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Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Photo
Diving headfirst into a wolf den or driving cross-country in a van full of wolves may sound like sequences from a Hollywood action flick, but for Susan Dicks, they’re just another part of the job. As a wildlife biologist and veterinarian on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, her days involve everything from government paperwork to den diving, all of which are done in the hope of saving the Mexican wolf from extinction.
Mexican wolves once called wide swaths of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico home, but were nearly wiped out after increased human settlement in the Southwest in the early 1900s, coupled with private, state, and federal wolf extermination campaigns. In 1976, in a sobering victory, the Mexican wolf was declared an endangered species. Since then, the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, along with an active Species Survival Plan organization, have worked to reintroduce the species to its home through projects such as augmenting the wild population with captive Mexican wolves and monitoring and responding to the social, biological, and economic impact of their efforts.
We asked Susan what it’s like working on an endangered species recovery effort in her hometown of Albuquerque, her best wolf stories, and how she got this wild job.
So, what’s a typical day like for you?
My days vary greatly! Half of the time I’m in the office, and half of the time out in the field. I am often at our pre-release facilities, and sometimes truly out in the field, monitoring wild Mexican wolves. I perform a range of tasks, from basic animal care and feeding to captures of wild animals for radio collaring and monitoring. We try to not handle the animals very often. Of course there are always piles of paperwork to deal with, but every day is different, challenging, and fun.
What’s the craziest or coolest thing you’ve had to do on the job?
That’s a tough one. Diving headfirst into dark wolf dens to pull out pups is certainly interesting. We occasionally have to go into dens to get pups for vaccines and checkups. Dens are often deep, and not everyone is small enough or can tolerate small spaces enough to go in; many people get claustrophobic. Pups in general are the coolest part of the job. Observing breeding in captivity, seeing the pups roll out of the den, vaccinating and doing checkups on them, [and] then, hopefully seeing them do well in the wild.
I’ve also done random things like drive a pack of captive wolves cross-country in a van. Because the animals get hot very quickly, we drove with the air conditioning up high and our down jackets on the whole time. I was also pregnant at the time, which added to the whole experience!
Images courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Photo
Reintroducing a species is a gargantuan task — even the USFWS has described this as an ambitious effort. Do you ever feel daunted by the task at hand? What’s the most challenging part of a recovery program?
Anything involving wolves is never simple, due to politics and strong feelings from all factions interested or opposed to wolf recovery.
We’ve had challenges getting our wolf population up in our recovery area; we haven’t achieved desired population goals. This is due to many factors, but one of the most frustrating is the illegal killing of wolves.
Some of the most challenging things are trying to do what is best for the wolf population, and with the least impact to local stakeholders. Mitigating and preventing wolves from killing livestock is a a huge ongoing effort. It is also challenging, yet interesting, to try and figure out the dynamics, movements, and medical issues that affect wild wolves, as these relate to why our population is not growing as we predicted. I was previously a private practice veterinarian, so this is the first wildlife recovery program I have been a part of.
How did you arrive at a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
It’s a funny thing. I played soccer with someone who worked on the wolf project. In 2003, she asked me if I could do a health certificate on a wolf. I said yes, then worked with the program in a voluntary or contract capacity off and on for five years. Eventually, I left private practice and was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with the wolf program.
Hopefully this won’t get you in trouble with your coworkers or pets, but, do you have a favorite animal?
I am not sure if I have a favorite animal, but I once did work on a female mountain lion. She was the most beautiful thing I have ever laid hands on. She had absolutely no odor, and was as clean as my own house cat. Wolves and other wildlife are actually often pretty smelly!
What advice do you have to girls interested in a job like yours?
Both veterinary medicine and wildlife biology — especially work with large carnivores — are very challenging and competitive fields. You really do need to work hard and get good grades to pursue these fields. Often, the most interesting wildlife projects pick from hundreds of volunteers, so getting paid positions can be tough.
Most wildlife biologists volunteer in many different field programs to gain experience when they first start out. U.S. Fish and Wildlife also has programs for college students to gain experience. Veterinary school is challenging to get into, but working at vet clinics and doing well in school can lead to the a rewarding veterinary career.
animals, career goals
What an amazing job. 🙂 And an adventure EVERYday, seriously. I love that you get to work with animals everyday.
Definitely a dream job, and an inspirational woman! Plus, wolves are such beautiful animals. Great post!
Awesome! It was really cool to see this feature focus on someone I wouldn’t expect modcloth to highlight. Fantastic post!
Love this (and that sweet wolf pup in the first picture)!
A true inspiration! I love your job and thank you for all that you’ve done to save the Mexican Wolf! Xoxo
So glad to see you guys feature someone in a job that really changes the world! What an inspiring woman!
have you ever been attacked by a mother wolf
As a vet student, I was so excited to see a vet featured in your dream job series! She’s right in that vet medicine, especially wildlife/zoo medicine, is extremely competitive, but it’s also extremely awesome!
Hey Teresa- In answer to your question, no, I have never been attacked by a mother wolf; while the mother wolves are very protective, their fear of humans overwhelms their attacking us.
Great Job Highlight! What an amazing Job.
I will be a vet student in the fall, my first big step onto fufilling my lifelong dream of becoming a vet. It is DEFINATELY a dream job, and I am totally jealous of her career. Maybe with some extra hard work and elbow grease – I will be just as fortunate =) =).
your story is very inspiring. Keep up the good work.
I’ve always want to save the environment, I’m just unsure what i want to do, I’m still in high school. this sounds like the most amazing job ever!!
What an amazing job! Thanks for your good work Susan.
Calling all nature and animal lovers! I think you would be really interested in our ‘Dream Job’ in Thailand – it’s a chance to work with elephants and travel to this amazing country, airfare & accommodation covered!
Read more about it and submit your application here:
What college did you go to for Veterinary Medicine, and for your private practice was it a small animal practice? Also, what kind of student were you in highschool? Did you have all A’s and B’s? And in what subjects did you excel the most? I’m a junior in highschool and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. You’re extremely inspiring and I was thrilled to find this article. Your job sounds amazing and I’d really like to pursue a career that involves animals.
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