I Sit Behind a Desk Now

That title is not just an obscure movie quote. I am actually writing this while sitting at a desk. My own desk. In my own office. All I’m missing is a monogrammed plaque.

How did this happen? Well, to begin, you can get the brief account of my departure from the Monkeyverse several posts ago. But in the longer, more general sense–how indeed? Why am I here, in this chair, in this space, instead of out there running around in the forest with the snakes and frogs?

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“Where you been?”

The answer comes down mostly to practicality. Career. Growing up, if you will. It’s been a long road and somewhere along the way I went and got civilized. There just isn’t a way to support a modern livelihood on a passion for weird little animals alone. I was certainly not making a decent living chasing monkeys. And unless you’re hamming it up on TV, no one will pay you enough to go out and catch snakes. My private ecotour adventure was a success, but it required a lot of preparation and planning that in turn required some stability and free time. It was a side gig, at best.

So here I am in a managerial role. No complaints–this is by far better than what I could have hoped to find in Costa Rica, especially on short notice. And it puts things in perspective. My main role here is to recruit and coordinate volunteers–many of whom are in the very same position I myself was once in at that age. They’re wide-eyed and dehydrated, and some of them just want to go out and catch snakes and frogs.

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Seriously, I can literally see one from right here!

So what does this mean for this blog? First off, fewer entries. Because I sit at a desk and stare into a computer for too long anyway, I can’t be bothered to do it more on my own time. Second, because I owe this place my time and professionalism, I’ll be keeping my worklife and bloglife separate, and will try to keep entries here on things like snakes, nature, and ants.

But the nature is here, along with the ants. We get wildlife passing through the property from time to time. I usually take my days off to explore the area, looking for neat little spots away from the crowds of Manuel Antonio. And I’ve told everyone here–and sometimes several times over–to call me any time they see a snake, day or night. I am now the go-to snake remover guy, and I’m loving it.

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Pictured: loving it.

I’m no longer off the grid. But I can live with that.

 

 

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I’m Going to Gripe About Animal Names Again

If I started talking about “canines” or “felines,” the average person would know I was talking about dogs and cats. They wouldn’t even have to know that I was referring to scientific Families of Canidae and Felinae. They wouldn’t even have to speak Latin. Describing mammal taxonomy in normal human terms is easy. Different groups are easily parsed based on rough body shape and ecological role, and are directly linked to evolutionary history. For other clades, like birds or even plants, taxonomic names might be more obscure (eg. Falconidae, Poaceae), but can easily be parsed with a nominal generic species name (eg. Raptors, or the Grass Family).

The same cannot be said of one of my favorites: the frogs.

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These.

Take this guy, for example: Rana valiante. Kingdom: Animalia. Animals, good. Phylum: Chordata. Vertebrates, OK. Class: Amphibia. Pretty self-explanatory. Order: Anura. Frogs, still with you. Family: Ranidae…and this is where it all goes wrong. See, the Family Ranidae is commonly referred to as the “True Frogs.”

Excuse me? The True Frogs? As opposed to, what, the false frogs? Is there a reason these frogs are so special? Is there any rationale that one frog should be more true than another? Man, that is some serious Amphibian Doublespeak right there.

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“Buuuul-shit.”

Here’s another: Bufo haematicus. Family Bufonidae, the “True Toads.” Bufo, please. Who croaked and made you king? What is a “toad” anyway? Just an especially ugly frog? And don’t even get me started on “Treefrogs.”

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Seriously. Don’t.

It goes on. The above species share habitat with species of Leptodactylidae, the “Rain Frogs,” which, I kid you not, were once described to me as “frogs that show a preference for rain.” What, unlike the ones that melt when they get wet?

But it seems to me there is an issue with trying to get too vernacular while also grouping frogs by evolutionary history. It’s not like they give us a lot to work with. Part of the problem is anatomical. There just isn’t much variation in the fundamental body shape of a frog. Describing them by colors only goes so far. And trying to link this to taxonomy, or ecology, is a losing battle. Most frogs hop on two legs, lay eggs in water, hatch as tadpoles, and are carnivorous as adults.

But there are a few with odd physical or behavioral quirks that translate well. Take Centronelidae, the “Glass Frogs,” whose bright green bodies are translucent enough to show their bones and internal organs.

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Glass? Check. Frog? Check. Works for me.

Or “Gladiator Frogs,” whose males battle for mating perches high in trees, sending defeated foes plummeting to the ground in epic matches.

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Are you not entertained?

I’m a personal fan of the Craugastoridae, or “Litter Frogs,” who specialize in living in–you guessed it–leaf litter, and can even survive away from water sources by laying large-yolked eggs under cover that then hatch as tiny frogs, skipping the aquatic tadpole stage altogether.

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Humble and terrestrial. I can relate.

And work is still being done. Currently, evolutionary herpetologists are spending significant portions of their time and sanity to reworking the chaotic and bloated taxonomy of frogs, either due to minute anatomical features or DNA. More recent guidebooks I’ve read have had more applicable common names for non-herpetologists. For example, the “Rain Frogs” lay their eggs in sticky masses secreted by the males, who then kick their legs and whip it into a foamy mass. Because of this, I’ve seen them called “Foam Frogs” in some recent guidebooks, and also because “Semen and Mucous Meringue Frog” probably doesn’t sound as good.

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However, there isn’t a “Booger-like Jellymass Nest Frog” which seems unfair.

But don’t expect common names to always be convenient. They’re meant–at best–as a kind of shorthand. There’s a reason scientists stick to scientific names, even when they can agree on how to classify them.

So…

I have some explaining to do.

First, I no longer study monkeys. My departure from the project was sudden, surprising, complicated, ugly, and rather personal. In fact, it had little to do with monkeys at all. I no longer even live in Guanacaste. By leaving the project, I was also leaving the project house and was left without a place to stay or a means of transportation, and there were few options left in the region for me to support myself.

But I’m not here to talk about what happened. I’m going to talk about what happens.

Every year, around the world, hundreds if not thousands of people–young and old–live and work abroad contributing to the concept known as “Research.” These people live a life utterly alien to most people, in that the work they do does not immediately contribute to their well-being. In some cases, it’s the opposite. These research assistants are rarely paid, and only sometimes compensated for travel or basic living expenses. Their hours may be long, or independent of normal human schedules. They may live in very remote, primitive, or crowded conditions. Maintaining good sanitation and mental health is an ongoing struggle.

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With some significant challenges.

Yet despite their work, research assistants are hardly ever considered “employees.” As such, they are not paid and–more importantly–they do not have the same rights. Even if they work for a massive wealthy institution.

Research assistants work under a Principal Investigator, usually a professor. This person may have sole oversight of a project, and may be the only connection between the project and its backers–usually a large university or foundation. If the study is long-term, the project may provide housing, but the PI is effectively manager, director, and landlord at all times. There is little distinction between work and life.

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The jungle doesn’t clock out. Why would you get to?

Can you see where this is going? Can you imagine what could happen in this situation where a single person could have complete control over the working and living conditions of people who have zero leverage? How there would be little oversight? Especially in a foreign country?

In the last five years or so of my career, the amount of abuse I have witnessed in such situations has been staggering. I have seen people overworked to exhaustion to squeeze out a few more lines of data for the PI’s thesis. I have seen students coerced into altering “independent projects” so it contributes to a Professor’s project. I have seen–and experienced–sexual harassment. And I have seen too many assistants scared to complain for fear of retaliation, of dismissal and eviction into unemployment in a foreign country, or of sacrificing their precious “Letter of Recommendation.”

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Yeah, this was my reaction too.

Now, most of the PI’s and researchers I’ve worked with over the years have been great people. I’ve made some valuable friends that way. There’s no way I would choose any other way of life. But I see a dark future for the next generation of hopeful researchers, and for science in general if this is allowed to continue. And I’m rather jaded right now about my prospects of returning to academia, which looks to be trapped in a downward spiral of less funding, less support, and less cooperation.

Me, I’ve landed on my feet. The work environment I just left was toxic. If nothing else, I’m resilient after putting up with things like this for so long. But all I have to show for the past seven months is recurring nightmare of psychotic monkeys.

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Thanks for the memories.

My biologist friends out there: you don’t have to put up with this. Don’t whine, but it’s OK to complain when things are wrong. Stand up for yourselves. We may not live like normal humans, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t people. You deserve to be respected for the work you do at the very least, especially if you are working voluntarily for someone else’s career.

Seriously, though, I’m fine. I’m down in the South Pacific of Costa Rica working at an animal sanctuary. Very serendipitous how it happened, and I may go into it someday. It’s nice here, even if the work is a little more managerial than I’m used to. I’ve taken a break, but will continue to write unless I go ballistic after too long in an office.

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Although it does come with one hell of a view.

This Happens Every Year?

A few weeks ago, I was here:

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Clouds? Check. Forest? Check.

Now, I am here:

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Pictured: none of those. But kudos if you saw the bird.

 

Over the course of a few dozen miles, covered in a few hours, albeit down some hair-raising and stomach-churning mountain roads, the landscape has changed dramatically. Cloud Forest to Dry Forest. Cold and misty to hot and dusty. Two completely different environments an afternoon’s drive apart in a country roughly the size of West Virginia.

Part of it’s the timing. It’s Dry Season–what Costa Rica calls “Summer.” Days may be short, but the sun is always out. Up on the mountains, the only way you could tell was that the clouds would occasionally lift and rain would be infrequent instead of omnipresent. Here, though, rain is a memory. Water is scarce. Rivers are thinning and pools are shrinking. The forest has withered and trees have become skeletons.

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Making potential prey all the more visible.

Yes, tropical Dry Forest trees are mostly deciduous–they drop their leaves as if it were Autumn in the North. This limits perspiration from the leaves, minimizing water loss. But it leaves the forest denuded, our trails hardly recognizable. The once dense green tangle is now a thick carpet of dead leaves, bare rock, and loose sand. It’s still a tangle, though. It’s not like the plants drop their thorns, after all.

And the animals feel it. With fewer sources of water, large animals are forced to concentrate around the few remaining rivers and streams. They alter their diets–omnivores eat more plant stems and bark rather than fruit or plump insects. The lucky ones just grow lean, while others starve off completely. And everybody gets a little more cranky.

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Not that some aren’t cranky to begin with.

It’s not like this is unusual. We’re not in a drought. This place has to deal with these conditions every year, even in optimal times. This is a check on the abundance provided by the sun and rain for the other eight months of the year.

Dry Season is supposed to peak around early March. The forest should thin out even more by then. In several ways.

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Meaning I might have to deal with fewer of these things.

When Animals Don’t Care About Conservation

For the final stop of my last trip, I brought my group to my old haunt of the Osa Peninsula where we took a daytrip along the coast into Corcovado. There, they were treated to the usual stunning visuals: whitesand beaches, waterfalls, and plenty of animals. Scarlet Macaws were out in force, we got to see three different species of monkey, and were even treated to a good-sized boa constrictor crossing the trail right in front of us.

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Parrots on the beach–too cliche?

Later, walking back along the beach, we saw movement just under the treeline. It was a band of coatis–the females and young ones–and they appeared to be rolling and playing together in a big pile in the sand. We approached and saw they were eating something. We crept even closer and saw that they were eating turtle eggs.

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Really, coatis? Really?

Sea turtle eggs, to be precise. They had discovered a nest buried just beyond the high-tide mark, and were currently in the process of digging up and devouring the entire thing. I can’t be sure which species of turtle it belong to, but every sea turtle species in Costa Rica is threatened and protected. The very same eggs that were disappearing down sandy snouts were the very same kind that are carefully observed, protected, and even collected and incubated by conservationists elsewhere along the coast.

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This? This is why herpetologists are so ornery.

The coatis were loving them. I got within maybe three meters to watch them stick their long noses into the wet sand and emerge with leathery eggs. They snarled and squealed at each other, squabbling over choice spots to dig up their buried treasure. They stuffed themselves until their bellies were full and then lay, bloated, in the shade. I lost count of how many they ate, and they were hard at work already when we got there, but I think it’s safe to say that several dozen potential endangered turtles were lost that morning.

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Yeah? Proud of yourself?

It can be frustrating when it seems that an environment is undoing the steps we take to conserve it. People work hard to save the few remaining sea turtles, and the very same conservation laws that protect the turtles were also preventing me from interfering and scaring away the coatis. It can be even more frustrating when the offending animals are just so darn cute and hard to stay angry at.

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“What, me furry?”

But this is something to keep in mind: Sea turtles are endangered because of humans, not coatis. Coati egg predation is natural. Coatis have always eaten turtle eggs. People have not. In fact, the conservation laws and efforts exist not only to save the little turtles, but to provide food for the coatis as well, restoring both to their respecting roles in the ecosystem.

It’s just that, I bet if I were a working in turtle conservation right now, I would have sprouted a few gray hairs over all the turtle eggs lost. I mean, come on, coatis. You’re omnivores–you could eat anything else! So I probably would’ve cursed them a little more too. Only, not so much. They really are just too darn cute.

 

They Came, They Saw, They Birded

There is a whole lot to say about my first independent guided tour of Costa Rica. There were highs and lows. Some highs: ziplining through the Cloud Forest, birdwatching from a hammock strung above a seaside overlook, and kayaking through mangrove forest. Some lows: ziplining late in the day during cold pouring rain, renting a coastal bungalow during peak millipede season, and trying to play human tetris to get several people and their bags into a car that was certainly not–despite what I was assured by the rental company–a “fullsize SUV.” I learned a lot.

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Still didn’t find them a sloth, though. In fact, one of them found this before I did. I’m still pretty salty about that.

Out of professionalism and respect for my client’s privacy, I won’t go into detail on the trip. But bottom line: It went well. Not as great as I’d hoped, but far better than I’d worried. My clients had a good time. And so did I.

This is what I like best about guiding, in concentrated, personalized form. I got to be the one to observe, firsthand, someone’s encounter with their first parrot or monkey. I got to lead them myself through the jungle, pointing out animal signs and explaining the life history of strangler figs. I got to savor their reaction when I prepared them for, and nature delivered upon, leafcutter ant highways or lizards that run across water.

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Jesus Christ!

Everyone was safe. There were no injuries or tropical illnesses. They all respected my rules and heeded my advice on jungle safety. We all stayed on the trails and had no close calls with snakes or whatever.

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Pictured: whatever.

On top of that, the weather was great. It only truly dumped on us once, and that was just enough that I feel vindicated for having warned my people about tropical rain. The usual classic charismatic megafauna of monkeys, coatis, and large snakes made their appearance. Birding was phenomenal: Quetzals in full plumage, toucans right above the cabins, motmots that practically posed for photos and in fact wouldn’t get out of the way after a while.

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Look at this guy, giving a little-the-shoulder-look like a supermodel. He knows he’s pretty.

Costa Rica, you didn’t disappoint. Did us all proud. This was a trip I had been planning for about six months. This is a career path I have been moving towards all my life. I’m back in the Monkeyverse now, hard at work, but with a little luck, plenty of agency, lots of patience, and some newfound confidence, I just might be able to pull this off again in the future.

It Has Come to This

There comes a time in every young naturalist’s life when he meets a special someone.

It may not be obvious at first. The relationship may start casual, ordinary even. But soon it becomes clear that this person who has entered his life will change it forever. They make him feel like nothing and nobody has ever done before. Something occurs–a single moment where the naturalist knows he will never be the same again. It is a certain proposition:

They offer to pay him.

Me, I had resigned myself to a life of simple volunteerism. One of unpaid “work-studies” and “internships,” buoyed by the occasional modest stipend or travel expense to get by. Over the last several years I worked seasonally, in between the odd manual labor or teaching gig. Sometimes a generous tip from a grateful tour guest would double my month’s earnings. But I have never had the chance to earn real money from doing what I do best: walking through the forest and telling people about things.

All that is about to change.

For the past few months, I have been putting the finishing touches on what I hope will be the first of many self-designed, self-promoted, self-organized, and self-led Costa Rica ecotour travel packages for a private group. Using local contacts and relying on my own skill as a guide and trip leader, I put this whole thing together on my own.

And I’m gettin’ paid, y’all. I’m a professional now.

So I’ll be going silent briefly, since my priority over the next few weeks will be making sure my clients get the best attention and service they can for their money. Which is real. And is going to me. I think? It’s been a while since anyone actually gave me money.

It has been my dream–literally–to one day be able to support myself by doing what I love. My ultimate goal is to eventually run my own ecotour business, preferably focused on education and sustainable business practices that benefit local efforts. Also maybe coordinate with researchers and volunteers. I’ll need a brand and everything. Maybe link it to this site? But all that’s wayyy down the line. For now, I got people coming in. Very special people.