A Biologist Who Hates Dissecting Animals?

Aug 4, 2017

Can you be a biologist if you hate dissecting animals? In this week's episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist shares some of his own struggles overcoming his disdain for dissection to get into the field of wildlife biology.

I do a lot of presentations to civic groups and schools (from preschool through college), and I am often asked about how I got into this line of work, or what it takes to become a biologist. I have my pat answers, telling students to work hard on math, develop their people skills, and so on. I wish I could tell you I am doing what I was born to do, that I knew from the time I was a child that I wanted to be a wildlife biologist. In fact that is not the case. Actually, I can’t even tell you that I love my job every day; it is still a job, and it has its ups and downs. I take pride in my work, though, and I find a lot of satisfaction in it. Sometimes I think back on small things that led me into this line of work, things that came naturally and hurdles I had to overcome. This seems like a good opportunity to introspect.

You might assume that I always had a fascination with animals, living and dead, and spent time dissecting animals and figuring out how they work. That is only partially true. I grew up on a small farm, in a farming community, so I learned all about life, birth, and death, as well as injury and disease. When it came to wild animals, though, I had a split personality of sorts. Part of me wanted to protect and nurture animals, trying to heal the injured, save the dying, and raise the young. Part of me wanted to catch or shoot any animals I could—the hunter and gatherer in me. But it had to have a purpose. In elementary school, we dissected a nightcrawler in science class, and I hated it. In high school, I had to choose a science class, and I chose biology. Maybe I should’ve chosen physics. While other students were turning cranks that sparked and made their hair stand on end, I was cutting up frogs, starfish, crayfish, and other small creatures and trying to identify their internal organs.

Eventually, I changed majors from music education to wildlife biology, and was thrust into full blown biology. I still despised dissection, but knew I had to overcome my aversion to it in my future field of work. We dissected pig fetuses among other things, and I gagged my way through it. I just kept telling myself that once I graduated, I could get a job working outside and not have to worry about cutting up dead animals.

I graduated from college about 20 years ago, and have been cutting up animals ever since. Not nice, clean, well-preserved animals with plasticized intestines, either. Hot, smelly, rotting animals that obviously did not die a peaceful death. The only way I get to work on a fresh animal is if I kill it first, another task I don’t enjoy but find necessary. I cut animals up when necessary to determine cause of death, to gain valuable biological information, or to test or surveil for diseases we hope never to find in our wild animals, like avian influenza, bovine tuberculosis or chronic wasting disease. Sometimes I have to look for a bullet wound, signs of a vehicle strike, or just to see how many fetuses they were carrying or how much fat they had on their meat. Sometimes I need to salvage a part, like the skull, the fur, or the reproductive tract for management or educational purposes.

Although I have gotten a lot better at dissection, I can’t say I have grown to love it any more than I did as a child. It is an example of a personal preference that I had to set aside to do my job. I always try to remember that I am working to manage Northwoods wildlife species for those who have entrusted me with their care.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist bringing you Wildlife Matters from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.