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Where My Wild Things Are

Hannah Jaicks

Since it has been way too long since my last blog post, a lot has changed and evolved in my own life, and I have been remiss in keeping updates about the research side of things due to a >brief< 279 page document that is my final dissertation.  I have a number of things that I should be writing about today: my move to Montana last spring, my defense (which was successful), my current happenings...However, rather than focus on any of that, which there is plenty of time for, I wanted to reboot my musings by sharing the Acknowledgements section of my dissertation.  If there's one thing I've come to love and enjoy about my work, it is that it is collaborative in nature.  These collaborations have come in all shapes and forms--research colleagues, old friends, new friends, strangers turned family--from all of these relationships, I am a better person as a result.  While the East Coast is getting hit with the first snow of the season, I'm sitting in my favorite coffee shop in Bozeman, where we've already received a number of snowy and below-zero days.  For my loved ones in the East, stay warm and don't let a little snow slow you down.  As I go about shaping and crafting my next projects, which I promise to share more about in the coming months, let me first share a message for the people who have helped get me to this point:


            When I was eight, I began spending my summers living with my grandparents out on Shelter Island in New York.  Far from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, I spent my days running around with a frenetic energy in the ocean, bike paths, and a musty cottage.  During this time, I developed a love of the natural world and a fascination with the fellow animals I would encounter: jellyfish that stung me, deer that would walk across my path on late nights I slept outside on the deck, and osprey that would show up every evening at five to search for crabs near the beach.  Unbeknownst to me, my grandfather would observe me on my daily adventures, and he once described me as having a reckless abandon for life.  This description can sometimes prove detrimental due to my tendency towards impatience and desire to figure everything out at once.  However, it has also meant that I’ve never been short on passion.  In the field of conservation, one needs passion because it is that passion, or love, that pushes you forward.  I recently heard a quote that reminded me of the answer that I give people who ask how I keep going despite the seemingly hopeless and uphill battles facing our planet:

            “The assumption is that hope is a prerequisite for action. Without hope one becomes depressed and then unable to act. I want to stress that I do not act because I have hope. I act whether I have hope or not. It is useless to rely on hope as motivation to do what's necessary and just and right. Why doesn't anybody ever talk about love as motivation to act? I may not have a lot of hope but I have plenty of love, which gives me fight. We are going to have to fall in love with place again and learn to stay put.” (Janisse Ray, The seed underground: A growing revolution to save food)

            As anyone who has ever undertaken something lengthy such as a dissertation or worked on a task that feels insurmountable, there are many days where hope feels unattainable or even realistic.  For me, on the days where I’ve felt discouraged or hopeless, I am reminded of my own reckless abandon that I got to enjoy as a child who was lucky enough to learn that the world is bigger than she is.  That love then, is what keeps me going, and it gives me the fight to figure out how to change the rules of the conservation game that we’ve been playing incorrectly all of these years.  My advisor, Cindi, has often (jokingly) asked me if I’m writing a dissertation or a library, and it’s partially because of my impatience (endearing eagerness?) that I’m trying to change the system all at once.  I know that this is not possible, so what I’ve written here is the first step of many in a lifelong pursuit of my love for people, place, and the animals with whom we have the privilege to share our lives.

            On that note, there are a few wild animals in particular that have helped my own love stay strong as I’ve gone about these endeavors.  First and foremost, my grandfather, David Jaicks, is arguably the best person I’ve ever known, and my favorite carnivore of all.  I miss him every day because he gave me the emotional support and patience that this wide-eyed wild child needed to find her sense of grounding.  He, along with my grandmother Nancy, helped me to create the roots that keep me firm in who I am today, and they never let me forget that I matter.  Nancy, I am grateful that you continue to remind me of this grounding.  Another beloved carnivore of mine is Jean.  You are more than a teacher and a mentor; you are a constant source of strength that inspires me to show up for life every day ready to begin again.  My friends, a mix of college, New York, Philly, family, graduate school, and Montana creatures who somehow find my eccentricities loveable: Will, Emily R., Daniel R., Donna, Patrick, Julie, Andy, Kathleen, Anna, Nick, Emily D., Jeff, Bryce, Scott, Lizzy, Jen P., Jen T., Sruthi, David Agar Jaicks, Bill Jaicks, Steve, Rebekka, Kyle, Logan, J.R., Bess, and Jurgen; I am a more loving and grateful person because of you.  My parents, Dawn and Bryan, your support is eternally appreciated.  Not many people would drive eight hours through the night to take their daughter to go see Jane Goodall, only to return that same day.  Getting to jump to the front of the two-hour line for her autograph because I came the farthest of anyone else is something I will never forget.  My teachers that have guided me and supported my love of learning: Dr. Hagelin, Dr. Rablen, Ms. Carson, Mr. Minsky, Mr. Kahan, Mr. Krauthamer, Ms. Franco, Mr. Carson, Sra. Kantor, Dr. Schwartz, Dr. Sloan, and Dr. Pagnotta, who you are has made a world of difference to me.  My committee and advisors: Cindi, Roger, Caitlin, Susan, and Bill, without you I would never have been able to dream up and undertake such an incredible project.  Finally, to the nonhuman animals I’ve been fortunate enough to know, including my beloved Luce, Devon, Molly, Sandi, Sunny, and Teddy as well as the warthogs, hyenas, bats, penguins, monkeys, gorillas, orangutans, lemurs, giraffes, and wallabies I’ve met around the world, thank you.  It is because of you that my reckless abandon, or love, is so strong, and I dedicate this dissertation to all of you.

            And now my fellow wild things, onward…

Of Primates and Personhood

Hannah Jaicks

            A recent opinion piece in the Menagerie section of the NYTimes got me thinking about my history and beginnings with animals.  As I work through the long marathon of my dissertation research, analyzing and writing up data on a daily basis, I’m reminded that my work is largely a result of my earlier experiences and disillusionment working around animals in various settings.  The piece is a well-written reflection that stirred a number of memories about my own animal adventures--some happy, some sad.  I had held a number of internships working with animals in college and had traveled to the opposite end of the globe to study bats in Australia, but my biggest enterprise came straight out of college with a position as the primate research assistant for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund at Zoo Atlanta.  Whatever preconceived notions or romanticism I held about the job were quickly dissolved within the first few weeks of my position.  Fresh from Swarthmore, I moved away from all of my friends in the Philly area within a week of graduating and arrived in a city where I knew only a couple people.  Perhaps that’s why my work around the animals became all the more important.  Suddenly, making friends was not as simple as stumbling out of your dorm room into the hallway where all of your best friends would congregate to play cards.  So, I eased my Swat-sickness and perplexed feelings at being an adult in the real world by focusing on the animals with whom I was working.  I assumed I would figure out the friend thing and orient myself to Atlanta eventually, so I did what I always do in times of adjustment; I spent time around the animals.

Olympia and I

            My work was nothing like the jobs my friends were starting.  While they wore suits and dressed nicely, I had a rotating slew of khakis and a navy Zoo Atlanta t-shirt that I had to wash almost daily due to the gnarly realities of animal scat slung my way.  Having become accustomed--and somewhat of a connoisseur--of animal scat through my earlier work (did you know you can use hyena poo as chalk because it consists largely of digested bone?), I remained unfazed by the muck.  It was a small price to pay for the daily company I received in my various projects behind the scenes of the zoo.  While guests would come and watch the gorillas or orangutans from the comfort of the air-conditioned primate house, I would sit up on the roof and carry out observations on the various gorilla family groups.  I would watch as the baby twins would play in a hose’s mist, cupping their hands and emitting happy grunts.  I envied them because I was sitting on a black tarmac that radiated heat in the Hotlanta sun.  I came to know these gorillas quite well over the course of my year, spending hours watching them each week to study their behavior using an ethogram my boss had designed.  In between the stopwatch beeps for me to take a scan sample, I would study their faces and try to imagine what they were thinking.  Is Taz annoyed by little Kali clapping at him for attention? Is Olympia going to try and disable the hotwire again? Is Ozzie judging me while he sits there staring back at me—this pale sweaty mess of a girl sitting on an old crate doing nothing but writing?

            I adored the gorillas, but my favorite time of the day was in the morning, which I spent in the orangutan nighthouse.  There was one family group in particular that I found myself increasingly connected to.  Much like the author of the Opinionator piece, I felt like I could relate to the curious and somewhat awkward group.  The baby, whom I called little D, was a troublemaking three-year-old who consequently just discovered his ability to harass his adopted father and mother.  I would be trying to carry out a project, and Little D would derail whatever I was doing with his mom Dewey or dad Chantek.  His wiry figure, probably no more than a foot, was surprisingly strong and could propel him up and down the mesh of the nighthouse.  I sat on the other side, dodging his attempts to spit at me or throw stuff at me for my attention.  I’m an only child, so I totally get his need for that.  I would sing to him or tell him to wait patiently while I finished my work with his parents.  His birth mom died when he was only a few months old, so they brought little D to the zoo where Dewey then took him on as her own--not a common thing, and a remarkable testament to Dewey.


            Little D’s ‘father,’ Chantek, was perhaps my favorite of all.  From the beginning, he was the best part of my day.  I had to carry out cognitive research projects with him, which required me to set up a touchscreen computer for him to play matching games on.  This device, in order to withstand the strength of an adult male orangutan, weighed twice as much as I did.  So, to move it in the mornings, I would have to jump on the cart and wheel it over to Chantek without knocking the multi-thousand dollar device over and crushing myself.  I’m sure this amused Chantek because he would sit there, knowing what I was trying to do and waiting patiently to ‘work.’  I should add, Chantek knows sign language, so he had no problem making editorial comments as I struggled to move this cart around each day.  His nickname for me? White Sugar--because I always carried ‘candy’ in my pockets for his matching games.  It wasn’t candy though; captive animals are already at risk for obesity due to the more sedentary lives they lead compared to the wild.  The treats were actually an orangutan version of Flintstone vitamins that I would give to Channy whenever he got a match correct.  I treasured those mornings with Channy because I felt like I could relate to him.  An animal’s eyes are the fastest way to make a connection with them, and I would stare at him and he would stare back, making us terribly unproductive but a little less alone.

Chantek and Little D (*Photo Credits go the the Zoo Atlanta keepers for these).

            At this time, I was wrestling with the uncertainty that comes with being a recent college graduate.  Suddenly, nothing was straightforward and the decisions you made felt like they carried a heavier weight to them.  Asking yourself seriously, what do I want? What comes next?  It all was no longer as simple as: after middle school comes high school, and after that college.  So, um, what was next?  I thought this job would reiterate that I was supposed to be a veterinarian or an animal behaviorist who studies cognition.  Instead, it totally disrupted my ideas and left me questioning some of the structures that exist in animal management.  I’ve always felt conflicted about zoos, and here I was working within one and witnessing things that left me less than pleased.  I couldn’t in good conscience just stay on the path that I was on, so I spent a lot of that year thinking of another route I could follow that felt more authentic and in line with my unflinching quest to make room for wild things in our world.  This thinking often left me frustrated, so my reprieve was in the mornings with Chantek.  We would sign back and forth, him doing a better job than my struggles with the ASL alphabet.  He often asked for food or to see what jewelry I had on, and he was always quick to show me something on his arm or neck that he wanted me to see.  When I would lean in and blow kisses at him on my side of the mesh, he would emit a low rolling rumble that echoed around the nighthouse.  On days where there was construction going on, he would be agitated and distracted, not liking men in his territory.  The docile Channy I knew would instead show off his staggering strength by picking up a truck tire (that took three men to carry) and launching across his nighthouse.  I was reminded in those moments of his animality.  I know enough about that to always be careful.  I make no illusions that wild animals are still, at heart, wild animals.  They are not domestic creatures for us to treat as pets, children, or loved ones.  I remain furious at any person who asks me if I would want a monkey, ape, or any wild animal as a pet, because that is more disrespectful than anything I could think of.  I have too much respect for wild animals, and it’s hard enough to retain that wildness in a zoo setting.  I should add, I remain cautious in my descriptions and narratives of Chantek, because I know all to well the dangers of anthropomorphizing animals.  Like Darwin's Theory of Common Descent, I adhere to an ontology that appreciates our differences and similarities with animals as a matter of degree, not kind.  Far be it from me to ever expect Channy to be mine to construct or tell what to do.  Channy was so much more than a research object; he was my friend.  He was a constant each day when everything else felt big and scary. 

            One day sticks out the most in my mind with him.  I was in a bad mood because I had cut myself like the klutz that I am, and I had a huge bandage wrapped around my hand.  I was running late to go work with Channy, which put me in an even worse mood.  When I finally got to his nighthouse, I was uninterested in deciphering what Chantek kept trying to tell me.  Finally, I stopped setting up the computer and snapped, ‘What, what is it you want to tell me?’  And he was signing to say he was sad.  Still impatient, I said, ‘Sad? Chantek, why, why are you sad? We need to work.’  He signed back to me, ‘I’m sad because you’re hurt.’  I’m pretty sure that was the most humbling thing that’s ever happened to me.  First of all, I felt terrible because I was no better than the people I criticize for expecting an animal to work on my agenda.  Chantek is his own being, with his own feelings, and he was curious and concerned enough to tell me he cared, in his own way.  Second, I knew then that I didn’t want to be someone who tallies behavior to look at whether or not animals have empathy.  There is great research being done on empathy in primates, but I don’t need to be another person studying that because I had the best example of it right in front of me.  I know enough about psychology to know that empathy comes through relationships and time-deepened personal encounters with someone.  Here I was, in my own selfish world being reminded that it’s not all about me.  Being the emotional mush that I am, I started to cry and felt terrible for being so rude to my closest friend in that place.  I apologized, and I spent the rest of the morning just sitting with him.  Work would have to wait that day, and I didn’t really care about getting in trouble because what I needed most that day was to slow down.

            I still credit a lot of my current research and thinking to the ups and downs of my first post-college job, but I think most of that credit belongs to Chantek.  I’ve always thought animals deserve their own recognition in the conversations about how they should be managed, and actually getting to know them on an individual level (though difficult and demanding) only served to underline that for me.  Being a master at reading body language, Chantek was somewhat sullen on my last day at the zoo.  I had gotten special permission from the curator to paint with Chantek, my present for finishing the one-year position.  I brought in glass ornaments, and the keepers devised a special paintbrush made out of pvc-piping and horsetail hair that could go through the mesh.  I brought out the cups of paint, and I asked Channy to pick out his colors.  He would point, with his large brown fingers that were three times the length of my own, and I would hold up the cup for him to dip the brush in.  With a delicate touch unexpected for an animal of his strength, Channy then gingerly painted little swipes of color on the glass ornaments I was holding up for him.  I did my best not to cry afterwards, feeling a mixture of guilt for leaving Chantek while I went on to my next enterprise of grad school as well as sadness.  Sadness over the fact that I would no longer get to see someone who made an otherwise unfamiliar process of young adulthood a little less daunting.  Those ornaments now sit above the windows in the small living room of my apartment in Queens.  I keep them up year round, so I can think of my friend whenever I see them and feel a little stronger whenever I’m intimidated by the work I’ve chosen to do.

Artist in Residence.

The West, Revisited

Hannah Jaicks

          Few things bring me as much excitement as autumn.  Really, I’m a sucker for all things fall.  I’ve been lucky to have my favorite season filled with an exciting lineup of traveling, presentations, seeing my favorite peoples…and dissertating of course.  I recently went back to the Rockies to spend a few weeks researching, working, and breathing in the mountain air as much as possible.  The trip was intended for professional meetings and a few more site visits that I wanted to finish up, but it was also a chance for me to get back and spend time with an amazing community of people in an area that makes me feel at once in my place and alive.  I started my travels with a stopover to see my friend from college who lives in Fort Collins.  Due to the 4am wake-up call, I completely slept through the duration of my entire flight only to be greeted in the Denver airport with a pineapple (the symbol of welcome and a throwback to Swarthmore days) as well as the promise of adventures before my big presentation up in Yellowstone.  I then managed to stay awake for 24 hours straight, because who would want to miss a minute when you’re in such a great place? Filling the day with meanderings around FoCo, mountain vistas, and an incident in which I jumped out of my skin after almost stepping on a (harmless) snake, it was an epic way to start out my return to the West.  The following day entailed a lot of coffee and a hike up Grey Rock.  Nothing gets you over your altitude adjustment quite like an afternoon of hiking and trying (unsuccessfully) not to fall over too many times.



             My next stop was another favorite place of mine, Yellowstone National Park, where I was to present and meet with the MountSEON Large Carnivore Working Group.  This workshop was the first meeting of the Group, and 16 of us congregated to work on these goals: (1) develop a multi-dimensional conceptual model that identifies the social and ecological impacts/responses associated with wolves and other large carnivores that prey on domestic livestock and ungulates, and (2) create a road map for proposal development within our Working Group (WG).  These goals were borne out of the Working Group’s proposal to assemble scholars who transcend disciplinary boundaries.  We met to tackle the challenge of rethinking how we must go about applying science to capture socio-ecological system behavior in a way that results in coexistence strategies for humans, wildlife, and natural systems. 

                I was humbled and overjoyed to have been included in this mix of senior researchers—for a number of reasons.  First, this workshop was my chance to articulate and share some of the interdisciplinary perspectives I have in my artillery (thanks to my eclectic background of animal behavior, social theory, and geography training).  Second, I had an opportunity to talk at length with some of the people in my field who have helped shape the work that I am carrying out for my dissertation.  All my nerves went out the window the second we assembled in the conference center at Mammoth Hot Springs hotel.  I had arrived in the Mammoth area of Yellowstone late the night before due to plane delays, so I essentially crawled into my cabin to fall asleep—with a reminder to watch out for bugling elk on my walk from the registration desk.  Nothing more dangerous than startling a horny bull on your way to the outhouse in the middle of the night.  I woke up before sunrise the next morning to rehearse my presentation and check out the electric night sky full of stars.  If there’s one thing that I’ve always turned to in order to feel calm, it’s a big sky with glistening stars.  I listened to the elk bugling and coyotes for a bit, then I went over to the conference room as we all started to gather.


            The first day of the workshop launched off with our presentations, which gave us all a chance to get familiar with where we are in our research, perspectives, and intentions as they relate to carnivore conflicts and coexistence.  After a long morning, we took a lunch break at Boiling Springs and caught up with one another.  Following the much needed break, we reconvened and got to the task of designing possible research proposals, white papers, and future studies centered around the aims of the workshop.  We addressed these goals through breakout groups and then all met up at the end of the day to think about how the various groups’ ideas could be integrated with one another.  By around 5pm, we were all pretty drained, so we decided that conversations and potential collaborations would be better strengthened through meals and relaxation time in the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room. 

Wolf watching

I suppose I'm pretty easy to spot aren't I?

             The next morning was another middle of the night wake-up because we were on our way to go see the Junction Butte wolf pack.  I had seen this pack earlier in the summer, and I was eager to see how the pups, yearlings, and alpha pair were doing in this 11-member wolf clan.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to do the driving this round, so I nursed my coffee as we wove our way through the Lamar Valley area of the Park—where the pack was reportedly running around.  We arrived just as the sun was rising, leaving the sky a vibrant mixture of pink and orange.  As soon as we got out of the car, we received word that the pack was in sight.  Those of us who got there early ran up the hill with our spotting scopes and binoculars to catch a glimpse.  What looked like little spots in the distance were actually the alpha male, alpha female, a few yearlings, and black pups running around a bison carcass.  It was a tremendously rewarding sight to see these animals again, and I joined the others in watching the pack members interact with one another for the next couple of hours.  Numb from the cold, we made our way back to the conference center for the final stages of the workshop: planning next steps, developing proposals, and organizing possible papers for dissemination.  I was sad to leave at the end of the workshop, but I was delighted that my next stop was an adventure with my housemate to visit his family up in Deer Lodge and to go on my very first hunting excursion.  As I’ve been told countless times by my research participants, I cannot justify writing about hunting and its role in conservation without actually giving it a try myself.

Lamar Valley at 6:30am

            We caught up with one another on the car ride from Bozeman up to the Deer Lodge area of Montana, discussing all of the possible ways I could make a fool of myself in the Pioneer/Gold Creek woods.  Don’t forget to whisper, try not to make a lot of noise, and wear camouflage.  I could do the first two things, but I had to borrow apparel from Steve’s family because all I packed were the leggings I wear to dance class.  Not exactly appropriate, but they kept me warm under all of my camouflage layers.  The two people with whom I was hunting were very tall men, so I was swimming in my clothes- but I was hidden at least!  We left early in the morning before sunrise, and I was grateful for my residual jetlag that had made all of the 4:30 am wake-up calls remotely bearable.

               As soon as we reached our destination, we climbed out of the massive truck my friends were driving and set off into the woods as the sun was coming up.  We spent the day zig-zagging back and forth through the forest, occasionally stopping to bugle and attract any nearby elk.  I was lucky to only be carrying a backpack, especially because my hunting companion was toting around a heavy bow as well.  We split up with his dad, and we made our way around the backwoods trying to detect sign of elk.  The closest we came all day actually happened completely by accident.  I had stopped to look around at an owl flying through the stand of trees, and I almost jumped when I saw an elk 40 yards away…then another…then another…then another!  All of a sudden, there was a group of them, four females and one male.  My hunting buddy got his bow ready and whispered to me, ‘Stay still! These are the first elk we’ve seen all season!”  I stood there and watched as he lined up his shot, but the wind shifted at the last second—alerting the elk to our presence.  They ran off, but my friend didn’t seem dissatisfied.  I was surprised actually because the perfectionist in me was thinking how frustrating it must be to have not gotten the shot.  Instead, he simply turned to me with a big grin and said, ‘If you don’t get excited at the sight of an animal when you’re out hunting, you should really find a different sport.’  I asked him later if he ever feels disappointed on days where he doesn’t catch anything.  He just looked at me with an expression that suggested I was missing the point.  ‘Hannah, that’s not the sole reason why we come out here.  I thought you’d know that by now.’  14 hours out in the woods and a feeling of absolute exhaustion from walking all over by the end of that day, I actually understood what he meant.  I’m not going to be picking up tags of my own any time soon, but I do have a different sense of appreciation for hunting.  As with everything in conservation (and life), nothing is black and white.  Hunting is not all good or all bad.  It’s another complex and nuanced practice that requires us to think carefully about how we allow it to be carried out.


               After my hunting trip, I returned to Bozeman to catch up with my community of Bozemanites.  Having become deeply attached to the people in this town, I was lucky enough to spend time with my housemate, his family, and all of the friends I’ve made in my research adventures.  From day one, I’ve felt the pull of this area, and I’m glad I got to spend an extra week with special people who make me happy as a clam.  Technically, I was there for school, but there was plenty of hiking, long conversations over delicious meals, pumpkin carving, and road-tripping that kept me from being all work and no play.  I got the chance to see more parts of Montana and Wyoming that I had yet to visit, including Billings (home to the craziest Scheels I’ve ever seen), Sheridan, and Buffalo.  Fortunately for me, I had a pretty awesome tour guide showing me all the spots along the way.  As usual, my trip did not last long enough, and I’m already counting down the days until I return to my mountains and their wild things (in December!).  Until then, it’s back to NYC to continue transcribing data, presenting in a few conferences around the area, and assembling my work into what I hope will be a compelling dissertation.

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