Author: Katherine Zhou; Translator: Riley Peng @ Animal Dialogue
First published on Animal Dialogue, 2018/1/19
Editor-in-Chief of Animal Dialogue
Born in China and made in California, Katherine Zhou currently lives in Boston. She graduated with the highest departmental honor from University of California – Los Angeles, where she obtained bachelor’s degrees in Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution and in English. Currently, she is a candidate for Master in Conservation Medicine at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
On the day of the interview, Katherine just came home from The Cape Wildlife Clinic, where she is interning, in the same old pair of jeans she’s been wearing for more than a century, with her hair tied up in a bun. “When working, my hands are filled with feces, making it difficult for me to even brush my hair to the side when it’s getting into my eyes.” She put her hairband down as she explained, “Many times my shirt and pants would also be depositories for feces. I’ve been working for two weeks. I felt lucky that I haven’t received any bird droppings yet.”
This girl who insists on calling herself a “poo shoveller” had traveled from the equator to the North Pole in the past year, and had also reached the Tibetan Plateau, just to see the local ecosystem in these places. “I feel like it’s time to relax and observe the species local to the city where I live.” She stretched her body with a smile.
English + Biology = Animal Dialogue’s Editor-in-Chief
Elephant: In your introduction, you mentioned that you double-majored in Biology and English at UCLA. These two majors seem unrelated to each other. What made you choose this combination?
Zhou: To be honest, initially I smugly considered myself unique, for it seemed unusual to double-major in Biology and English. However, after a while, I discovered that many people in my English classes were Biology majors minoring in English. In history, we can find many famous writers—such as Lu Xun— who were also doctors at least at one point of their lives. Most students studying Biology hold a curious and exploratory attitude towards life, and life and death are also topics that are discussed the most in literature. Thus, it makes sense that many Bio majors would become interested in English.
I chose Biology because I have wanted to become a zoologist since I was very young. Later in primary school, I discovered that I also liked writing. In addition, as a girl growing up in a city, all that I knew about wildlife was through reading books about animals. So it made me want to become an animal writer. After coming to the U.S. for college, I debated with myself whether or not I should explore literature, having to compete with native English speakers. But I realized that I truly like literature, so I tried taking two literature classes. I was happy that I didn’t fail those classes (haha), after that I made up my mind to major in English. In the beginning, I simply wanted to fulfill my childhood dream. However, an opportunity accidentally came my way when I took a class with Professor Ursula K. Heise. She examines literature through an ecological lens, focusing on how people are discussing topics such as species extinction and climate change. Most environmental stories follow the same model. For example, whenever people are telling stories about climate change, they like to use the storyline of “climate change apocalypse” to evoke horror. When it comes to species extinction, on the other hand, they sometimes employ the plot of “the world’s last XX” to create a nostalgic effect. When the class concluded, I became infatuated with how to create an environment in people’s imagination, and simultaneously realized the importance of storytelling in conservation. (Here I have to make an ad for my professor: please go check out her books!!)
Elephant: Did you join Animal Dialogue hoping to merge with your passion for literature with animal protection?
Zhou: Actually I had realized long before I wanted to major in English that wildlife protection cannot solely rely on those who are in the field. It requires the entire society’s participation. It’s just that a few years ago I didn’t know about Animal Dialogue’s WeChat platform. I even thought of opening my own to publish articles on animal protection. Luckily, I met one of the founders of Animal Dialogue and found out that Animal Dialogue was hiring. I then saw that I was not the only one who thought of doing something like this. Instead of starting from zero, why not join Animal Dialogue and make it better? Thus, on a dark night, I bought 20 dollars of Wifi at the peak of an Alaskan mountain, accepted Jing (co-founder of Animal Dialogue)’s interview, and became a member of Animal Dialogue. Even now, my heart still bleeds whenever I think of the 20 dollars I sacrificed to get wifi…Haha someone should delete this. Putting aside that 20 dollars, I firmly believe that joining Animal Dialogue is the most important decision I made in 2017. Being a part of Animal Dialogue helped me grow both personally and professionally. I am very grateful.
Elephant: After becoming part of Animal Dialogue, you have written quite a few widely read articles. Do you want to say something about them?
Zhou: Of course I have to thank our readers’ support hahaha. I think you mainly mean the two on Dr. Isabelle and the mountain lion. I’d meant to write these two articles for a long time. I had been thinking about them ever since I came back from Dr. Isabelle’s in the summer of 2015. It’s astonishing how she could do so much with so little. I really wanted to share with more people her story, so spent three weeks writing it. Without humbling myself, I don’t think it’s an accident that my article was popular, for it took me two years to brainstorm. But the popularity of the article on Hollywood mountain lion was an accident. Because I was in the middle of exams, I didn’t put much thought into it. I had always wanted to write about P22 (the Hollywood mountain lion) for our Chinese readers because all of my wildlife education originates from southern California, where the local wildlife species were among my most direct teachers. Thus, I like to say I’m “made in California,” for before coming to UCLA, I knew nothing about wildlife conservation, and all of my knowledge and understanding was formed during my time at UCLA.
LA is a very good city. In fact, the entire state of California is an awesome state, because it allows big, ferocious animals such as mountain lions to live near its residential areas, something I never experienced at where I came from.
Two professors from UCLA, Peter Kareiva and Jared Diamond, profoundly influenced how I thought about animal protection. Peter Kareiva advocates protecting animals living near cities and peaceful co-existence between animals and humans. This idea directly opposes to that of E.O. Wilson, who insists that no one should be permitted to stir the “pristine nature.” Jared Diamond also supports island geography, which means that a small number of connected habitats is more conducive to species protection than a larger one. Of course, I really admire E.O. Wilson. But I lean more towards Kareiva’s and Diamond’s arguments. As a result, when reading my articles, you seldom see depictions of “pristine nature,” for I focus more on finding a balance between the survival of humans and animals. After all, the good of all is more important.
Elephant: You always say that your job involves shoveling up feces for wild animals. Can you expound on that?
Zhou: It’s just shoveling up feces, as I’ve said! I’ve been volunteering at wildlife clinics since sophomore year in college. I’ve been to clinics in Belize and California, in addition to two wildlife clinics in Massachusetts. Every day at work, the first thing I do is shoveling up feces, followed by preparing diet for the patients. When many people see cute videos of wild animals online, they idealize our job as volunteers and imagine all we do is cuddling with the animals. In fact, the animals are quite afraid of us. Think about it from the perspective of these animals. If you were suddenly captured, shut up in a cage, and have to be injected or operated on whenever the cage opens, how can you act “cute”? You would probably want to bite off the volunteers’ fingers. Besides the times when giving them medications and surgeries, we would avoid approaching them, because they don’t like it when we do. If you keep on staring at them, you will cause them so much stress that their recovery will be compromised.
After rescuing wildlife for so long, I admit that I don’t like to say I am rescuing these animals, for saying so denotes that we are really saving their lives and doing them a favor. If you really have to say that someone has saved their lives, it’s not me, but the veterinarians. In fact, the real help we can offer them is meager. It’s hard to rescue wild animals, because the mental distress you cause them sometimes outweighs your saving efforts. Many animals can come into the clinics alive, and what makes us the happiest is to see them walk out alive.
Elephant: Speaking of walking out alive, you have also mentioned before that life and death is your favorite topics. Do you often witness life and death during work?
Zhou: So much of it! Taking my current internship at Cape Wildlife Center as an example. During the first couple of days, we received three skunks, one Canadian goose, and one red-throated loon, whose medical conditions exceeded our capabilities. We had to euthanize all of them after inspection. One time a cat caught a rat, and the cat owner sent the rat into the clinic, only to see it perish upon its arrival. Besides these, we’ve been trying to rescue an eider since it was sent in five days ago. Last night, however, it also died of unknown reason. In sum, we received nine animals in the first five days, but none survived after a week. The situation remains for the following weeks.
Elephant: Do you feel sad knowing that these animals will be euthanized right after being sent in?
Zhou: I don’t usually feel too sad because those who are sent to us are usually weak enough to be captured by humans. Even if we don’t euthanize them, they will have difficulty surviving in the wild. I am sad when the animals that we thought had hope to survive through surgeries end up being euthanized. Just this morning, we euthanized a scoter. She had been here for almost two months and had two large wounds on her chest. A veterinarian sewed her wound through surgery. Unfortunately, she developed other infections, causing the bones of one foot to melt off. Just as I have mentioned before, wild animals, especially birds, are quite difficult to treat. Confining them in cages can bring them more fear and unease, the pain of which can even exceed their body discomforts. As a result, many animals’ immune systems are depressed, and others might accidentally hurt themselves. Right after we treat one illness, another soon follows. We have been taking care of this scoter for about two months. In the end, however, we have to give up. How can we not feel sad when so many people’s efforts were futile? I remember there’s a saying that goes, “It’s similar to when your teacher tells you to start all over right before you have almost finished writing your entire essay.” But we don’t really have the opportunity to start all over again when it comes to saving lives.
Elephant: The mortality rate is so high… Don’t you feel despair?
Zhou: In the beginning I did. I initially became interested in wildlife rescue because I would like to save more lives. I even wanted to save all the animals on the planet. Therefore, I felt simply euthanizing the animals indicates that we haven’t done good enough. Gradually, however, I discovered that in many cases, all we can do is to help them alleviate their pain. Just like I’ve said, I prefer to call myself a wildlife feces digger because we are not gods, and thus can’t save or rescue all lives. The only thing we can do is to provide the best help that we can while they are here. To repeat what I’ve said before, I don’t think we are doing these animals a favor. On the contrary, it’s a blessing to be near them. Isn’t the phrase “Buddhist-style” quite trendy on Chinese social media now? I think I hold a Buddhist attitude towards my work. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to take care of these animals when they come here.
Elephant: Did something change your mind?
Zhou: Two things did. One summer, I went to a wildlife clinic in Belize, Central America. A person saved an infant grey fox when he saw a group of children throwing stones at the poor creature. After he has rescued her, however, he didn’t know where her mother was, so he decided to send her to a clinic. But at the time, the veterinarian worried that she was too young. If we hand fed her, what should we do when she had grown too attached to us and didn’t want to leave? We also couldn’t provide her with a mother who could teach her how to hunt. Half a year later, she not only kept a distance with humans, but also easily self-learned how to hunt. I witnessed her being released back into the wild. Seeing her grow up from a furry ball and successfully returned to where she belonged fueled me with confidence about the rescue process. We had at least changed the life of one individual for the better. This single instance brings me more sense of accomplishment than saving an entire species would. Of course, this sense of accomplishment might change. As of now, I like seeing a rescued individual released back into the wild.
Another thing was that when volunteering at the wildlife clinic at my university, I saw that every volunteer took such meticulous care of the animals. Even when they discovered just a hole on the animals’ bedsheet, they would try to cover it up as soon as possible, lest the animals become entangled with the bedsheet when accidentally stepping into the hole. One time, when someone sent in a crow, a volunteer gathered all sorts of toys to hang on his cage. Because crows are very smart, giving him these toys would ensure that he doesn’t feel bored. This left a deep impression on me. In the past, I thought that our work consisted entirely of manual labor. After that, however, I realized that it also involves mental labor, for I need to think about how I can make my patient’s time here more comfortable. Right now, my favorite thing is to make a donut for a waterfowl. It’s actually just giving him a nice mat to sit in. This is important because waterfowls usually spend their days on the water. If we suddenly place them on a hardwood surface, their muscles near the keel could easily get injured. One time, a veterinary student especially told me to make a donut for the herring gull she was taking care of. Because the gull really liked the donut I made for her on the previous day and spent the whole day sitting on it. I felt quite accomplished and motivated to keep doing what I’m doing.
Wildlife Conservation makes me believe in humanity
Elephants: In addition to wildlife rescue, you also conduct a lot of wildlife research. What’s the difference between research and rescue work? Do you have any advice for students who are choosing between the two?
Zhou: To begin with, they have one thing in common: they are both not profitable. But if you have found the right project for research, you might be able to obtain a heftier fund. Same with rescue. The rescue centers I’ve worked at all rely on donations and volunteer labor. As long as rescue centers are willing to let non-professionals participate, many can gain community support and subsequently funding.
What appeals to me the most about wildlife research is being able to travel to a lot of different places. If I’m just doing rescue work, I usually have to wait in the rescue center for animals to appear. Last year I followed my professor to Cameroon. The natural reserve we stayed at did not have a lot of tourists, the facilities at the research base also just finished being built, and we were the first group of students to live there. It felt like living in another world. Our phones didn’t have signal, the only form of transportation was by foot, and all we could do was talking to each other when we were bored, for we couldn’t play video games or go on the internet. As a result, during my time at the camp, we spent a lot of time talking to local students and camp helpers. After 20 or so days, everyone became good friends.
In the francophone region we stayed at, the locals could only speak French. Although not many of us speak French, in the mornings we still exchanged greetings with the locals. I remembered that a helper at the camp was quite handsome and didn’t talk to us much, so I would always try to strike up a conversation with him. After a while, he would always sit next to me at the bonfire to teach me simple French phrases such as “fire” or “bird.” Unfortunately, I have now forgotten all of those haha.
Another thing that I still remember clearly was that we used to shower at a wooden plank above the stream. To shower, we needed to fill a bucket full with stream water and then walked to the shower stall. The shower stalls for men and women were separated by some bushes. One day on my way to the shower place, my professor was walking behind me and suddenly said, “You dropped something.” I looked back and realized that I dropped my underwear. My professor walked off laughing and told me to pretend he didn’t see it. I’m the kind of person who highly respects the elderly. After that, however, I began to think of my 60-year-old professor as my friend. Outdoor research really can bring together people from different cultures and ages, which is what I love most about research.
Lastly, I think that many people in the conservation field more or less have social anxiety. They don’t really like humans, at least I was like that. But after participating in wildlife conservation, I started believing more in humanity and wanting to interact with human beings. Besides what I’ve mentioned about Cameroon, when in other places, I also felt that no matter what kind of wildlife conservation you’re looking at, wildlife conservation workers are very warm-hearted. As long you ask, you will always get an answer from them. Moreover, many wildlife conservationists harbor sympathy and empathy for other lives. Thus, it’s hard for you to come across a mean person in the wildlife conservation field. At least I’m lucky enough to have never encountered one.
Elephant: Last question here. What do you look forward to in 2018?
Zhou: I hope to live well in Boston, and that Animal Dialogue will continue to thrive!