Wildlife Vocalizations: Meredith Dennis

Wildlife Vocalizations is a collection of short personal perspectives from people in the field of wildlife sciences.

My path to wildlife biology has been a meandering one; but it all began with a single YouTube video.

It was the second semester of my junior year at the University of Michigan, and I felt lost. I was registered as a biopsychology major and I enjoyed my classes, but the career prospects left me feeling cornered.

I had, on a whim, taken an ecology class at the university’s field station in northern Michigan as an incoming sophomore and loved it. I was obsessed with animals as a kid. I donated allowances to the World Wildlife Fund, spent summers working in an animal clinic, and went long stretches where “veterinarian” was my professed vocation of choice. But in high school, I developed other interests and veered away from wildlife science because I was afraid of the math and chemistry courses it would require (face palm!).

Dennis assists with re-tagging a resident black bear (Ursus americanus) in Yosemite National Park. Credit: NPS Photo

So, there I was, Christmas break looming, final exams at hand, and I just didn’t feel good about my path.

I sat at the desk in my dorm room, procrastinating, and found a video—probably click bait—of an orca (Orcinus orca) swimming with a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) overturned in its mouth. The water in the video is murky but you can clearly see the black-and-white orca with the white belly of the shark shining up through the water. According to the video, nothing like that had been witnessed before, and I was captivated.

“Man, I thought. That’s the kind of thing I want to study.”

I am in no way prone to rash decisions, but three days later I had dropped all my psychology classes for the next semester and re-registered as the only wildlife-adjacent major I could still complete on time—environmental science.

It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.

Headshot of Dennis. Credit: Mike Hastings

Eager for any experience in natural science I could glean before graduation, I approached the nicest professor in my new major to ask if I could work in her lab. She was a paleobotanist, but I didn’t care—I just wanted experience. Two semesters later, she offered me a position in a funded master’s program, which I accepted.

I loved paleoecology, but I still had a strong desire to jump into more modern wildlife work. So I joined the National Park Service after completing my master’s, where I’ve been working as a wildlife technician since. Through my work in the parks I have mist-netted bats, surveyed falcons, captured endangered toads, counted elk, collared moose and am now part of the Yosemite Bear Team. Through the National Park Service, I was awarded a grant to complete my wildlife education, which I did through Oregon State University, and am now proud to say I have a degree in wildlife biology.

I have had an untraditional path to wildlife work. But I’m so glad I found that video all those years ago, and I feel so energized by all the exciting—albeit hard—work we have to do in The Wildlife Society community.

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Header Image: Dennis holds a trout (Oncohrynchus spp.) in Rocky Mountain National Park as part of a native fish survey.
Credit: NPS Photo