Author: Katie Surrey
From a young age I knew that I wanted to pursue a career focused on animals. Ignoring the classic predictions from friends and family that I would become a veterinarian (and knowing that I didn’t quite have the stomach or heart for it), I dabbled in several animal-related professions before realizing that even though I would never make it as a vet, I still wanted to save animals. Originally, I intended to study Animal Behavior exclusively. However, after careful consideration, I realized that I not only wanted to make new behavioral discoveries, but also understand how to make them matter to the rest of the world. I wanted to examine human-wildlife interactions through the intersection between human and animal behavior.
I was greatly inspired by Dr. Lucy King of Oxford University, whose discovery of African elephants’ aversion to bees led to the creation of low-impact fences made from beehives that could be used to prevent dangerous crop raiding behavior. This discovery meant that villagers no longer needed to resort to lethal means to protect their farms and they could benefit economically from pollination and honey. Her project encapsulates the model I desire to follow. It explicitly values changes in animal behavior through the integration of behavior research into conservation planning to better inform strategies that conserve wildlife and benefit people.
So, in the fall of 2018 I entered Arizona State University to work towards my PhD. My advisor, Dr. Leah Gerber, encouraged me to join the Center for Biology and Society and pursue the 4E Track, (Ecology, Economics and Ethics of the Environment), which explores how environmental policy decisions are influenced not just by biological research but also the intersections with economics, philosophy and culture. Instead of simply focusing on the acquisition of knowledge, this program challenges students to question how knowledge should be practically applied and to consider the full impacts of their research.
In January of 2019, I received a fellowship through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to pursue my research interests in Panama, where I joined the lab of Dr. Hector Guzman, a leading marine biologist in the country. Our research focuses on assessing the potentially adverse impacts of whale-watching, a vital element of the tourism-based economy, on the behavior of the local humpback whales. Despite existing regulations governing whale-watching vessel behavior, there is currently little to no enforcement of these rules.
The resulting high levels of forced interaction between humans on boats and humpback whales may be causing substantial stress to the whales, potentially impacting overall population heath. In other parts of the world, scientists have previously shown that animals experiencing high levels of human-induced stress will exhibit more avoidance behaviors, which can cause a decrease in tourist satisfaction and thereby change the dynamics of the ecosystem services that wildlife provides. My hope is that this research will encourage the Panamanian government to increase regulation enforcement, and that through the modeling of these multidimensional interactions between humans and humpback whales we can advance this field of study and create novel management principles and practices to more effectively.