October is Kids Free Days at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our Institute for Conservation Research staff are sharing their interactions and connections with nature at a young age and how these connections put them on their paths to becoming conservation biologists. Read a previous post, A Sense of Wonder for Wildlife
Not many people can say they learned to walk by holding onto the tall blades of grass in a mountain meadow or claim that their first word was “duck.” Thanks to my wilderness-loving family, I was exposed to nature at a very young age. My parents were not biologists, but they enjoyed the outdoors, and their enthusiasm clearly rubbed off on me. As a child, summer family vacations were always camping trips, and staying in a hotel was considered “cheating.”
At home I spent much of my time outdoors playing in the back yard with our many pets or mixing up concoctions of leaves and mud and calling them potions. My favorite children’s books were Julie of the Wolves and My Side of the Mountain. I loved to imagine myself as one of the characters from these novels and felt that it was important that I learn all I could about plants and animals and survivor skills so that I could survive if I was ever stranded in the wilderness myself. My dad encouraged this by teaching me skills that he had learned as a Boy Scout, like how to catch lizards, snakes, and fish, what to do if you encounter a bear or a mountain lion, how to use a pocket knife, and how to tie different types of knots. When we went on hikes, he would point out all the plants that he knew and would tell me which ones were poisonous, which were edible, and which one you could rub on your skin to sooth poison oak rashes.
My grandparents also played a very inspirational and supportive role in my life, especially as I got older and began to explore ideas of what I wanted to be when I grew up. My grandparents are world travelers and nature lovers who would often return from some far side of the globe with fascinating stories of their adventures from climbing some of the world’s highest mountains and tales of all the amazing animals they had seen. They took my dreams of becoming an ecologist seriously and always provided much support and encouragement. They even enabled me to study abroad in Kenya for a summer while I was pursuing my undergraduate degree.
Now I am a research technician in the Applied Plant Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, where I work on several projects aimed at restoring habitat for local native wildlife. I love that much of the work I do requires me to be outdoors “in the field” and that my work contributes to the conservation of wildlife and habitats so that future generations of children can enjoy nature with their families just as I did.
Sara Motheral is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.