A Herper’s Glossary

ATM: (acronym) About To Molt. The state a snake is in a few days before shedding its skin, when it is mostly blind, itchy, and especially cranky. Careful, she’s ATM and likely to bite.

Bag ‘n Tag: (v) To quickly and efficiently identify, capture, and store a herp in a labeled container for later release, either for scientific study or public safety. (NOTE: not to be confused with simply “Tag”, see below)

Barehand: (v) to capture a herp without any tools.

Corwin: (n) A semi-professional herper who often hams up Bag n’ Tag for attention, but has little academic background and is kind of a poser. 

Dance, The: (n) The process of trying to safely capture an excited and dangerous snake, often in front of a crowd of horrified students. Well, I flubbed the hook, so now we start the dance.

DBD: (acronym) Dead by Daylight, a reference to the myth that dead snakes do not fully die until the next morning, but really does refer to the long-lasting death reflex that can still cause fatal bites. Don’t pick it up yet, bro. Remember DBD.

Dundee: (n) A herper with no academic background, but has plenty of practical background and skill. He Barehanded that python, he’s a real Dundee.

GIS: (acronym) General Impression and Shape. Used as a reason or excuse for a vague identification. Alternate meaning: Goddamit, I’m Sure. How do I know that was a Leaf Frog and not a Tree Frog? GIS.

I know frog GIS. And this thing has frog GIS all over it.

Herp: 1.  (n) short for “herpetofauna,” reptiles and amphibians, evolutionarily distinct but often included in the same study for functional or historical reasons. Often autocorrected as “Herpes,” with disastrous results.

I went out with the guys last night and we all caught herps together.

2. (v) to search for, catch, study, or observe herps. See: Herper, herpist (obsolete). Conditions are good, so we’re going herping this weekend.

Horse Juice: (n) Antivenom, which is–seriously–made from horses. I got tagged, hit me with the Horse Juice.

Hook: 1. (n) The Snakehook, the herper’s trusty tool consisting of a long rod, usually stainless steel, with a short blunt hook at the end. Used for capturing snakes. Also doubles as improvised weapon, walking stick, staff of office, and back scratcher.

2. (v) to catch a snake using the hook with a simple scooping movement.

Irwin: (n) A professional herper who hams up Bag n’ Tag for attention, but has the academic background to back it up and is probably a really cool guy.

Kit, the: (n) Snakebite kit. Notorious among professional herpers as a generally ineffective placebo.

Phobe: (n) Short for Ophidiophobe: one who is afraid of snakes. Make it a quick Bag n’ Tag, there’s a phobe in the audience.

If you’re a phobe, you probably stopped reading a while ago.

Pollywog: 1. (n) regional slang for tadpole, frog larvae

2. (n) regional slang for intern, graduate student larvae.

Tag: (v) to bite a human (if you are a snake). She tagged me, bro! Get the kit!

WWSID: (acronym) What Would Steve Irwin Do?

I, Naturalist

It’s been a rough couple of months. Between travel restrictions, career, and a debilitating injury, it doesn’t look like I’ll be in Costa Rica again any time soon. So in my boredom and gloom, I got back into something I thought I’d sworn off years ago: a little app called iNaturalist.

It was either that or reach for something else I’d sworn off years ago.

My reasons for dropping iNat are due to a poor first impression. See, the app is designed to be a tool where users can upload photos of living things and then try to ID each other’s photos. Photos can be geotagged and date stamped, and IDs can be as specific as you like. IDs are based on current accepted taxonomy, and can be searched by scientific or common names. If multiple IDs disagree, the app displays the lowest common taxonomic level. Algorithms can automatically suggest IDs based on photos and geography.

But when it was first rolled out, the algorithms had so little data to work from that they were practically useless. There weren’t enough experts using the app to make accurate IDs. And the potential for abuse was too easy.

Years back, I TA-ed for a high school level field course when the new app was included in the curriculum. The instructors, without much foresight, decided that each student had to make 5 IDs a day. There were sixteen students over 2 weeks.

The problems were immediately obvious to me. “So are we going to have to verify 80 photos a day for two weeks?”

No, I was told. iNaturalist would verify the photos automatically.

“But how do we know that the ID is correct? More importantly, how do the students learn anything if all they’re doing is posting a photo and waiting for the app to suggest something?

Brown. Spiny. Suggested ID: hedgehog–iNaturalist, early days.

The activity was abandoned after a few days, and the experience really turned me against the app. But now I see that my initial assessment isn’t fair. Because in the years since, between new features, better code, and a growing community of users, this is quite a neat tool.

I can now, from the comfort of my temperate-latitude home, scroll through photos that are being taken in Costa Rica. I can narrow my search by taxonomy or location. I can help people identify the animals, plants, and even fungi they’re seeing, just like I did as a guide. I can even get an idea of what’s going on–a lot of amateur bird photos suggests the migratory species are showing up. A series of professional, specimen-grade insect closeups means there’s an entomological study going on at one of my old field stations. And I can even keep updated on puma activity around where I had my encounter–most likely, it’s the same cat.

And the community behind this is great. People are generally helpful and supportive. We’re all naturalists enjoying what we do best, and apart from a little bragging here and there, it’s perfectly wholesome. Sure, every now and then I’ll see someone use it to plug a business or social media account, but so far the community is niche enough that there isn’t any abuse or toxicity. Disagreements are kept professional, not mean-spirited. A true gem for the internet.

It’s like Instagram, but exclusively for nature nerds.

I’ve even used it to reconnect with people. Scrolling though CR photos, I saw a couple shots of damselflies with painted abdomens–the same technique we used back in 2016. Messaging the photographer, I asked if they ever worked with my old PI. Turns out, they were one of my coworkers on that project. They were still at it, years later, making little bugs fight for science.

Remember this? That was…wait, six years ago? Jesus!

I don’t often plug anything, especially anything app-related, but this is social media exclusively for things I like. The system isn’t perfect, and still should not be relied on for poor lesson planning, but for now it appears to be serving its purpose and then some. To me, that’s worth sacrificing a little personal metadata or whatever its taking off my phone in exchange for a little guiding-by-proxy. I’m that desperate.

A Day in the Life of a Real Naturalist

Years back, an ecolodge I worked for commissioned me to write a guest post for their blog. It was supposed to be a “Day in the Life of a Naturalist” post, and someone had heard that I had my own personal blog going at the time. However, the boss clearly had no idea of the tone of said personal blog and its, shall we say, irreverence. The piece I wrote was true to form and, while accurate, didn’t really fit with the professional, family-friendly official page. It was rather off-brand. So the Director himself decided it was in need of much re-writing, a task he did on his own.

And I didn’t even mention ants.

The resulting post wasn’t so much re-written as ghost-written. Gone was the spite and sarcasm. Gone were the gory details. Gone was the actual day in the actual life of an actual naturalist. In its place was a squeaky-clean bit of G-rated ecotour propaganda. I allowed it to be posted only with my name removed, and decided to post my original work on my own blog.

But then I remembered that I was under contract, and that technically what I had written belonged to the organization. Plus, I was under a kind of NDA and some details pertained to work. Plus, I was trying to be professional, and didn’t want my employer to think I was a dick.

Well I just learned that that place is no longer in business so they can’t do squat! Below is my original post, along with their edits in bold.

My day begins at 5am dawn when the monkeys wake me up by dropping guavas on my roof. My first coherent thought is deciding whether or not to go outside and yell at them to imagine all the animals I’m going to see today. Then I shake the spiders out of put on my boots and head to the dining hall where I fill myself with as much rice, beans, and strong coffee as is medically possible eat breakfast and drink a cup of coffee. This is the jungle and I can’t waste daylight.

Monkeys are awful little tree gremlins interesting creatures.

The first tour of the day is usually birdwatching. After passing out binoculars, and helping the one or two chuckleheads who try to use them backwards, we head out to see what’s around. Depending on the year, we can get all sorts of migrants and visitors from the Northern Hemisphere flying in and making a lot of noise. Sometimes we see migratory birds too. The campus is great place for birding, with plenty of open areas, forested habitat, flowers, fruit, and tall trees. Sometimes we visit a ledge overlooking the river with a great view of the valley, which also happens to be my favorite spot to pee a very relaxing place.

If nothing is scheduled, I like to head over to the campus farm to lend a hand. Agriculture in the Tropics is a never-ending rewarding job, as the growing season is year-round. The food goes right from the dirt to the kitchen. Lunch is typical Costa Rican food, generally organic rice, local beans, homegrown veggies, and a meat dish with fresh fruit. Along with, of course, more coffee.

Ok, he was trying to plug the farm here. I get that.

Afternoons are for more activities. If we’re in luck, we’re hosting a researcher, and they always need someone to play Tonto an experienced guide. Or Sherpa a helpful assistant. Throughout my time here, I’ve assisted with forestry techs, bat catchers scientists, herpers biologists who study reptiles and amphibians, butterfly geeks lepidopterists, and camera trap nerds specialists. Onsite, we have our own research on seed dispersal, reforestation, mycology, and a poor resident moth intern who stays up all night counting bugs an ongoing moth survey.

Throughout the day, I like to make myself available to guests to tell stories, point out animals, and answer their questions. I hear all sorts of things. “What was that animal we saw that looked like a large guinea pig?” Probably an agouti. “We heard a strange call last night.” This is where I start making animal sounds until they hear the right one help them find out what it was. “Is it true that there’s a bug that lays its eggs in your brain?” Um, not sure about that one. No, but the Director once got bit by a botfly.

What he hell, man? That isn’t even MY anecdote.

Dinner is similar to lunch, and afterward is my favorite activity: night hike. A few hours after sunset, I pass out flashlights, slap on some bugspray, and hit the trails with a group of wary excited guests in tow. Nighttime is when the jungle really comes alive. We can count on seeing all sorts of critters nocturnal wildlife, from massive insects, ghostly owls, and absolute hordes of frogs. If we’re lucky, we might even see a kinkajou which is a Costa Rican mammal that looks like a large squirrel. We often rarely see snakes.

Exhausted, delighted, and very sweaty, everyone heads back to the cabins to dream of weird animals they’ve never seen before. It’s been another day in the life of a naturalist.

So You Don’t Want to Be a Naturalist Anymore

So you’ve decided to change careers. The life of a naturalist just isn’t for you. Maybe you’re tired of being constantly bug-bitten and mammal-mauled. Maybe the apocalyptic scale of climate change has you despairing for environmental work. Maybe you’d like to for once in your life make some actual money.

I’m not giving up my dream just yet. But as a naturalist who has, at times, had to support my career with jobs outside my field, I thought I’d offer this self-help guide to readjusting back into normal, civilized, adult life. Here goes.

I know it sounds crazy, but there exists a job without ants.

Rewrite Your Resume

If you have a science background, you’ve been taught to prepare your resume/CV a certain way. To just pack that baby with every study, research project, lab activity, and field gig you were remotely a part of, and describe each one with as technical of wording as possible. Extra points for being as taxonomically specific as possible. Double points for including Latin words that barely qualify as English.

Well now you’re applying for a normal job and guess what? Not only does no-one give a crap about that, they will barely understand it. Some poor recruiting manager doesn’t want to have to scan through a list of “research experiences” involving animals they’ve never heard of. Especially if the work was unpaid and, let’s be honest, it was unpaid wasn’t it?

For example, I recently applied to an ordinary job for the season. I edited down my Research section greatly, and changed things like “conducted a species assemblage of amphibians across a geographic gradient” to “Studied frogs in the jungle.” Much more palatable. “Comparison of interspecific sexual and territorial behavior of damselfies” became “Made horny bugs fight each other. For science.” And anything involving the collection of feces…yeah, I removed that entirely. That sure made the document shorter.

Man, not even spellcheck knows what a damselfly is

Change Your Appearance

Did you know there are other colors for clothing besides green, brown, grey, and other drab earth tones? Did you know that some people buy clothing with appearance in mind, not function? That there are other factors to take into account other than a fabric’s ability to resist mold, scratches, and animal blood?

Strange as it seems, you may find yourself in a job where your appearance matters. You may be expected to meet something called “professional standards” of dress, grooming, and general hygiene. You will not be allowed to wear clothes that are stained or torn, even if they function just fine. You will be expected to shave and cut your hair, despite your protests that it will all grow back anyway.

It’s rough, but think of it as an adaptation. Civil camouflage. Clothes shopping is just gathering materials. Now go out and get yourself a makeover. Get dressed. Wear perfume. Put on makeup. Cut your hair. Do your nails. Take a bath, you dirty hippy.

Stop Telling Stories, Seriously Just Shut Up Because No One Believes You

Another personal anecdote: a while back on a construction gig, a coworker noticed the scars on my hand. He asked where they came from. I told him, “monkeys.” That guy never spoke to me again.

Yes, a monkey. And I still see his face in my dreams…

It’s a naturalist thing. Fieldwork talk. Research station stories. We all do it, all trying to share and impress and one-up. We talk about the places we’ve been. The adventures we’ve had. The animals we’ve seen, studied, or fought. The tales border on the ludicrous and push the limits of believability because that’s the point.

But back here in the real world? That junk is straight out of animal planet. Fantasy that belongs on television. Best case: people will think you’re full of shit. Worse case: they will think you’re insane. Most likely: a bit of both. So learn from my mistakes, mistakes I keep making over and over wherever I go, and curb that kind of behavior.

Bottom line: what happens in the jungle stays in the jungle. Or at least let it out carefully, gradually, bit by bit over time.

Also, maybe don’t talk about snakes so much. Can’t hurt.

The Curse

As a funny man once said, “I’m not superstitious, but I’m a little stitious.” I’m a skeptic with an open mind. Black cats don’t bother me unless they’re clawing at my leg for attention. I don’t carry good luck charms unless I think they look cool and I would probably carry them anyway. I don’t believe in astrology unless I’m trying to get laid. After all, I’m a scientist at heart, trained to think rationally and act pragmatically.

But I have to admit, after significant observation and data analysis, that I am under some kind of curse: Animal trouble follows me wherever I go.

And for once, I’m not just talking about the ants.

No, this is not due to my line of work. Even among biologists, my number of violent, dramatic, or otherwise unusual animal encounters is an outlier. For almost every job I’ve held. In nearly every place I lived.

My first longterm Costa Rica gig, who had the army ants infest his cabin, and his alone? This guy. That forestry job in Puerto Rico? We were told that invasive mongoose were a shy and rarely encountered species, and not a realistic threat even though they occasionally carried rabies. Yet who got bitten by a rabid mongoose, right outside the dorms, no less? Read my post about that. And the monkey house? Sure, we all had our share of monkey attacks, and monkeys throwing things at us, and monkeys peeing on us, but who had a opossum crawl across his face and fuck-no-o’clock in the morning while sleeping in his own goddam bed?

I have a post about that too, of course.

It sure seems like this is a pattern. Houses where I live see an uptick of pest activity when I move in. Farms where I work get more wildlife trouble. And the animal rescue center? Oh, sweet lord. The staff commented that he’d never seen so many snakes in so little time. Monkeys raided the kitchen. The mosquitos were unusually bad. An dang ocelot moved in and started harassing the sanctuary animals.

I’m forced to confront the “why” and seek solutions. Is this karmic justice for my past as a tracker and hunter? Or my past as a wildlife biologist? Or against my general antagonistic attitude to animals who disrespect me? Have I offended some self-righteous nature god?

Ok, so, yeah, I have spent a lot of time terrorizing animals in the name of science.

Either way, I should probably come with a warning label. After all, some of the places I’ve worked (zoos, large animals farms, vet clinics come to mind), the stakes were rather high concerning potential animal trouble. I suppose I should be thankful things weren’t worse. But regardless, I might want to cool it and seek some kind of understanding with the animal kingdom in general to prevent further catastrophe.

No joke, someone once tried an exorcism after the 3rd or 4th snake incident.

I’m going to be running a legitimate guiding outfit soon. I can’t have my past coming back to haunt me in the form of rampaging wildlife and other such close-encounters. Actually, that might be a selling point. I’ll think on this.

You Might Be a Wildlife Biologist (or a Farmer) If…

(I thought I’d elaborate on the similarities between the two jobs, using my least favorite joke template)

…when you look at an animal, you’re picturing it dead and cut open.

…all your clothes are stained, but you can’t remember from which animal and from which fluid.

…you work with animals and then immediately eat lunch without washing your hands because sweat and dirt are just as good as soap.

…your best scars are teeth marks.

And you are proud of every one. Maybe a little too proud.

…you shop at thrift stores because you feel too guilty to ruin new clothes.

…when you think about sex, at least some part of your mind is thinking about breeding inherited traits.

…you always carry a knife because of course you do, and why is everyone so bothered by this?

…you have been literally deeper in shit than anyone else, and it no longer bothers you.

…you’re better with animals than you are with people, even if you don’t like said animals.

Especially if you don’t like said animals.

…your fashion palette consists of earthtones, various greens, grey, dark grey, Realtree, and occasionally faded denim.

…if you own a car, it smells like your work.

…you have a very, very complicated love-hate relationship with the weather.

…you will casually tell people you caught X horrible disease from an animal and not notice their confused, horrified expressions.

Yeah, the goats gave me herpes again. Wait, where are you all going?

…your feet are a crime scene.

…in your dreams, you fight animals.

…in your nightmares, you have a desk job.

…if you have an intern, they are disposable.

Actually, having been an intern, I can say this probably applies to most jobs.

…you have heard and/or seen your coworkers peeing. Often not five meters away from where you’re working.

…you have a vastly different perception of the word “organic” than the rest of the world.

…you get to wear a great hat.

The Weirding Ways

I’m well and settled in to my farm job, getting the most out of my cold-weather gear and eating a lot of kale. I’ve adapted, but am trying not to lose too much of the skillset I honed over the years in the Tropics as a naturalist. After all, while I’m staying active, keeping fit, and eating better than ever (despite second-rate coffee and a lack of tropical fruit, I’ll admit), I can feel myself losing my edge. I can’t remember the last time I had to prepare for a flash flood. I haven’t had to monkey-proof anything in a while. I no longer reflexively check my boots for scorpions, or my bed for ants, or everywhere for snakes. Hey, I never said the edge was necessarily a positive thing.

Or tarantulas. They get everywhere.

However, there are remarkably many similarities between farming and wildlife biology. The animals, obviously, but also the close contact with them. You don’t just work with animals, you work with with them. They’re both physical jobs, ones that translate many long brain sessions of planning and coordinating into a lot of grunt work. Then there’s the setting: you work primarily outdoors, in the dirt and mud. Especially the mud.

But the most striking similarity, the thing that has me most flashing back to my naturalist days? The weird.

Pictured: something weird.

Both fields require the occasional occupational task that is so weird it borders on the surreal. The unexplainable. Those tasks that may–and do–play a critical role in the farming/research process but, out of context, are so bizarre that you would seem like a lunatic for relating them.

Examples? Things like narrating dragonfly fights. Sniffing field mice to ID subspecies. Conducting amphibious beachhead assaults to capture sleeping seals, frogmen-style. Shoot, a few months ago I thought I had topped out when I was noogying a sloth into submission. I knew we naturalists were a zany bunch.

Also that time I had to do lizard rodeo to see if I could decode their neck flaps. I didn’t stop because it was crazy. I stopped because someone beat me to that thesis.

But farmers have us beat. They train dogs to run in circles around sheep. They stick their hands in every possible orifice of a cow. The other day, I was comparing pig nipples. Pig nipples. We spent what seemed to be an inordinate amount of time elaborating on the variables of number, size, color, and tenderness. Of pig nipples. While screaming piglets ran around us or were held upside down, tiny trotters kicking at the sky. It took ages. The information collected was extensive. Now, I am confident to say that I am a knowledgeable pig nipple expert.

That’s going on a business card.

Why? Out of context it sounds insane. But apparently the ability to nurse many offspring is an important quality in a pig, and so a trait worth selecting for in captive breeding. So in a group of piglets that are relatively similar, it’s a good things to look for in keeper pigs. Only the pigs with the best nipples get to keep their testicles, as well as their lives. Ok, so maybe it doesn’t sound much better in context either. Another similarity: neither job is exactly pretty, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going into them if you like animals.

Pictured: my coworkers. Also: food.

In a way, I feel I’ve come full-circle what with the animals. And the weird. Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about losing my edge.

The Anteater Saga: Conclusion

We found the anteater guy but lost the anteater.

I, apparently, had been the last one to find her. Since the tracking project had resumed (with a whole new suite of safety protocols!) I had been covering one day of the week so the researcher could get a break. Late Saturday afternoon I tracked the signal from the anteater’s radio collar to a spot high in a dead tree, marked the location, and called it a day.

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I should have gone up there to check but thought, “ehhh, I’m good.”

But Dave went back out there the next morning and couldn’t pick up the signal.

Grumbling to myself that the GPS was on the fritz or he probably had gotten my directions wrong, I went with him on Monday afternoon. Nothing. No signal, no anteater. All we got for our efforts were several ant bites and a wet socks from a torrential downpour that just added to our mood.

I tried to think rationally. “Alright, it’s been 3 days since she was last seen. How far can they move in a day?”

“About 1 kilometer.”

I drew a 3km-radius circle on a mental map of where we were. “And she was last headed in what direction?”

“North-northwest.”

Deeper into the forest. Fuck. “Ok, worst case scenario? What happens if we can’t find her?”

“Well, she grows into the harness until it eventually chokes her to death.”

That didn’t sound good. I tried to lighten the mood by speculating aloud that she would join the mythos of this forest, become one more spooky ghost story along with the Chupacabra and haunted pirate treasure. “They’ll call her ol’ Squeezysnout. Years from now, she’ll still crawl through these woods, and the local kids will swear they can hear her snuffling about in the darkness.” Dave wasn’t amused. But then again he also wasn’t amused when I had previously referred to one of his anteaters as “80%” because it was missing a tail.

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Am I an asshole? I’m an asshole.

Anyway, to be more helpful I offered to drive us around the country roads surrounding our forest, hoping to perhaps cover that circle in my head and head her off. Car radiotelemetry: it’s exactly as it sounds. We finished early one morning and grabbed a new hire and piled into what remains of our project vehicle for a field trip. Then we headed off through rural Costa Rica, cattle farms and oil palm plantations, antennas out the window and ears open for steady beeps.

The new guy took all this in stride. Or maybe this wasn’t his first anteater hunt? Maybe he thought we were hamming it up for his benefit. Or hazing him. “Hey, you know on my first day at my first job, they made me climb a cliff with a dead beaver. And then dismember it.”

“Cool,” was all he said, and concentrated on the antenna. Man, this guy was unflappable. Unless I had mistranslated the word for “dismember.” Or “beaver.” Regardless, I made a mental note to save any such duties for this kid. I had to know what he was made of.

Anyway, our hunt took us all morning. At one point we thought we got something, and 4×4-ed it through a pasture until we ran into some cowboys. I explained what we were doing and requested permission to use their land, and luckily the new guy was a local fella who could vouch for me. I say “luckily” because the cowboys must have thought we were loons. They took one look at Dave, waving his antenna around while standing on top of the project car. The license plate hung by a single screw. There was a small tree growing out of where one of the headlights used to be. “He lost his anteater,” I explained.

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“Yes, an anteater. And she makes a beeping sound. Can we use your land?”

But the signal proved to be a ghost. Either that, or the cowboys were secretly a front for a CIA listening post. Or maybe they were robots. Not our concern, either way. So we continued and were heading back, dejected,  through the palm plantation that serves as our driveway when I heard a beep.

Then another beep. One every second, precisely.

I limped the car as close as I could get us, then we hopped out. Antennas poked the air and we fiddled with gain knobs. But soon we had a strong signal coming from a canal riverbank.

And there, in the canal, was the anteater.

We spent a while high-fiving. “So what now?” I asked.

“Well, I’d like to bring her back and get a physical exam before removing the collar.”

“And how do you plan to do that?”

“I’ll wrap her in my shirt. Then put her in the car.”

Tamanduas smell like rotten eggs dipped in creosote. “I don’t think so.”

I left them there to watch her while I went back for a kennel and gloves. We were barely 2 km from the campus, but in entirely the opposite direction the anteater had been heading. It’s like she suddenly decided to reverse direction. Or maybe follow in the footsteps of her lost human.

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Does anyone else have a hard time telling which end of the anteater they’re looking at?

By the time we returned we felt like heroes. Muddy, sweaty, ant-bitten and reeking of tamandua, but heroes. We had tracked an animal to the ends of the forest, risking snakebite and quicksand and an engine breakdown that should have happened a hundred kilometers ago. Truly, today was a vindication to our will, a testament of our equipment, and a victory we all very much needed.

Lost

There’s a guy I work with who I’m going to call “Dave.” And I have his permission to tell this story, using different names. He owes me, anyway.

Dave doesn’t exactly work here, but he’s been stuck here ever since COVID. He’s a researcher, and his subject is anteaters. The rescue center and he worked out a deal where he would get to stay and study the tamanduas we had, in exchange for him helping out a few hours every day. It’s a bit awkward, but it’s worked so far. His project was pretty sound, and has moved on to telemetry tracking of one anteater that’s been released with a collar. But I’m not here to talk about work.

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This isn’t about you

See, Dave left around 8:30am the other day to go find the anteater with his antenna. He’s a professional so I let him go. But he didn’t show up for lunch. Lunch is at noon. Dave never misses lunch. But I still didn’t think anything of it until about 4pm when someone asked who was doing the evening feed. It was supposed to be Dave.

I called around. No one had seen him all day. I had been the last to see him that morning when he left.

I’ve been part of impromptu jungle Search and Rescues before. Way back during my first visit to Costa Rica, two of the children of the field station staff didn’t come back one evening. That was a little scary, especially since we had just seen photos of jaguars on our camera traps. So everyone met and powwowed and we organized people in pairs to cover trails and streams. Kept in constant radio contact. Someone eventually found the kids, who had been playing late and lost track of time. They had just stayed put, which was the right thing to do. Crisis averted, but that was a tense couple of hours.

A few years back a guy disappeared from our field station in El Yunque, Puerto Rico. Like, just straight up vanished. It was a weekend, but by the time it was getting dark someone mentioned that we were short someone at the table. The guy didn’t answer our calls. Again we mobilized into pairs to comb the forest, shouting his name until a storm came and we had to call it. Mind, where we were is one of the most remote locations on the island, kilometers from anything up a hairy mountain road that often gets flashfloods. The only other people we got up there besides very lost tourists were local brujeria (“witchcraft”) practitioners and gang executions. Both groups we tried to avoid. So our imaginations were running pretty wild until someone noticed that the guy’s room was cleaned out. As if he’d never existed. A few days later his Instagram feed popped up with photos from Costa Rica. To this day, we still have no idea how or why he managed to get out and off that mountain without anyone noticing and why the fuck he didn’t tell anyone, even leave a note. If I ever find him, I’m going to ask him this and then kick him in the nuts.

Anyway, where was I? Right, Dave. We’re pretty short-staffed here, but I still got everyone able-bodied out in the usual method: pairs, radios, routes, and head back if it rains. Left someone to hold down the fort and keep everyone in contact. Me, I headed out alone to walk down a stream bed where I thought he’d mentioned he’d tracked the anteater before. Risky, but I knew the area and I move faster on my own.

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“What I have are a particular set of skills…”

About an hour in, a call came through from the Center. Dave had found his way back, but had been wandering about 6 hours, lost, heading in what he thought was the right direction. Ended up about 3 klicks away on a forest road. He got lucky—another direction would have taken him deeper into the forest. Upon debriefing, he said he knew he should have stayed put, but he got hungry.

That was two days ago. I’m still feeling it. My back’s killing me and I think I pulled something trying to vault a patch of quicksand. I got tagged by a non-venomous snake that I thought was a vine and tried to swing on. Everywhere hurts. My god, I’m so out of shape, or maybe running through the jungle is a younger man’s game. Either way, I think I’ve lost my edge.

On top of it all, we still had to cover for Dave who had missed all his duties that afternoon. I had to do all the feeding and cleaning in the dark. To add injury to more injury, one of the coatis bit me on the ass. Just right up there on the quarter-moon. It left a mark that I’m going to have a great time explaining to someone someday. Dave owes me for that, too.

Don’t get lost. If you do, I will find you. And then I’ll kick your ass.

 

Have Sloth, Will Travel

5:45am. Light clouds. My alarm stirs me from restless sleep and I arise to a day already reeking of sweat. I take a swig of leftover coffee, cold and bitter, that hits me harder than a punch to the jaw. Then I pull on my field vest and slide into two knee-high, snakeproof kevlar boots, after first shaking them out. Scorpions. You never know. Finally, I arm myself with a 26-inch antenna and VHF receiver.

I’m hunting for a sloth. And I always get my sloth.

“You know you look kinda like a cowboy?”

“Huh?” I ask, my boots forcing me to swagger a little, not to mention the fact that my pants are wet from rain and starting to cling uncomfortably.

My volunteer assistant nods at my getup. She’s trying to keep a straight face. “Huge boots. Long coat. The hat. I used to watch a lot of old American Westerns. Howdy pardner.”

“I…what? I wear this for rain. Which it usually is. And also snakes.”

“Or maybe a detective. Like from those–what are those films called? Noire? You even carry a flask under your arm.”

“It’s cappuccino, and that just makes it easier to access. Please watch where you’re going.”

But she’s not listening. “It’s like we’re out to catch a criminal on the run. What’d this sloth do? Climb the wrong tree? Eat the wrong leaf? He just couldn’t escape his past.”

6:08am. The memory of yesterday morning fades, like all pleasant memories do. The dame was filling a silence that didn’t need to be filled. Today, the forest fills that on its own. The shrill cries of insects and birds pierce my ears as I stride towards the trees, through a neglected field of tall grass and deep mud. The ground sucks and gasps at my feet.

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The wind howls. So do the monkeys.

Then I hear it: a slight beeping, coming from the receiver. I tweak the gain nob and home in on its direction. Dead ahead. Slightly uphill. I allow myself a shallow smile. Just as I expected.

I’m on the trail of a sloth. And I always get my sloth.

“Why are we doing this, again?”

“We need data on sloths post release to evaluate our rehabilitation strategy–” I begin, then stop and backpedal since I’ve just walked face-first into a massive spiderweb that for some reason tastes like peanut butter.

“And that’s really worth all this equipment? And, like, getting up in the morning? And dressing like Clint Eastwood?”

I’m too busy extracting spider silk from my hair to roll my eyes. “Consistent observations are the only way get any baseline data. No one’s really studied this before. Not definitively.”

The volunteer moved closer. “Pardner, you got a spider on your forehead.”

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There’s something toxic about this place. It’s probably the frogs.

6:32am. She didn’t stick around. Dames never do. But it’s better this way. There are some things you have do yourself. Man to sloth.

The beeping gets louder. I try to rotate the antenna around to get a bearing, but it gets tangled in vines. Ten o’clock. There’s hardly any space to move. The forest doesn’t allow the thought of freedom. It’s merciless that way.

But I’m close. So very close. The beeping’s reached a fever pitch, and I’m getting ghost signals. With a growl, I push through one last tangle of vines and into a small clearing.

And there he is. About 8 meters up a tree, curled in the fork of a branch. My quarry.

“Hello, Jorge. Long time no see.”

“So that’s him? You’re sure that’s not just a stuffed animal you put up there to save face?”

“It’s a two-toed sloth, so he’s supposed to be asleep right now. And look, the signal’s coming from the collar on his neck.”

“So that’s it? You just come out here every morning and then watch him for a while?”

“And record every action he makes in a 30-minute follow.” I get out a notebook and stopwatch. “You want to spot or record first?”

Her eyes haven’t left the sloth. “But does he ever do anything?”

“In the mornings, sometimes he scratches himself once or twice. Follow starts…now.”

The sloth doesn’t move. Rain begins to fall. The volunteer shifts her feet. “You hear they’re doing a 3rd season of Westworld?”

6:36am. “Been a while, Jorge. 12 hours precisely, to be exact.” Jorge looks down at me and blinks. I scribble in my notes 0636 SLOTH VIGILANT

“It was quite a chase, running you down. You really covered some country. Gotta say, that’s pretty impressive considering you sleep 20 hours a day.” Indeed, he’s moved a whole 200 meters in a straight line, roughly, since we released him a week ago.

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“You can climb, but you can’t hide.”

Jorge starts to scratch himself, then falls asleep halfway through. “Just so you know, I’ll be back here tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. At for another few weeks, until the collar’s batteries start to die and we need to recapture you for a physical exam. And also because that collar costs like 150 dollars. We can’t let you keep it.”

He yawns, then scratches himself again. Playing it cool. But I know defeat when I see it.

I’ve got my sloth. I always get my sloth.