Thursday, October 1, 2009

Musing about The Call of The Wild

The Call of The Wild is strong in me. This can be seen in the job I have (looking after reptiles) and the fact that I am rejuvenated best by spending time in nature. This year I have been doing Honours in Zoology part time and have really struggled with the way the two worlds I have been so deeply immersed in (Biological Science and Christianity) don't seem to fit together easily. Many people see huge conflict between the two, mostly due to the whole evolution element (which I am not going into in this and don't have the answers to anyway). I feel like there should not be a conflict, because in my opinion, there is no point in conservation if there is no God. To me, being involved in saving the Earth and all the various types of life that live here, is a calling from God and the natural response to his first charge to humans in Genesis – take care of my creation! Yet, I have struggled because, in my experience with various churches, none seem to care about this at all and very few Christians I have interacted with appear to be concerned that the main cause of the current terrible state of this planet is humans. Don't get me wrong, I don't expect every Christian to be called to conservation work, but the impression I have been getting is that the Christian world generally is completely ignoring the problem, possibly hoping Jesus will return before humans completely destroy the planet. I have seen more Christians starting to think about these problems and gradually start taking action which is a great encouragement, but what I am really looking for is someone who, like me, is working in the Biological Science field and a committed Christian so I can discuss the challenges I experience and grapple through the issues with someone who gets both sides. (If you are such a person or know one, please let me know.) I recently said to God that if he can't bring that person into my life now (I have asked him repeatedly for this) then can he please just show me that he gets the confusion in my mind and that he is actually there for me.

With that background, the last couple of weeks have been quite intense. Work is not a fun place to be these days. My job is more about paperwork and staff management (of staff who are not the easiest to supervise) than about the animals and the current situation in the entire complex is very stressful – union action, financial concerns, staff shortages, pending changes in senior management, concerns about the future. On top of this, my honours work is piling up with the year drawing to a close at the end of next month. Last week Monday I really took strain and very nearly did not cope with the day. In the evening I sat down to work on an essay for varsity and felt like I was going to freak out. I decided to go for a drive to relax and ended up at the Pretorius' house. I had a good chat to Nats about various things, one of which was the fact that I really want a dog. I always want pets, but it is not possible to have any at SarVarCar for various reasons. For years I have wanted a Labrador puppy, but it has never been possible. I strongly believe in pet-therapy (which is not being co-dependent on an animal!) and know that having a puppy to play with would help my stress at work. The next day I started pondering the options of moving, in between the usual chaos that work currently is, and that evening went to chat it over with Tandy and Mornay. By the time I left, I knew that I needed to take that step and the rest of the week went better as I knew that I was planning something that would help me cope. Work continued to be chaotic but I made it through to Sunday evening when I had a chat with my current housemates, Sarah and Carey, about the moving. They were really supportive and the elements I had seen as challenges were considered as minor to them.

Monday morning, I spent some time chatting to my supervisor, Bill, who had been in the field the previous week. I was updating him on the latest crises I had been dealing with and told him how I had not been coping the previous week, but was doing much better now. His response was that I was not coping! We had a good discussion and he helped me see a different perspective of things and how with the current climate at work, it is even more important to focus on my studies and I may need the qualification to move from my current job. He advised me to get booked off for stress. That evening I was going to see a potential garden flat, and in anticipation had made my facebook status "Varla is trusting that today will bring the hoped-for result and if not, that something better is in store". I had been emailing the owner and everything about it sounded perfect for me, so I was really hoping it would be my new home. The only challenge was that I would need to take it immediately, although my current lease only expires at the end of November, but I had played around with my budget and could do it, although it would be a stretch. Before I left I asked God to give me peace if it was the place he intended for me. I arrived and had this uneasy feeling, but went to go look anyway. The garden looked nice, but when we walked into the flat I thought "Where will I put all my stuff?" It would be very cramped which is not ideal when you have a large puppy! I said I would think about it and left, feeling very disappointed. I remembered that Sarah had given me a number earlier that day for a place on Old Seaview Road, but I had dismissed it as too far (and anyway I already thought I had the perfect place). I thought I might as well drive out to the area and see how far it is as I was already on that side of town and a couple of minutes later I was raving about the fact that I had already left town. I recalled a verse I had read a few days previously about leaving the city behind you and decided to phone and see if I could look at the place. I was driving up the driveway going "They live in the bush, they live in the middle of the bush, that's so awesome." I pulled up to the beautiful old house and was shown the huge cottage – bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, lounge, wooden rafters, FIREPLACE – and then taken to see some of the rest of the property – swimming pool, vegetable garden, area outside my cottage which can house a puppy when I am at work, 9 hectares of wild bush to roam (and search for reptiles) to my heart's content!! The peace I had hoped for at the first place had definitely arrived in abundance! I spent some time sitting in the cottage thinking about it and looked up the verse about leaving the city behind (Job 39:7-8) and noticed it also spoke about searching out every green thing. I was looking out the window, when the burglar bars drew my attention – they were heart shaped and I felt God was saying through them that he does love me and he does get everything. This home will be his gift to me and the wilderness will help me to find the peace I so desperately need. Talk about something better...

That evening I had a long chat with Bryony about it all, although I had basically made my decision before I got to her house. I did realise in the chat that the fact that the thought of varsity assignments freaks me out, is a manifestation of the work stress. The next day, my doctor agreed with Bill and booked me off for two weeks to get a handle on things and focus on my studies. I am well aware that work will be no better when I return, but by then I intend to have a large amount of my varsity work completed and be settled in my new home (I already have the keys...). Just driving up the driveway is relaxing! I know that being away from the city and all the negative stuff I feel there will be of a great help and when I am settled (and have paid off the double rent) I know the right dog will come and join me in my cottage in the bush!!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Musing about Speciality

I have been rather absent on the blog front for the last six months as I decided to finally  take action on my threat to return to studying and signed up for Honours in Zoology part-time. Combining that with my full-time job and still have a life has been challenging, but the first batch of exams is over and I made it, well, I think I did. The marks aren’t out yet and I am not so sure how well I did in the 8 hour exam we had for one of the subjects, that is 8 hour THEORY exam… I have never written an 8 hour, open book exam on the computer before so not sure about what to expect from the marking! I still have an assignment to complete for the other module and then can tick those two courses off the list. In fact, I am in Jeffery's Bay typing this on my way to St Francis to get some photos for the assignment. (Side note – two majors reasons I am back in the blogging world is my new laptop and a cool program I found to download called Windows Live Writer – I can sync it with my blogs and then do all the writing and editing offline and just log on to publish…)






Cape Cobra Display (1)      Local gecko

The Honours course I am doing involves 5 modules and a research section, which includes a seminar presentation and a project. These are aimed at teaching us how to do research and present our work, but also helpful in guiding us to the speciality that we will focus on. When I started I was sure I knew what speciality I wanted to do, after all my intentions were to future my studies so I could move into the research department at work, but still be involved with the Snake Park – so Herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) here I come was my theory, but now I am not so sure… Herpetology still holds great appeal for me as I have a passion for these animals and although there is a herp-loving community in South Africa, only a select few have the training to do research. With the current amphibian crisis, research is desperately needed, and South African herpetologists do a lot of work in other African countries due to the lack of trained personnel in those countries – which means loads of field trips all over the continent. I also feel that it is a responsibility of those of us who have a passion for conserving these animals to educate those who exploit or fear them. While I am not anti-herpetoculture (keeping reptiles as pets) considering the fact that I have a beautiful little gecko at home, I do think that too many of the people who keep these animals as pets are promoting (often unconsciously) the illegal trade which is the main cause for many species to be endangered, and I would love to play a part in reducing the influence the herpetoculture world has on that. I don’t know how I would go about doing that, but that’s the whole point of science – solving problems! I also feel a responsibility to help people who have a great fear of reptiles to learn to value them (or even love them) for the roles they play in nature. A fear is not something we are born with, but something we learn and therefore, we can unlearn it, if we want to. I want to help people find the desire to overcome this fear by helping them see the good side of reptiles and not just the fact that they can potentially kill you – stepping out of your front door can potentially kill you, but most of us do not fear that action!

One of the modules I have completed this last semester (the one with the marathon exam) was all about Conservation Biology and repeatedly in the articles we were reading, there were references to how this is important to the management of Zoo populations or how Zoo’s play a role in achieving a goal in the management of a species. I do realise that I would notice those references more than others, due to the fact that I work at a Zoo, even though it is a specialist Zoo, but it got me thinking. Could I make a career from doing research into and assisting Zoos to more effectively play the role they need to in the conservation of the world’s species? I know there are exceptions, but the majority of Zoos I have been in contact with want to be active in conservation but there are many limiting factors in this – one of them is that often those who provide funding or permission for conservation programs do not see Zoos as serving a role in conservation, especially from a scientific point of view. I would love to help them to access the funding and permission by doing the research needed to provide scientific proof for those decision makers.

B. Teani       Tropical House Gecko (6)

So I have a choice, but luckily I also have time. Many scientists change their focus a couple of times throughout their post-graduate studies, looking for the speciality which best suits them. I would like to have a good idea before I start Masters in 2011, and in preparation for this I am hoping to do one of each in Honours. I still need to finalise supervisors and get approval from Honours coordinator and stuff, but I would like to do my seminar on “The Role Zoos Play in Conservation”, a presentation which I could use in various platforms in relation to work as well. For my project, my first choice (I think) is a study of the Bradypodian taeniabronchum (Smith’s Dwarf Chameleon). I think I could add in a couple of elements to the study where I practice some of the Conservation Biology techniques, although the application of the data will be limited due to the short time frame of the research. My other option is a project about the invasive geckos species in Port Elizabeth and surrounds and the most appealing part of that project is that I would get to work with Bill as my supervisor – and as a herpetologist that is equivalent to the latest James Bond working with Sean Connery!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Musing about My Favourite Things

Things have been pretty stressful in my life lately which has resulted in me feeling low both in enegry and emotions so I thought it would probably be a good time to make a list of things that bring a smile to my face and heart...
  • Playing with the MGB's, or any of the reptiles actually. The Madagascan Ground Boas are our tamest pythons and there is something incredible about feeling their power ripple through your hands. I really love the chance I get to work with all these fascinating creatures. Watching Luke (Cape Cobra) cruise around his enclosure so relaxed and remembering how hyper he was a few months ago before he went on display - that boy thrives on being in the spotlight! Seeing the little tadpoles develop legs and turn into froglets and now watching those tiny frogs growing on a daily basis. Catching a glimpse of Rocky (monitor lizard) through the office window and seeing him turn to look when you call his name. The adorable smiling face of the Marshies (Marsh Terrapins) poking up through the water or lucerne. There are many things I love about the animals at work...
  • Living at the coast - being able to smell the sea air so often, seeing the bay from my office or when I'm driving around, hanging out at the beach, swimming in the sea. Just knowing that the awesome power of the ocean is right there and I can go share it whenever I want.
  • Coffee!! What other drink has a table named after it!!
  • Hearing the distinctive swoosh of the Oceanrium uniform which means Michael is coming to visit! He works in another department but often comes to get away from things in the Snake Park offices and is a really good friend - even if he does make sexist comments about girls too often!
  • Living in Africa with all the majestic wildlife and scenery and the incredible diversity of species. I am more amazed by this continent each and every day and have no desire to visit any other at present. This year I am hoping to make trips to Uganda and Malawi... if the required funds are sourced!
  • Research - the reason I am continuing my studies this year. I don't like the idea of lectures, but it is the only way I can get into research which I am rediscovering my love for and the only way forward in my career. I can't wait for the day when field work will be a regular occurance, not just the random luxury it is at present!!
  • Hanging out with my friends kids, all the way from tiny little Nathan (who is not so tiny anymore at nearly 6 months) through to the teenage Dan (along with all the attitude that goes with being a teenager!)
  • Completely losing myself in a book (or movie or series) and exsisting in a completely different world for an hour, or a day where the challenges of reality don't matter and I can do anything and be anyone!!