through my first few years at UGA relatively uneventfully. I took core classes, had the freshman experience, and went to football games. However, in the back of my mind I was ready to see what this school I had signed up for had to offer. Finally, the Second semester of my sophomore year I got to take my first Warnell class; Intro to Fish and Wildlife Management with the legendary Dr. Warren. Taking this class truly affirmed in my head that I was at the right school. I then proceeded to take more Warnell classes and continued fall in love with the school even more.
My love for wildlife biology however, took a drastic turn one day during a lab in my wildlife techniques class. That day in lab we happened to be working with live animals for the first time. We were going to be handling deer and putting on some ear tags and sawing off antlers at the Warnell Deer Lab. I had learned all about what we were about to undertake in previous classes, so I was not hesitant at all about actually handling live animals although I had never done it before. Little did I know, my perspective on my entire field of study was about to take a 180 degree turn.
During lab we had to corral deer, and run them into a chute, similar to those used for cattle. Everyone in the lab was given a specific job to make the lab run as smoothly as possible. I was given the task of actually restraining the 140-pound male deer in the capture chute because apparently according to the man running the lab I was “strong” and could “handle it”. So the process began, and this 140-pound male deer came storming down the corral and thundered out the end of the chute right toward me. Instinctively, I grabbed the animal by the shoulders with all my might and held the deer down with all that I had in me. The deer made one of the most awful sounds I had ever heard, and also busted its lip coming down the chute, so it was bleeding from its mouth and got blood all over me. The deer struggled and moaned as we put ear tags on it and removed its antler and it proceeded to thrust me around during the process. After we were finished we released other deer, and he pranced off into the woods like nothing had ever happened just like we had learned in class. However, my heart was left racing and my perspective on what I study was forever changed.
Every professor in Warnell will at some point during their course say to their students that the most difficult part of our jobs is conveying to the public why we do what we do and why what we do is important. After my experience in the deer lab I began to fully comprehend what all these professors meant. Sure, holding a live struggling deer was acceptable for me because I was trained on why tagging deer is crucial for maintaining healthy populations of the species, although the experience did get my adrenaline pumping. However, to the general public what we did in lab that day probably looked like animal cruelty. I was shocked by my own realization. So much of what I was about to undertake in this field was not understood or accepted by the general public, and if I cannot convey to someone outside my field of study why what I do is important then I would be more or less dead in the water.
The point behind all of this is not to discourage those studying wildlife biology, but rather to call to attention that through what we do every day we are fighting an ongoing battle with the uneducated public to show that what we know, love and do every day is incredibly important and relevant. It is this passion for others to appreciate our misunderstood field that has led me to my larger aspirations in my work. Whether I become a research professor, a camp director, or somewhere in-between, I aspire to never tire of convincing people of the importance of wildlife biology. My reasoning is that I believe we are at an incredible crossroads. We are at a point in time where we can choose to make environmental education for the next generation a priority or we can let it slip into the wind. I am obviously of the opinion that environmental education for our future generations is vital that is why this is a cause I am choosing to fight for.