David is the Cat Conservation Project Officer for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and manages the conservation breeding programme for Scottish Wildcat Action.
Latest News - Cat Conservation Officer talks about his career
Originally published by RZSS.
Photo: Reunion with old friends in 2016
As much as I normally prefer to look to the future and explore new avenues for cat conservation projects I had the pleasure of having a recent visit from an old friend (or ‘fiend’ as Julie preferred to call me) that has made me look to the past and revisit the starting point of my cat conservation career.
I graduated from University 14 years ago with a degree in Animal biology. At that point in time I recall thinking that competition for jobs amongst others with similar degrees would be high and that I should try to gain some practical experience to give myself an edge. After contacting several organisations involved with cat conservation I finally heard back from one offering me a 4 month intern position.
The organisation was Project survival cat haven, situated in the foothills of Kings Canyon national park, California. It was dedicated to supporting cat conservation projects across the globe whilst exhibiting threatened cat species for people to see on guided tours. Aside from the fact that the locals got regular enjoyment out of seeing a pale Scottish guy constantly sweltering in the California heat, it was for me, an amazing opportunity to kick start what has been a long and fulfilling career. My accommodation during the placement was a huge pink house off the beaten track, in a small town, provided by one of the park’s original staff, supporters and fundraisers, Julie. At that point in time Julie, her husband and their young family were living in San Francisco and would come back and visit (ensuring the house was in one piece!) every two weeks or so. Each time the family came back we would have increasingly lengthy discussions, and at times debates, about cats, conservation and my experiences at the centre.
After two weeks of shadowing staff at the centre and helping with the daily management and tours of the cats, I was given the keys and sent away to feed them and service the enclosures. Nothing quite like jumping in at the deep end! So off I went to look after Bengal tigers, Amur leopards, snow leopard, Persian leopard, caracals, bobcats, jaguarundi and clouded leopards constantly growing with passion and enthusiasm. At lunch breaks I would read through cat conservation publications and articles doing what I could to learn more and more about them, and on one occasion having a unique experience of sitting there reading as a wild bobcat sat outside in the shade next to the glass door looking at me before wandering back into the woods. As the weeks and months went by I became more comfortable being around the cats, conducting tours, educating people about the cats and knowing that working with them or for them was what I would aim to do throughout my life.
Photo: David with one of the two Bengal tigers at Project survival cat haven in 2002
Although Cat haven was not a huge facility, and did not have a huge number of annual visitors, it did have was a strong belief that where possible all the profits would go back into cat conservation projects. It was not always easy for the centre given the somewhat unpredictable visitor numbers but I am glad to know that the centre is still going strong and its support for cat conservation projects continues.
As we all know the world can be a small place at times and looking back, this is all too apparent. When I was an intern, I was helping at Cat haven to support some of the world’s leading cat conservationists and researchers. Now 14 years, at RZSS, I find myself working directly with many of these specialists on a regular basis, and they in turn are supporting some of the projects I help to coordinate. This in my opinion, is how it should be. If we do our best to help others in the field of conservation one day, even far into the future, this help will be returned. As much as I am always grateful for having the opportunities I have had I am even more grateful to the people that have helped me get to where I am today. Looking back to my time in California it is clear that this experience played a key role in shaping my future, but this wasn’t down to working with the cats alone. The discussions, debates, insights and experiences shared with Julie enhanced my passion and desire to help conserve cat species and for this I am truly grateful. To this day I like to think that my passion continues to grow and perhaps one day, I too will have the ability to support and encourage someone into the field of cat conservation.
As I ended my time with Julie and her family, walking through the Highland Wildlife Park I couldn’t help but think that in some way the roles were beginning to reverse. My two girls are close the same age as Julie’s kids were during my visit, and her son is now close to the same age as I was back then. This wasn’t just a rare visit from an old friend, it was a chance to look back and reflect on the past and use these memories to help focus my attention to what will hopefully be many more years of conserving cat species across the globe.
This content was made possible by our Partners & Funders at Royal Zoological Society of Scotland