By Laurel Serieys, PhD
I am driven by a lifelong aspiration to study wild cats. Since a time of self-awareness as a very young child, I have been traveling on a singular track to "live my dreams" and to confidently manifest my imagined life. Although this inherent interest born within me has been the driving force in my life, from this passion and curiosity has developed a well-rounded interest in ecology and nature and also my development and self-identification as a conservation biologist, first and foremost.
I grew up in Dallas, Texas- an environment polar to that in the Cape Peninsula of South Africa. Flat, dry, grassy – I grew up in the heart of the city. Yet, just as I was born with an interest in studying wild felids, innate to my own functional biology is a profound interest, connection, and reliance on experiencing nature to fuel a content life.
Growing up in Dallas, with no researchers doing the kind of research I was interested in (at the time I was there), my approach to manifest my destiny was to read about the experience of other biologists, focus and do well in my studies, and plan ahead. I thought about how I would set myself apart from others who had similar life aspirations, and what aspect of wild cat biology I wanted to focus on in my future research. Somehow aware even at that young age (I was 15) the paucity of research examining the impacts of urbanization on wildlife, I decided that is where I would start when I got my "in" into the world of wild cat studies. I am a "doer" and a problem-solver. This life goal I hoped to achieve was a problem to work out and step one – I narrowed my direction in a manner that would set me apart from others with similar goals.
In college, I studied zoology yet unsure of how I would reach my goal but knowing that reaching my goal was unquestionable. I approached professors to conduct independent studies, because to me, although driven by an interest in certain species of animals, I am fundamentally at heart a die-hard scientist. I worked on numerous studies, some of which I developed even while in college – on insects, primates, and even on plants! This methodology fostered my development as an independently-thinking scientist with diverse interests and an ability to creatively approach the study of numerous taxa (species), insect, plant, or mammal. I demonstrated patience, versatility, and wide-ranging interests and I developed diverse skills that made me marketable to even those studying carnivores. Underlying every project I've taken on (either as assistant or lead researcher) is the firm belief that the work speaks for itself. Humility in interactions and self-presentation is important while pride in the quality of your work, and knowing that you've done the best job possible, has been the key to my success to this point.
With great joy, I finally got my start working with wild cats in 2006 as a volunteer with the National Park Service in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Los Angeles, California, USA. Simultaneous to applying for this position, I also applied for graduate school, shooting straight for my PhD (rather than getting a masters first). I was accepted to the University of California, Los Angeles graduate program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with the plan to continue the work I started with the National Park Service. There, in the Santa Monica Mountains, I was working on a long-term and ongoing study that examines the impact of urbanization on bobcats and mountain lions (see my other website UrbanCarnivores.com). This introduction to urban carnivore research was to change my life course, and my thinking about my future. I'd always wanted to work with large cats, like most who dream of studying wild cats! But I realized, working in Los Angeles on bobcats, the promise that smaller wild cats have to teach us about the threats to wild felids globally. I witnessed firsthand common, but critical, threats to wildlife living in close proximity to urbanization, and working in this megacity proved another smart move in my strategic approach to "achieving my dreams." There I observed roads, disease, and poisons to threaten numerous carnivore species, but especially bobcats. I hit on what I would study for my Ph.D.
Overall, with a grounded-interest in conservation, I have long felt that by focusing research on the effects of urban development on wildlife populations, we may build a launching pad to establish guidelines for the conservation of wildlife over the long-term in the increasingly urbanizing world. By working with populations of wild cats living in and around Los Angeles, I was able to focus my studies on a multifaceted topic that examined how various, but common, consequences of urbanization, such as habitat fragmentation by urban infrastructure, increased disease exposure, and exposure to common rat poisons, drives genetic change and disease susceptibility in urban bobcats. With great pride, the findings of my research have been published in numerous scientific journals. Further – a conservation biologist's dream – the data for a portion of my bobcat work was recently used to inform new legislative regulations regarding the availability and use of certain types of rat poisons across the State of California. My work and website (UrbanCarnivores.com) have also informed local activist movements in California that have led to the banning of rat poisons in various local municipalities in southern California, including within the City of Los Angeles. From these experiences, I learned the paramount importance of communicating research findings with the general public, and for this reason, the Urban Caracal Project has a website and Facebook page- to get people interested in the project, and the findings, from the get go!
Dreaming my next big challenge, I conceived the Urban Caracal Project in early 2013. In awe of the adaptability of numerous carnivore species in the face of increasing urbanization in southern California, I was eager to continue on the path of urban carnivore research, but this time, in a foreign country. I chose Cape Town for a variety of reasons, but important among them was the opportunity to study caracals isolated in a relatively small area by Cape Town- and to study how extreme isolation may be driving evolutionary changes in these cats genetically, and how behaviorally they may be adapting to the extreme isolation. So, in 2014 I traveled far from the United States to launch the effort with the support of Cape Leopard Trust who believed in the promise of the project. As Project Coordinator, I lead the field team while also conducting the field and lab work, raising much of the funds required to run the project through grant-writing and rallying private donations. I also manage the website and Facebook page. Getting a project up and running is difficult under the best of circumstances with the logistics of it all overwhelming. Getting the funding, compiling and purchasing equipment, getting permits, collaborators, research support, strategic planning for the field and lab work, etc. – and all this in a foreign country where I have also been overwhelmed by the logistics of establishing a life, and have experienced the loss of comfort of familiarity in my surroundings and my support group. I have also had to adapt to many cultural, academic, and bureaucratic differences, meanwhile keep this train running.
This study has proven more difficult than anticipated, and the sacrifices I have had to make unpredicted. The caracals are in very low densities and so hard to catch for a variety of reasons, including their low densities and the challenge of trapping in a highly trafficked park where crime is a primary concern. Add to that critical challenge a list of other problems– my personnel attrition due to the difficult nature of the research. The recent massive fire burned approximately 1/3 of my study area, which frightens me for the persistence of caracals in those areas. Theft has been a major issue- remote cameras, a trap, a work bag, and I interrupted attempted theft at my field vehicle after I finished checking a trap.
But my path in life, despite productive and successful thus far, has also been bumpy along the way with other challenges overcome, and perhaps because so, I am prepared to keep going. Despite the challenges I've experienced here, I find that the Cape Peninsula is so beautiful, the sacrifices are worthwhile. It is so polarized- in beauty, serenity, and crime and violence in people and nature, it keeps me awake. It makes me feel like complaints about theft, and all the loss - support groups, study area, study animals, research equipment, familiarity, etc. are petty... so I don't do a lot of complaining.