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Not Your Average Field Trip

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Lions, E. coli, and transformation… Being a large carnivore ecologist is no walk in the park. Especially when you have asthma! I share my first experience in the field and you’ll quickly learn why our show’s tagline is, “Not Your Average Field Trip.”

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New episodes of “Going Wild with Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant” are released on Tuesdays. Want a season 2 or a story about a specific animal or location? Contact us at naturepod@wnet.org

You know how there was that book that was like, “Eat, Pray, Love?” I feel like this would be the opposite of that. It would be like, “Illness, Betrayal, Confusion: Rae’s first trip to the field.”

When I turned on my flashlight, it illuminated the tent. I saw this shadow, circling the tent, and my heart leaped into my throat.

I’m Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, and this is a different kind of nature show. A podcast all about the human drama of saving animals. I want to tell you my story and what it’s actually like to track bears in the Sierras, chase lemurs in Madagascar, live with lions in Tanzania and do all of that as a black female scientist. This is Going Wild.

I have this awesome career, and… That’s that. You know, it’s like very simply I’m super happy in my career and this is year 16 of me being in wildlife ecology. I mean, I. traveled to six of the seven continents on this earth. I know so much about wildlife and I really don’t feel like I would be happy doing anything else. And yet, it definitely wasn’t always like this.

When I was a kid, watching nature shows was my favorite thing to do. I mean, cartoons were cool, but nature shows were totally my jam. So, when I was on my way to college, I was already thinking, you know, I think environmental science would be a really good fit for me, so I started taking these environmental science classes…

And hated it.

Oh, I just thought it was awful, which made me even more confused because I thought, Oh, I love nature shows, and pretty quickly, I was able to realize, Oh, you know what, everyone in my classes who are studying environmental science is doing it because they somehow grew up in nature. But for me, I didn’t have experiences in nature. So I was learning about the forest and learning about the oceans and learning about animals in textbooks, not from my real life.

I grew up with an awesome family. We did a lot of traveling but to urban spaces.

No hiking, no camping, no walking on a trail even in a forest, like we didn’t own the gear. We didn’t go fishing. Just nothing.

I didn’t necessarily feel like I had a place in it. So I didn’t see people like me, black, black women, or even like women really at this point, represented as being stewards of the environment or being independent and confident and down and dirty with nature. I really did feel like I needed someone to be my like chaperone, you know, like just be my partner in bringing me into the field. And what is really, really amazing is that that’s essentially what I got.

I’m so fortunate that in 2005, I chose to study abroad in this wildlife management program in Kenya.

It was just like, not completely camping, but basically living in like roof huts and outdoors, just straight up outdoors. And I signed up and I thought, great, I want to go to Africa and I want to study wild animals and learn how to manage them. I want to do this, I want to live outside. I want to have these experiences.

So in all of the mental preparation I did for this trip to Africa, I absolutely thought about illness being a part of the trip. And it really, really scared me. And that’s because, at that point in my life, when I was 19, I had been hospitalized for asthma a number of times, probably four or five times.

So that was really on my mind. It almost prevented me from doing the study abroad experience. You know I thought to myself if I have these types of asthma attacks that require an ambulance, I probably won’t make it. Is that a risk I’m willing to take? I was worried that I needed to drop out of college and take some time to figure out what to do with my life, if not environmental science. So it was like asthma be damned. I need to figure out who I am and if this is right for me.

Turns out asthma was going to be the least of my problems.

I felt amazing when I first got to Kenya, I saw all this great wildlife, and then three days after I got there, I got E.coli.

It sticks out so prominently in my mind because E.coli was, you know, a disease that I had heard of from like high school biology class. Like I think I, for some reason I remember looking at E.coli bacteria under a microscope, you know, like it was something that was familiar enough, but also not something I ever thought that I would have.

It was miserable. I mean, it was definitely the sickest I had ever been and probably ever have been. It was so bad that I actually lost my memory for a period of at least 24 hours.

Getting that sick made me, it made me scared. Yeah, like this wasn’t what I read about in the handbook. This wasn’t what I saw on the nature shows.

I went through E.coli with a couple of other folks at that camp, recovered fully, and dove right back in. But there’s this other big thing that I’d never done before and honestly, almost completely sidelined me.

I had never been on a hike before, and that was because, basically my family and my friends didn’t do that kind of thing.

But I was super excited about this hike because we were going to the Great Rift Valley. Everyone knows about the Great Rift Valley from “The Lion King,” that iconic scene where Simba gets held up in front of all of the animals. So who wouldn’t want to go on a hike to the Great Rift Valley? I was pumped.

I mean, it was honestly a small hill. We could see the top really easily and our instructors were telling us, it would probably take about 30 minutes to get to the top. I thought to myself, no big deal, walk for 30 minutes. We can all do that. There was a trail that wound all the way around the hill, a spiral, and it was a thin trail, which meant we all had to walk single file.

Very quickly into this hike, I will say 10 minutes into walking, I was no longer in the middle of the single-file line. I had already become the rear of the line and my thighs were just burning… I mean burning, and this is, again, I can’t insist enough that this was not a steep trail. This was not a difficult hike.

You know, 10 minutes in my body was telling me, or I guess reminding me, that I basically had never exercised because of my asthma.

And on that hill, you know, as I was trying to hike the mental barriers were just like slapping me in the face. I mean, I had gone through a lot of imposter syndrome and self-doubt when it came to whether I could keep up with my peers academically, you know, in terms of experience in the outdoors, but I had never had the thought, can I keep up with my peers physically? Am I going to be last in line or in last place, always? Because that’s this very visible symbol of inferiority.

And so I remember being, on that hill trying my best with my little legs telling me, girl, what are you doing? You know, and just feeling, embarrassed, full of doubt. You know, like I wanted to just hitchhike to Nairobi and hop on the next plane home to say like, oh, clearly this is why I’ve never done this before. It’s because people like me don’t do this.

But, the way I was raised was that if you commit to something and in particular, if there is any kind of financial transaction, you are committed to it. So I kept going because, even if it sucks, even if I have to go through, you know, five months of being just mortified and embarrassed and scared and sick, I guess I gotta do it because I made this commitment.

I pushed myself and I did something for the first time, something that people in my family didn’t do. You know, something that people in my community, for the most part, didn’t do. Not that I knew of and it was new and it was satisfying. So in a lot of ways, I kind of felt like I had graduated into being an outdoorsy person, and then came the next challenge: camping.

I mean, that just further pushed my naive idea of what it was like to be a wildlife ecologist to the brink.

So this camping trip happened about two-thirds of the way into the semester. We took a trip to a national park that’s really notable called Maasai Mara National Park.

Some students brought their own tent. That wasn’t an option for me because not only did I not own a tent of my own, I had never slept in a tent before.

So as staff were offloading tents to people, you know one was plopped into my arms. And it was red, I remember very, very vividly. It was red and orange and I, you know, kind of eyeballed the other students to the left and to the right, you know, who started to set up their tents really quickly. And I just crumbled and failed. I absolutely crumbled to the point that a staff member quickly came up to me and said, “Do you need help?”

And I said, “Yes, I do.” And I remember feeling a little bit ashamed.

So that definitely didn’t necessarily set me on the right foot of loving camping,

And then there’s this other thing, and this is still a problem that I have today. I cannot get through a night without peeing.

This already posed a problem in this entire semester in Kenya, because we’re doing these long drives, you know, long drives to get places, long game drives, you know, doing estimates of animal counts, and I really had to get over my embarrassment of being the person to bang on the side of the car to say, “Hey, can we pull over cause I need to pee.” We were really encouraged to just pee behind the truck. And that’s because you don’t know who’s lurking, or who’s even taking a little nap in the bush nearby.

It’s not that it was common for people to be attacked by wild animals in this area of Kenya, but when wild animal attacks did happen, they were super deadly.

You know, I was already strategizing that my little anxious self, you know, when setting up the tent was already scanning around to figure out, okay, which bush am I going to pee behind?

And I talked to my tentmate in advance and told her, “Hey, listen, I’m sorry in advance. I am going to probably pee once, but maybe even twice at night. I’m that girl, please forgive me. I am super green.”

The most important part of his story comes in the middle of the night when I had to wake up and pee.

I could hear the insects, I could hear the owl hooting. but I could also hear noises that I could not identify.

Some of the noises felt like, slithering, like snakes, slithering around. Some of the noises sounded like hooves.

I thought of horses. And then of course I immediately had to say, okay, not horses, zebras. And then a “chomp chomp chomp,” like it sounded like it was in my ear, the chomp, chomp, chomp of some animal eating. I. Was. Terrified. I realized that I had no choice, but to be completely, completely brave because my bladder was not the type of bladder that could go without peeing.

And the next thing I did was I turned on my flashlight.

And when I turned on my flashlight it illuminated the tent and I saw this shadow, circling the tent, just walking on all fours around, and my heart leaped into my throat.

There was a female lion circling my tent and every so often I could see the shadow of her head turn to directly face the tent and then press it with her nose as if she was testing out what in the world this thing was.

There was a female lion circling my tent.

I didn’t wake up my roommate. I didn’t call for help. I didn’t even move a muscle. I remember, I don’t even know if I blinked. My eyes were so wide. The only thing that I remember doing is that I started to pray. And I am not a particularly religious person. I don’t attend church. I only imagined that the next thing that was going to happen was that the lion was going to rip open the tent and devour us alive.

Please, God. Oh my God, please God, please let us live. Please. Let me live. Please let me live. Oh my gosh. I will do anything. I will change my life. I will be your servant. I don’t care what it is, but please let me live through this.

The lion circled probably three times total, pressed her nose into the tent so it made this indentation, circled again, and then her shadow left. She left. I didn’t know if she went to another tent if she stayed and just laid down right in the middle of our camp, but what I do know was that she left, and that’s when I started crying.

And again, it was a silent cry, but it was sobbing, silent sobbing.

So I didn’t wake up my roommate. I never turned off the flashlight. I felt like if there was any safety, it was keeping the light on so that if the shadow did come back, I would at least know that I was about to be eaten alive. And I was awake for the entire night. It was the most uncomfortable night that I have in my recollection as a person because my bladder was going to explode and so most of my energy was spent really trying to hold my pee for many, many hours, crying a little bit, where I felt like I had either narrowly escaped death or death was imminent.

In the morning, the birds were singing, the morning insects were chirping, I could hear movement, you know, outside of the tent. That was very clearly human movement of the staff, getting everything ready, probably to cook, starting, you know, some water on the fire. Again, just the day getting started.

I don’t know if this should be a part of the podcast, but I’ll be honest with you.

I had tried so hard to hold my pee this entire time, that by the time I felt like I could go outside to finally relieve myself, just the act of squatting down to put on my shoes… My bladder just emptied, just released.

I peed on myself. It was mortifying because I was a grown woman. I hadn’t wet myself in probably, like, 18 years or something. And this was because I was the only, only person who had seen the lion that night, circling the tent.

And that was my first time ever camping.

After I was able to get over the trauma and the fear that I had, I was super interested in why I didn’t get eaten by the lion. So I was thinking to myself, I was right there. There’s just a thin piece of material separating me and this lioness. And she was clearly curious and she’s very, very powerful. So why did she leave instead of attack? And one of the things I’ve learned is that lions, cheetahs, leopards, a lot of the big cats want to chase and they want to see prey and then go after it — lions especially — sometimes people describe them as lazy. They really are not trying to expend energy unless they’re absolutely certain about it. So a lion is much more likely to see a tent, be interested in it, kind of sniff around, but if they can’t see something that looks exactly like prey, then they’re just not going to mess with it. And then they’ll go off and chase an antelope or something.

My experience in Kenya absolutely gave me the spark that I needed. The spark that I was looking for to be a wildlife ecologist. And despite so much of the hard stuff, it’s because I got experience in nature and I liked it. I learned that nature was for me, and it was a place that I belonged. So essentially this experience turned what I would call kind of a naive love for nature, which I accessed through nature shows only, into real bonafide love. I realized, and I got to see firsthand, what problems are facing wildlife and I got to actively be a part of creating solutions. What a dream. I mean, what an incredible opportunity to be able to have this firsthand introduction to what a lot of my career would actually be like.

My career has been defined by fieldwork, far away from my family, far away from home.

I often get sick. I’ve gone on geez, thousands of hikes and I camp all the time. I’m really used to all this, and there are ways that I do things differently. Now I have my own tent and that makes all the difference because I can do disgusting things like pee in my tent. And it is not something that I am proud of, but I definitely have to say it is something that does give me peace of mind.

And I will say that I also am a braver woman today than I ever have been. And many times I will also turn on my flashlight, shine it around my tent, check for shadows, use a flashlight, and walk to whatever bathroom facility we’ve set up and use the bathroom in the middle of the night. I will be honest that I hate it, but I am proud of myself because it shows how far I’ve come.

I really feel confident that everyone is able to arrive where they’re supposed to be. You don’t have to do what I did. What I did was special, and I wouldn’t have traded it for the world, but there are all kinds of ways to step out of your comfort zone and to test yourself, and to try something in order to orient you to your true purpose and path.

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You can catch new episodes of Nature Wednesdays at 8/7c on PBS, pbs.org/nature, and the PBS video app.

This episode of going wild was hosted and written by me, Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant. Production by Rachel Aronoff, Danielle Broza, Nathan Tobey, and Great Feeling Studios. Editing by Jakob Lewis. Sound design by Cariad Harmon.

Danielle Broza is the Digital Lead and Fred Kaufman is the Executive Producer for Nature.

Art for this podcast was created by Arianna Bollers and Karen Brazell.

Special thanks to Amanda Schmidt, Blanche Robertson, Jayne Lisi, Chelsey Saatkamp, Natasha Padilla, and Karen Ho.

Going Wild is a new podcast by PBS Nature. Nature is an award-winning series created by the WNET Group and made possible by all of you. Funding for this podcast is provided by grants from the Anderson Family Charitable Fund and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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