Opinion Piece: Reflections of a Natural Historian & Captivity Proponent

My First World problem for the day is that I get all these LinkedIn contact requests from ambitious young biologists and veterinarians from all over the globe, presumably seeking a connection in hopes that I might be able to help them with their careers. Some come right out and say that they outright need help finding a job. Others must be stalking me in a professional context and I’m inclined, with sincerity, to tell them that tending bar could be more lucrative and less discouraging at times.

The last time I checked, I was not close to being a poster boy for making the right career moves. I’m far from it. This was not a planned path. I had some idea that I wanted to work with captive wildlife because I was fascinated by the human-animal bond, particularly in regard to large carnivores. In retrospect, I would have spent a lot less time in school had I known what I really wanted to do. I also went to graduate and professional school because I liked learning in a structured environment. I did not go to school because I had aspirations to develop ecological and evolutionary mathematical models for application to conservation science. Quite frankly, I would rather get seasick than spend my time doing that kind of thing all day.

I do like to think that I can convey natural history in a palatable and engaging way. Noted bear biologist Dave Garshelis graciously suggested that I do have that ability. He chaired the Bear Specialist Group (IUCN SSC) when I was a member. But it is really because I enjoy the descriptive aspects of organismal biology (whole animal). As a writer I may be capable of sharing information in a way that is accessible to the public because I pay attention to what interests the lay person and how they interpret science and relate to it. What resonates with the general public may not be of interest to fellow scientists. I still run from anything quantitative, but I tell young biologists that if they want to make an impact as scientists they better embrace math.

I will forever be a proponent of zoos, aquariums and marine parks because in my youth these living laboratories provided me with a connection to nature. It is fantastic for those who feel satiated on a hike after an encounter with a red fox or a mule deer, but for me I wanted more than the fleeting opportunity to meet members of the animal kingdom. I wanted to get to know individual animals and zoological parks, where receptive subjects eager to meet people reside, offered me such opportunities. Although it is possible to recognize individual animals in nature, it is hard to cultivate much of a rapport with them. It is not only a safety issue for both animals and people, but there are ethical implications to consider when fraternizing with free-ranging wildlife.

It may sound like a selfish pursuit, seeking that intimate access,  but such close encounters offer a whole new dimension with respect to learning about animals. Regardless of what inspires people to explore nature and how or why, modern day zoo professionals are making a considerable impact safeguarding wildlife in peril. That is the nature of the job. Beyond just educating the populous they are saving species through conservation breeding. As ex situ stewards of nature their work is important.

Dr. Jordan Schaul
Dr. Jordan Schaul is an American zoologist, conservationist, journalist and animal trainer from Shaker Heights, Ohio.- Wikipedia

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