Deciding what I wanted to do with my life was easy. Since I was small I was fascinated with animals. I loved collecting clams and fireflies, assembling rolly polly kingdoms and bringing orphaned baby birds home to my mom. My greatest love, however, was dolphins. I was obsessed with them. I spent many hours sprawled out on my floor surrounded by books bound and determined to learn about each species and how to identify them. This passion continued through middle school and high school and when the time came to choose a college and a major the choice was relatively simple: I’d study zoology at Colorado State University with the hopes of becoming a marine biologist. During my freshman year at CSU I applied for an internship at Sea World in San Antonio to be a marine mammal apprentice. I was invited to interview and flew down over Thanksgiving break for the opportunity of a lifetime. I didn’t get the position, but the experience provided me with the reassurance that I was on the right path to a career I would be passionate about. Later that year I began volunteering at a local wildlife rehabilitation center. Working there opened me up to the idea of not working with dolphins, and introduced me to the wildlife I had right outside my backdoor. I continued to chip away at school and eventually applied for a study abroad year in South Africa.
In July of my junior year I flew to the country that would provide me with an immense amount of growth, experience and knowledge, all of which propelled me through the rest of college in into my career. During my university orientation in South Africa I met an American girl who had been living in the country as a “safari guide”. She invited me to visit the game reserve she worked at where they rehabilitated cheetahs, serval and African wildcat. Over the course of the year I volunteered there a number of weekends, assisting with the husbandry of the wildlife they had, while learning about land conservation. Simultaneously I took an ecology class at the university where I was exposed to the world of wildlife research. We conducted labs on mark-recapture, camera trapping and telemetry to name a few. When I got back to Colorado I switched my major to Wildlife Biology in the hopes of learning more about management. A professor of mine announced a field technician position conducting pika research in Rocky Mountain National park one morning during class and I knew I had to have it. I contacted Chris Ray that day and she invited me to volunteer with her that upcoming summer.
That first summer of field work was truly magical. Niwot Ridge is a beautiful place; surrounded by rugged peaks and blue skies, I knew I had gotten myself to a place I wanted to be. Chris was a wonderful and patient mentor that summer. Asking for the REU position the next year was a no brainer for me and she graciously obliged. Conducting my own research that summer was a great experience. I graduated the following fall and have been working as a seasonal technician ever since. Some of my favorite jobs have included trapping Canada lynx in Leadville Colorado, working on a mountain lion and bear project in Colorado, conducting raptor and grouse surveys in Wyoming and most recently working as the bear management technician in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Getting these jobs wasn’t always easy. They required persistence and good references. The wildlife world is relatively small so making good impressions and working hard has been important. Persistence was especially important as for most jobs employers see 50+ applications. Showing interest and initiative has gotten me work that I may not have otherwise gotten. Passion is also critical. Working seasonally is tough and getting a full time job is even tougher. This field is highly competitive and working seasonally for 5+ years is not unheard of. Going to graduate school seems to be necessary for full time work. I’m currently applying to graduate schools with the intention of studying human-wildlife conflict (with bears if I can swing it). Ultimately I’d like to work for state or federal government as a wildlife manager. From pikas to bears it has been an exciting and fulfilling journey I am thrilled to continue!
– Sara McLaughlin