Interviewing the scientist behind urban caracal project

A caracal, a medium sized wild cat.

Laurel studies caracals, a very unique medium-sized wild cat that lives in Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. As a postdoctoral researcher, she lives in Cape Town to lead the project and conduct the fieldwork. Laurel is the first place winner of the Experiment Cats Challenge Grant. We sat down with her to see what she does behind the scenes.

Laurel, give us a brief introduction to who you are.

I am a postdoctoral researcher at University of Cape Town and University of California, Santa Cruz. I am also the Urban Caracal Project coordinator in partnership with Cape Leopard Trust.

When did you first get introduced to science?

As a young child I was introduced to the wonders of nature at summer camps, but my high school AP biology teacher really made an impression on me.

During undergrad, how did you know you wanted to study zoology?

There was never a doubt in my mind I would pursue this life. From a time of awareness as a young child, I’ve always known. So zoology was one of those stepping stones, though in retrospect I wish I’d chosen Ecology and Evolutionary Biology as my undergrad major. I have found my interests are broader than zoology– that looking at entire ecosystems and understanding the processes that regulate them is key to promoting conservation.

I saw that your first experience with wild cat research was in LA with the National Park Services. How did you find that opportunity?

The Texas A&M Job Board has all the best listings, including for Urban Caracal Project interns.

Seth Riley, National Parks Service

Did your first field experience with National Park Services lead you into your PhD?

Yes. As an intern with the National Park Service, I discovered that I really like working with the medium-sized cats, so I abandoned my dream to work with larger cats immediately. There I also found my two PhD advisors that really inspired me and I could see would foster my development in a very positive way. I knew I was interested in urban carnivore research so where else would be an excellent study system but one of the megacities of the world? That’s how I ended up in Los Angeles.

I enrolled at UCLA, but partnered with the National Park Service. I knew of Seth Riley at the National Park Service first. He’s actually the reason I initially wanted to go to Los Angeles. When I interviewed at UCLA, I met Bob Wayne who became my on-campus advisor because of our mutual interest in conservation genetics. He also has a great long-standing working relationship with Seth Riley. The key is finding someone who is a good, supportive fit that believes in your ability to get the work done, and fits your work style. Bob is very hands-off, and I thrive in an environment where I’m given freedom to explore my research questions in the ways that I think are best.

When did you start the Urban Caracal Project?

I started the project in November 2014 after arriving in South Africa a few months earlier in September.

What was your motivation behind starting this project?

I really wanted to work in a country besides the US to get a global perspective on conservation issues that wildlife face.

What does an average day for you look like now?

Very mixed and I wish any day was “average!” In this environment, there’s tons of logistical struggles that arise regularly. This has included dealing with power outages, equipment and vehicles that need constant attention, administrative tasks, fundraising (which I work on nearly everyday), permit maintenance, fielding calls from the general public, lab work, and tons of meetings. Several days a week, I have the chance to get out in the field. In that rare chance of capturing a caracal, I get to go concentrate on collaring another cat. It’s very mixed, which keeps things interesting, but can also make the work tiring since you never know how long any given day will be.

I see you have a huge team of volunteers. There must be a lot of students that want to work on this project with you. What do you look for in a new volunteer?

I look for several key attributes. Can the volunteer articulate why they feel the project is a good fit? Can the volunteer tell me how this project will benefit their professional development? Physical fitness is essential.

Flexibility, positive attitude, and ability to trouble-shoot problems are also traits I look for. The phrase– “I can’t do something because I don’t know how” is absolutely not allowed on this project. The most important thing for me is that my volunteers recognize that to be successful in this field, it isn’t about how much you know when you start a project, but what you are capable of learning. Overall, ability to articulate their interests is one of the most important things I think about in interviews because we have to interact a lot with the general public. If the volunteers can’t explain what they are doing out in the field, we lose the opportunity to engage people in the conservation action we are trying to promote.

What do you look for in a collaborator?

I look for enthusiasm and passion like I have. Collaboration also necessitates generosity with their time to share what their expertise is without expecting something in return per se. That sets a nice foundation for mutually beneficial relationships that can be even more productive than predicted.

Now, let’s talk more about the current project you’re raising funds for. You’ve already reached your first goal of $5,000. For those learning about this project for the first time can you briefly explain what the funds for your Experiment campaign will go towards?

Our base running costs to conduct fieldwork alone are around $3,000 per month. I am constantly trying to raise funds to support my volunteer housing and fuel costs. But we are also doing rat poison research and genetic work, and so I am looking for funds to support our initial analyses.

It sounds like this is the start of something much larger. What is your vision for how the Urban Caracal Project will grow?

Well, actually the Urban Caracal Project has become something much larger than I could’ve imagined — in part because of the community interest and support. My hope is to bring on a graduate student to carry the project further. We are discovering some very cool things in this system. We have found new behavioral questions that we are unable to answer with our current radio-collaring program. Currently we are using radio-collars to answer immediate questions about how urbanization is affecting the fine-scale movement of these cats. There’s always so much more work that can be done. I’d like to radio-collar animals for at least a year at a time instead of only 4–5 months. Collaring animals for one whole year will allow us to study more social and territorial aspects of their biology and collect more information on threats to their survival. There’s tons of disease work that can be done, and not just on caracals but also on domestic cats that may be reservoirs for disease affecting caracals. And there are so many new genetic techniques becoming available at cheaper costs, so there’s tons that we could do there with samples already collected.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Exactly what I am, a biologist that studies how humans impact wildlife so that we can promote the conservation of biodiversity.

What one piece of advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

Things always seem to work out in the end, so don’t sweat the small stuff. And happiness lay in nature, so spend as much time there as possible.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I am so grateful for our strong community of supporters, largely in Cape Town and other parts of South Africa, and the volunteers that believe in the project. I am also profoundly grateful for my South African collaborators, Jacqui Bishop and Justin O’Riain at University of Cape Town, and Helen Turnbull with Cape Leopard Trust who believed a crazy American could get the project to work. Without their essential support, this project would not be. I am also appreciative for the support of the City of Cape Town and South African National Parks, as well as my support group in the US– Chris Wilmers at UC Santa Cruz, and also Bob Wayne at UCLA.

You can support the Urban Caracal Project or ask Laurel questions directly on her Experiment page.

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