By Laurel Serieys, PhD
There are many stories that I’ve been wanting share through this blog. I’ve wanted to describe how intense the experience of capturing my first caracal, Laduma, was even after I'd captured hundreds of carnivores in Los Angeles where I'd worked before. Or about the time that I walked in on Laduma hunting grysbok after he moved into the Silvermine dam area post-fire. Or perhaps some of our predictions of what we may learn from Cape Point caracals as we prepare to begin working in that area.
But the reality is, this project is daily threatened because resources are stretched too thin. And so, many ideas sit in my head, experiences unshared. I can be a fiercely private person, and am the kind of person that rarely volunteers to share my hardships faced. But, this project has presented me with so many unexpected stumbling blocks, and increasingly, these largely logistical, stumbling blocks threaten the future of the project. So I think it is now time to share just a few of the struggles I’ve faced to keep this project going, because few looking in from the outside can imagine the difficulty that running a project of this nature is, particularly if you are largely doing it alone. In sharing in a way I wouldn't normally share, I am also extending yet another request for desperately-needed help.
Getting to South Africa with a dream of urban caracals
I have had a lifelong dream to do on-the-ground wild cat research that contributes to conservation action. I led a successful bobcat (a lynx-like cat similar to caracals) project for my PhD, and collaborated on a successful puma (a larger wild cat in the Americas) study in Los Angeles, California, USA. As a conservation biology graduate student, I had the rare opportunity to see my bobcat data used to contribute to legislative action restricting consumer availability of some of the most toxic rat poisons on the market in California – in a State with nearly 40 million people! This is just the kind of difference I was hoping to make.
I knew that my next project would be in a foreign country– and that by taking my work and passion abroad, I would step into something novel and important. Most urban wildlife research is conducted in the United States, leaving me to ask – how much can we generalize the findings of those studies, primarily conducted in affluent California, to areas in other parts of the world that have more important social struggles and omnipresent habitat destruction?
So as I approached the finish of my PhD, I got to work manifesting the international life I’d imagined. My husband would only leave Los Angeles for Cape Town, so I set my sights on the city. I was faced with creating a job for myself in a specific city – in a country I’d never even visited! Imagine the challenge that presented! Multiple colleagues in the U.S. warned me I was committing career suicide if I were to take this sort of life gamble – to move abroad to uncertainty, take on such an immense challenge to start a project from scratch, when, at this stage of my career, I should be sitting in an office analyzing data and writing publications. But I believe in living life boldly and to the fullest, to meet challenges head-on, and to not let fear of the unknown conquer dreams.
In May 2013, I traveled to South Africa, where during a single trip to the Cape Peninsula, I envisioned a project that would examine the effects of urbanization on understudied wild caracals that were seeming to persist in the Peninsula in the face of rapid urbanization and increasing isolation. I met with the Cape Leopard Trust and Drs. Justin O’Riain and Jacqueline Bishop, professors at University of Cape Town. I had no idea that within a year’s time, this network of people would provide a critical foundation to launch the project, and that they would become the greatest advocates of the project to keep it moving forward through many struggles.
The project launching was conditional on my ability to find funding to support myself, and I didn’t get the grants I applied for in 2013. But I was not deterred – I applied for funding the following year as I also worked to finish my PhD. In the meantime, enthusiastic for the project, Cape Leopard Trust offered to support me for 6 months. We were optimistic I would get additional funding once I arrived in South Africa. I booked a flight for September 2014, packed my bags, found a home for my two beloved cats, got visas in place, and applied for permits. I came to the promise of a full-time graduate student, two vehicles, and 4 radio-collars. With the added logistical support, I felt that launching and managing the project would be feasible. My husband made arrangements to finish out the year at his job and join me in January 2015.
I made it but to challenges immediately revealed
Upon arrival in Cape Town, I immediately recognized I was up against some important logistical challenges. In the U.S., trapping cages, which would be the most fundamental of field equipment I needed, are easy to buy pre-built. But in South Africa, I was to have to build my own! So in a completely foreign place, dislodged from everything I knew, never having seen a caracal, and trying to simultaneously sort life details (i.e., visa complications, additional permitting, medical aid, etc.), I was now confronted with the task to build the most basic of my field equipment. With Cape Leopard Trust's help, I was able to locate someone to help with the welding and construction that would be required, and together we traveled around industrial Cape Town for days…to find even the most basic of materials was an epic challenge! But we did it– and over the course of about a month, we built 15 cages. In the meantime, I learned I'd received those grants I'd applied for, and had funding support through December 2016.
The project launches, but with great struggle and sacrifice
I finally had all in place by mid-November to get the fieldwork started. With the help of the graduate student, a SAN Parks employee, and a visiting colleague from the U.S., we spent countless hours exploring Front Table and setting traps. Within 10 days we'd caught our first cat, Laduma! The ease of the first capture gave my local assistants the expectation that the project would be easy, and success always so quick. But I warned– until we catch a few more cats, keep expectations low.
And I was right– it took nearly a month before we captured our second cat Savannah, who was hit by a car within 3 weeks of capture. It was another 4 months until my 3rd capture. During that interval of time, the difficulty of the work with such little pay-off put into perspective that the graduate student’s project would not work on the timescale needed. She changed projects in January, leaving us without a second vehicle or the critical field assistance required to keep the project going.
Eight years of trapping experience in Los Angeles taught me that the loss of the full-time student would be a profound setback. Traps must be checked a minimum of 4 times/daily. And because it can take months before a cat walks by a trap, traps must be kept open 24/7 to take advantage of that brief second to lure a cat into the trap that has been so patiently monitored for weeks. My patience, optimism, and physical endurance would be tested daily while, alone, I continued checking traps, scouting new locations, and setting new traps. And this amidst having to do all other important tasks to keep the project going – grant and report writing, administrative paperwork, the social media and website, and lab work to get the genetics portion of the project off the ground, to name a few. And to keep my career unfolding, I was also beholden to continuing my bobcat work– more data analysis and getting papers published, as it is key to demonstrating a strong professional track record. In my best effort to keep on top of these tasks, I (still) work 16-hour days that often start around 4 AM so I can do computer work before going to the field.
Simultaneously, I was also confronted with the collapse of my marriage. My husband no longer wanted to leave Los Angeles to take this gamble with me. In January, I went back to LA to try to resuscitate my 5-year marriage to discover that divorce was unquestionable. When I returned to South Africa In February, I felt defeated with the knowledge that I’d made this journey thinking I was to be joined by the person most important in my life, and choosing this location for him! But now I’d lost my “home,” and suddenly South Africa was all I had– a place completely foreign to me where I had very few friends because of the project demands zapping any time for socializing. And to be back in a place without a support group where I was to remotely move through the divorce process felt overwhelming.
I also returned to South Africa to discover equipment that I’d left in the field (remote cameras and a closed trap) were stolen, including precious trapping equipment given to me by a beloved boyfriend that died as a result of his own wild cat research in 2007. The loss of that precious equipment left me feeling even more distant from important relationships in my life.
The next challenge hit hard too. In March, the massive fires broke out in the Peninsula. A quarter of my study area was on fire, and I didn’t know how the project would be affected. How would the fires affect the population of caracals I was already having immense difficulty sampling?! To that point, I was suffering so much loss– my central relationship, friends, family, my pets, critical project help, equipment, and the study area! And now, new research restrictions were put in place to "protect" the burn area. Suddenly, more paperwork and meetings were necessary to enable moving the work into the burn area to collect valuable data on how caracals were responding post-fire, marking a downhill progression to increasing demands for meeting after meeting, report after report.
But I still kept going without any regrets. For nearly two months I kept up with the fieldwork with assistance only one-two days per week. I hiked approximately 20 km per day, up and down the mountains, ruminating with all the time alone how my passion for my work was leading to so much loss in my life, and whether my colleagues were right– that I was committing career suicide and would soon add my career to the list of losses. I arrived home daily from the field physically and emotionally exhausted, increasingly unsure that the project would be successful. And I still had all that computer work to do! But on top of it all, somehow I'd managed to publish two bobcat papers in prestigious scientific journals! I am a fighter in this life – I push myself hard to do the things I believe can make a difference. I was optimistic that I'd hit "rockbottom" by that point, and that positive change was just around the corner.
In March, I was unexpectedly blessed to find a full-time assistant– a young volunteer from the U.S., who believed in the work too. He was dedicated, and was a sudden lifeline the project. But we had only one vehicle generously provided by Cape Leopard Trust, meaning that I still was not to get much time off because in the case of a caracal capture, I had to be able to get to the capture site even on my days off because I am singularly trained to manage the captures. So in effect, I would have to be with him “just in case,” still giving me no time off or much needed rest, or added time in front of the computer. I also had no stable housing to offer him, discovering what has become one of the biggest logistical challenges I’ve faced on this project – finding stable, affordable housing!
But I wasn't yet at rockbottom! In April our 5th cat captured for the study died soon after capture of suspected rat poison exposure (samples are being tested now). So many months of work to have only to that point, movement data largely collected on 1 cat (Laduma)! I was working 7 days a week, trying to figure out strategy to boost my capture numbers, meanwhile captured animals quickly dying because of the challenges they face living in the urban environment.
My knowledge of field work, and the biology of wild cats, was being tested to the max. I was trying all I knew, and pushing myself harder and harder...but it paid off. By May 5th, I’d captured 9 cats and deployed all of my radio-collars...to meet my next challenge– scrape together funds to buy more collars (R40,000/each).
In May I travelled again back to the US– my second round-trip in less than a year! I attended a conference in Chicago and then returned to Los Angeles to deal with more logistical issues surrounding my divorce and to move the caracal genetics project forward. The week before I left though, a series of project mishaps happened, exemplary of the general trend of the project– another field assistant quit the project after less than 2 weeks– the work was just too much and too hard. My single vehicle was totaled in a collision, and so while to that point I was desperate for two vehicles, suddenly I had none, and Cape Leopard Trust was left with the burden to repair the vehicle in my absence! And my work computer broke in the field, impeding my ability to efficiently complete critical field tasks.
I was beaten down physically and emotionally, questioning more than ever the project future as I boarded the plane to the U.S. At the conference I attended, based on my presentation, I was offered a job with a prestigious researcher and someone I’ve long admired and have wanted to work with. The gig was sweet– full funding using data collected on urban coyotes to churn out publications and the opportunity to supervise graduate students. The job is exactly what a postdoc should be doing to be most successful in their career. I was strongly advised by colleagues to take the job immediately and leave South Africa. But yet optimistic in the potential success of the Urban Caracal Project, and in believing wholeheartedly in the mission and conservation potential, without hesitation I turned the job down.
I returned to South Africa in June to learn that my assistant was robbed several times while I was gone because he was living in housing in a dangerous area. He lost personal items, and project equipment was again stolen. To make matters worse, I hadn’t been feeling well for about a month. I’d attributed my physical decline to being overworked and overstressed. But it was getting bad…I’d spontaneously start shaking and was having frequent heart palpitations. I was losing sensation in my hands and arms and experiencing profound joint pain. I was so fatigued and having constant, worsening rashes, migraine headaches, and intense vertigo. I was increasingly losing my memory and ability to organize my thoughts, as well as stay focused on work. My mind was clouding over, decreasing my ability to recognize that something was very wrong.
Not all of these physical symptoms were foreign to me though…when I was 23 I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had surgery and radiation treatment to remove my thyroid, leaving me 100% dependent on hormone replacement medication. I was also diagnosed with lupus when I was 26, and the combination of thyroid and autoimmune disease leave me in a tenuous health balance, particularly when I am stressed. Unfortunately, the medications I require to treat both diseases are unavailable in South Africa, and so I’ve had to bring “stocks” of medication to South Africa. But the unpredictable weather in Cape Town, and the length of time I had to store the medication, led my thyroid medication to go bad. Unknowingly, I was suffering thyroid hormone withdrawal for months, causing significant health issues before I realized the problem. I was able to get new medication within a month, but meanwhile my physical symptoms worsening. Thyroid hormones take nearly two months to achieve stable blood levels, and so I knew I wouldn’t feel better immediately upon getting new medications. I was to be patient, and try to keep pushing ahead on the project despite it all, and am doing so as I continue to recover.
Despite the illness, however, the project moved forward. I captured 4 more cats, reaching a total of 13 cats captured, including a pregnant female. I conducted preliminary data analysis to find fascinating results. I gave 3 talks, attended innumerable meetings, have managed to keep the website and Facebook trucking, along with many more little things.
But I was also, during this time, confronted with even more loss…in July, Jasper, our 8th cat, was hit by a car, and so we lost our yet another study animal and in the process, one of our radio-collars destroyed, costing us R40,000. Next, Oryx and West’s collars stopped working, and I was forced to prematurely remove the collars. And while out in the field trying to remove the radio-collars, I discovered that critical tracking equipment, lent secondhand and piecemeal from various entities, wasn’t working properly, exponentiating the amount of work required to drop the radio-collars remotely.
I'm still here, but I need help!
And yet, somehow, I am still here pushing as hard as I can because I believe in the project! But the price of this decision is increasing emotional and physical sacrifice. As my project increases in success, it feels as though there is increasing bureaucratic resistance, manifest in particular by demands for innumerable meetings! In August alone I had more than 20 meetings to discuss my project with various entities, and how to keep it moving forward. I should be getting field and lab work done and writing grants and papers. Not traveling all over town to convince people of the merit of what should speak for itself– the project is already more successful that anyone dreamt it would be.
The workload is far too much for one person. I need more help! I have the strong and invaluable support of Cape Leopard Trust and University of Cape Town, without which, this project would not be. But they themselves have many other projects they are responsible for, and with increasing Urban Caracal Project success, they have also been surprised by the challenges we have met. And so, we work together to move forward the best way we can, but for a project of this scale, we need help! And what is most frustrating, the most insurmountable of current challenges is one that should be easy enough to overcome! I have continued to struggle to find safe, stable, and affordable housing for my interns that travel far on their own dime to work full time on the project without stipends. Without housing, I cannot recruit more interns, and now, am struggling to support the ones I have.
The consequence of little challenges like that is that as the project demands increase because of project success, I am increasingly worn thin with less and less time to attend to important project tasks. And I remain socially isolated– with physical illness stacked on top of increasing work demands, and dealing with my divorce. I must work 90-120 hours/week in an attempt to keep the project going. This leaves little time to branch out and build a much-needed support group. My mother commented that my tolerance of solitude makes all the challenges I’ve faced easier to deal with than perhaps for most other people. But the emotional toll this experience has been taking for over a year is challenging even my ability to cope with the isolation.
I am constantly seeking help– but locally, most want to “help” by participating in the fieldwork, likely lured by the prospect of seeing caracals. But this isn’t the help I really need right now, nor do my SAN Parks permits allow for casual volunteers. I need help dealing with the overwhelming logistics, and in particular, finding housing to support 4 interns rather than just two. I’ve put out calls on the Facebook page multiple times, with little response, likely because people don’t realize that this project has primarily been a one-man show that sits on shaky ground, with the future now possibly resting on my ability to find housing to support more help. I need a centralized location that can house 4 interns at once because we still just have 1 vehicle for the interns. They all need to be able to access it at once.
I often think of how far this project has come despite all the challenges (and those described above aren’t even all of them!). And I am proud of myself. But I also think how far I could come if I just had a little more help, if I’d had 2 vehicles since January, if I had stable housing for interns, and if I had reliable equipment. I am pushing as hard and as far as I can, but now to the point that my health and well-being are threatened. So, I have to take a step back and consider how much further and harder I can push. I will go as far as I can, but everyone has a tipping point.
I believe in the Urban Caracal Project, and the conservation action that can be achieved by studying how urbanization affects wildlife somewhere other than in the U.S. Already, the project has received international attention, with stories published as far away as Los Angeles! A Facebook post featuring the movements of Laduma respective to the March fires was seen by nearly 100,000 people (yes, one hundred thousand)! And we are doing the first rat poison testing in all of South Africa – information surely to have huge impact as we are already learning that local wildlife are being exposed to these ubiquitous toxic chemicals.
And so, I firmly believe the project is worthwhile to push forward with, despite the overwhelming loss I’ve experienced as a result of my decision to take this life gamble. But I need a bit more help so I now reach out and ask…can anyone help the way we really need help? Right now, the project may literally rest on locating housing for interns. To keep going, I need a 2 – 4 bedroom house in Noordhoek, Capri, or even Fish Hoek. And while sponsored housing is ideal, I have been trying to raise funds to support the cost of rent. But this still leaves a critical challenge– I myself cannot do it all (i.e., manage finding housing) and keep the project going simultaneously. Even someone willing to do the legwork to find the housing for us would be invaluable. As of October 21, we are in desperate need of housing to support the two interns we have already, but I also desperately need to bring more people onto the project beyond those two.
For those who have already endowed the project with invaluable support, housing, and funds, I am oh-so-grateful, and the support from the community, Cape Leopard Trust, and University of Cape Town, overwhelms me daily and is the fundamental fuel now driving this project. In spite of all of the challenges, there have been so many gifts and experiences in working here that I know I will cherish for the rest of my life.
But my hope is that if the community knows about the immense challenges I've faced, and continue to face, and yet have steadfastly remained dedicated to this conservation-based project, perhaps there will be someone who can help just a bit more...please email me at Caracal@capeleopard.org.za if you are one of those generous souls who also believes in this project and thinks you may be able to help us find housing.