hello from a lost biologist

When I applied to university, the first line of my statement was about a badger’s skull. My head of sixth form told me to change it. In fact, he said it was “risky” to start like that. But the badger’s skull is really the start of my journey as a biologist and so it needed to be included. Besides, it was far better than “I have always had a passion for animals…”

It was my grandad Bill who used to fish the skull out from its hiding place behind a country stone wall. We would walk Douglas (a Scottish terrier) with my mum and grandma and little sister, and at the appropriate point he’d reach over and produce the skull. I’d like to say I was fascinated and paid great attention to its every detail but it actually rather scared me. And then there was the perpetual threat that I was “getting this for your birthday”.

My grandad’s interest in the natural world led to less frightening experiences in time. We hunted for fossils in the gravel driveway and dissected an owl pellet one afternoon in the conservatory. I refused to make a book of pressed wildflowers with him because I knew that picking them was illegal and years later my grandma told me how upset he’d been. He could produce a relevant book for almost any specimen I brought him, although some of the books dated back to his years at agricultural college and omitted more recent discoveries.

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Age 6, having a riding lesson on Bob.

I didn’t realise until my late teens that Bill had set me up with a passion for nature which would guide my study and interests for the rest of my life. Since I could talk I wanted to talk about horses, which mystified my family whose only contact with equines was through great-uncle Nigel’s snigging horses or the distant memory of a jockey several generations back. I was also constantly upsetting myself over animals in trouble and attempting to put them right – baby birds fallen from nests, woken-up winter harvest mice and worms crossing the road (not to mention dairy cows with cut feet, tethered horses and motherless lambs; stray cats plus kittens, the contents of a snail farm, starlings in the roof, a rat which attacked my pet rabbit but which I didn’t want to kill and a spider which lived on my windowframe in Cambridge). It reached the point where my family would purposefully hide evidence of troubled animals to stop me getting at them!

(In fact, when I moved house this year, my dad maneuvered me through the car park in such a way that I wouldn’t see a dead cat. The cat turned out to be quite alive and locally famous for sitting in said car park. But it was a nice gesture.)

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Daisy May, the stray cat who had kittens behind my mum’s TV.

Growing up in the countryside, desperate to ride horses and look after animals was the perfect way to become a biologist. At university I avidly studied “whole animal stuff”, eventually going past the animals into the ecosystem and environment they live in. I can see the “nurture” that has gone into making me a biologist, but I feel like somewhere in there “nature” plays a part too – it’s just who I am.

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Studying ecosystem services.

Which brings me on to why I am a lost biologist. After university my coursemates seemed to split off into highly paid investment banking or conservation volunteering or PhD studies. I didn’t want to be a banker, I couldn’t afford to volunteer and I didn’t know what to research… so now I have an office job. It’s definitely interesting and most importantly it’s bringing in my future tuition money, but there aren’t any animals! That’s why I’m writing this – in an attempt to remind myself that I haven’t left the study of our amazing world and it’s inhabitant behind, but am more of a temporary hiatus.

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These days I have adopted hamsters.

I am hoping to write about animal behaviour, welfare and conservation, as well as how we can inspire future generations to care for the world around us. I’m going to include the details of my plan to get back to uni and study veterinary medicine, so be prepared for a long haul whilst I save up for those painful fees. Besides that, it’s a long time since I wrote very much at all, so we’ll have to see how it goes. But perhaps someone will enjoy reading it – I hope so!

Caitlin x

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