By: Judy S. Blackstock
“Hyenas aren’t sexy,” says Dee White, from her charming Holston Hills cottage.
White, close to retiring after over 25 years as a social worker and Coordinator of New Born Screening in the Genetics Center at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, was finally able to return to her first love, animals.
She became involved in hyena research on the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya.
“I grew up with animals around and have always had a keen interest in animal behavior. I’m not sure when I first dreamed of going to Africa. The desire seems to have always been with me.
“As child of the ’60s my life took a few turns before I settled down.
“In 1965 I attended UT for two years.
I wanted to become a veterinarian but was strongly discouraged from pursuing that goal by professors who said I was just taking up space in pre vet courses.
“This was before the UT College of Veterinary Medicine was opened. They said there was not a vet school in the country that would admit me, a female.
“When my fiancé was drafted, I quit school and joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). After he was killed in Vietnam I went to Mexico for a while and then ended up in St. Louis where I found a job at the Missouri Botanical Garden.”
While working there, White had the chance to apply for a job at the St. Louis Zoo. Her timing was excellent. Women had never been hired as keepers before, but a nursery—the first for the zoo, was being created in the basement of the reptile house. Soon a Children’s Zoo was built and populated with small exotic animals. More animal births occurred. In the busy summer months students helped out as volunteers.
One outstanding high school student volunteer was eventually hired at $1.25 an hour. That student was Kay Holekamp. White said Holekamp had an understanding of the animals’ needs and a gift for working with the sensitive charges in the nursery.
After a few years in the nursery, White wanted to work with large animals in the main zoo.
The mind set at the time was that women wouldn’t be able to handle the labor involved.
She eventually worked in all animal areas, proving that women could do the job. Today the majority of zoo keepers are female. She also was the first female union shop steward at the St. Louis Zoo.
Realizing she needed to finish her education, White returned to the University of Tennessee. “I was in my thirties and knew what I needed to do to finish my education. I was by far the oldest in any of my classes.” She finished her BS and went on to get a Master’s Degree in clinical social work.
In 2008, at a St. Louis Zoo employees’ reunion, White tracked down Kay Holekamp, her favorite former employee. Holekamp was now a Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. Her research team focuses on behavioral ecology and evolution. They have been studying spotted hyenas in the wild for 26 years. This is the longest on-going research of larger mammals.
As the two women renewed their old friendship, Dr. Holekamp remembered White’s dream of going to Africa. Five years ago, Holekamp invited White to visit the research team in Kenya.
“I burst into tears and went to the bank, cleaned out my savings account, and bought an airplane ticket. The first year was just to unite with an old friend and to fulfill an old dream that I thought was lost. I was there for 2 weeks and fell in love with the country and the animals.
It turned out I could do something to help the project so Kay hired me.
White is now Field Notes Coordinator for the western Mara. She has been to Kenya five times and her retirement from UT allowed her to stay two months this year.
“When we are working in the field, we live in tents, use pit toilets, eat two meals a day, and live a pretty Spartan life. We are in a remote field camp guarded by Masai askaris (soldiers) at night. Many wild animals use our paths to get to and from the river at night and sometimes during the day.
“We have to be hyper vigilant so as not to spook any animal who might run us down. We have to watch where we put our feet and keep an eye to the trees for snakes. Baboons and vervet monkeys are a constant nuisance, as they will steal anything that looks interesting. A particularly rowdy group took my tent all the way to the ground this year.
“Hyenas are most active just before dawn and just before dusk so we leave camp by 5:30 in the morning, in the dark, and track animals who are wearing radio collars. We usually find them at a communal den or on a kill. Then the behavioral observations begin. Everything is recorded and then transcribed and eventually entered into a massive database.
“Mid-day is very hot and is spent transcribing notes, repairing tents or solar panels, getting water, running errands, or teaching at local schools and giving lectures at tourist lodges. At 5 in the evening we go back out again and follow hyenas till 8 or so. Then it’s back to camp for dinner and bed. Then we get up the next morning and start all over, 7 days a week 52 weeks a year.
“This year local drought situations created a competitive situation between the Masai cattle and the wild herbivores on the Mara. Twenty four hyenas of our clan were lost because they ate from poisoned carcasses put out by herdsmen. The mothers died and their babies (all but one) starved to death at the dens waiting for moms that never came back. Because dominate animals feed first at a carcass some of the dead were high ranking females.
“We are going to be watching closely to see how the clan re-ranks the surviving members. There is a possibility that lower ranking females may form a collation and take over leadership of the clan. Another possibility is that the clan could split in half. It is all fascinating and exciting and I can’t wait to go back next spring.”
Retirees can take it easy or they can be open to new opportunities that come their way. White says, “I am not done, not done at all.”
To learn more about spotted hyenas and the MSU Hyena project in the Masai Mara visit The Kay Holekamp Lab. Her students maintain a blog, Notes from Kenya, with stories and photos of the hyenas, camp life, and research news. Also enjoy the amazing photography on the Mara Hyena Project page on Facebook.
Photographs courtesy of MSU Masai Mara Hyena Project.
© Judy S. Blackstock, 2014.