Decades ago, when I was a young girl, I saw two films that inspired my imagination and desire to study and work with wildlife … Baby: Secrets Of The Lost Legend from 1985 and Gorillas In The Mist from 1988. I was 7 years old when I saw Baby, a movie about a palaeontologist and her husband who discover a mother and baby Brontosaurus, in the jungles of Africa, and try to save them from hunters. At the time my mother was working in the University of Alberta – Dean of Medicine’s office and our lives revolved around life at the university. We went to slide show presentations by my mom’s anthropology and sociology friends and I was exposed to conversation around their research from an early age. A couple of these friends took my brother and me to see Baby and, even at my young age, it hit a chord and I spoke of it often afterwards expressing my strong desire to have similar adventures. Such early exposure to the world of research and conservation work planted a seed in me and, at an early age, I dreamt of doing field work studying and conserving animals.
A few years later when I was 11, I watched Gorillas in the Mist which told the true story of Dian Fossey’s adventures studying mountain gorillas deep in the jungles of Rwanda. After watching that film I was even more fascinated by the idea of studying and conserving wild animals in exotic locales. The story of Dian Fossey and her life-long work cataloguing individual gorillas and their behaviour in Africa really resonated with me; I longed to live a life like her going on adventures in the jungles of Africa!
Although Edmonton, where I was born in the Alberta prairies, and later Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, were as far from the jungles of Africa as you could imagine, I started my adventures as soon as possible and the only way a young girl could…through my imagination! Shortly after I’d watched Baby, I plotted to run away and live a life observing the beavers inhabiting the banks of the Edmonton’s Saskatchewan River. I didn’t get very far because I was too scared to cross the busy traffic intersection at the end of our street! I also loved to watch and play with bugs and caterpillars in our backyard; I collected them for my ‘bug circuses’. I watched caterpillars ‘perform tricks’ such as ‘walking the tightrope’, where they crawled along twigs or blades of grass, or wood bugs performed their entertaining skill of curling and uncurl themselves into perfect, tight balls. Though my bug circuses were pretty good they weren’t as good as the one in this video!
These adventurous imaginings continued until long after we moved to Victoria in 1985 when I was 8 years old. I imagined myself an explorer in the South Pacific Ocean as I drifted around on outrigger-like rafts I built out of logs from the beaches of Victoria. I went on safari adventures in Africa as I pedaled my bicycle around Victoria parks. One of my favourite places to ride, Uplands Park, reminded me so much of Africa that I truly thought I might see a lion or an elephant around the next corner. And as each day of adventure in Uplands Park drew to a close, and the sunset sky turned to hues of orange and pink and purple, in my eyes the silhouettes of the Garry Oak trees were those of Acacia trees on the African Savannah!
Of course, like many children in the 80s, I was inspired by the adventures of Indiana Jones. I can’t recall when I first watched an Indiana Jones movie but it was around the time we moved to Victoria, in 1985. Our first home in Victoria had a large yard and was perfect for Indiana Jones-like adventures. I imagined myself on ‘jungle’ expeditions as I climbed high into the treetops of the many fruit trees and explored deep into the dark ‘jungle’ forest at the back of our yard. Much to my mother’s astonishment, my brothers and I dug a HUGE pit in the ‘jungle’ in search of rare archaeological findings. In my mind we were daring archaeologists digging a tunnel to China, running from the ‘bad guys’ and searching for rare treasures along the way!
As a family we spent a lot of time outdoors hiking, picnicking and camping around Vancouver Island. My step-dad was an avid hunter and fisherman. He taught us about wildlife observation, always pointing out wildlife and teaching us how to identify species and their behaviours. He taught us many outdoor survival skills. I’ll never forget scrambling around riverbanks and forests with my brothers in search of perfect pieces of tinder and kindling to make ‘one-match’ campfires; a skill he considered important should we be so unfortunate to get caught out in the woods with only one match to start a fire. We also had many memorable times on the ‘high seas’ fishing and exploring local marine parks in our 17 foot powerboat. I loved those days on the ocean…especially the catches of fresh shrimp, crab and salmon we feasted on at the end of the day!
By my early teens I was especially passionate about two things, horses and the ocean, and as I grew older I used my imagination to think of ways to pursue both loves. At 12, I called Sealand of The Pacific, the marine aquarium down the road from our house (where Tillikum, the killer whale featured in the documentary Blackfish, spent his early days), to inquire about volunteer opportunities. I was willing to do any job, no matter how menial, to get closer to the animals! Of course, I was too young then and the aquarium told me to call back in a few years. I didn’t let this stop me though and moved on to seeking out opportunities with horses. When I was 13 we lived in a house near the train tracks where the only passenger train on Vancouver Island passed daily on its journey up and down the island. At the time, my brothers and I would go on our own Stand by Me adventures exploring whatever lay along the train tracks (though we were not looking for a body!).
During one of these excursions, and much to my delight, we came across a pair of ponies in a field. I was so excited and determined to find a way to get closer to them! I was much more courageous then and I boldly walked to the owners’ house, knocked on the door and asked if I could visit their ponies. For the next few months I walked the tracks after school, and on weekends, for regular visits with my new-found pony friends, Tony and Blondie.
The time I spent with Tony and Blondie made me want more time around horses. After being turned down by Sealand, I once again consulted the Yellow Pages phone book and called every horse stable listed. I asked if I could help care for the horses and, soon enough, I had my first job, at 13 years old, working at a hunter jumper stable. Early every Sunday morning my parents drove me to the stable. I helped turn out and feed the horses, muck-out their stalls and tidy around the stables. I loved the crisp mornings with the smell of hay and manure and the snuffling and scraping of the sleepy horses in their stalls. It was hard work but after all that shovelling of manure and handling of the horses I was probably one of the strongest 13 year old girls around!
I desperately wanted to be a show jumping competitor. However, as things turned out, I couldn’t pursue the sport due to the cost of the sport and chronic knee injury. A few years before I worked at the stable, when I was 10 years old, I experienced my first kneecap dislocation. My left leg was in a straight leg cast for the six weeks following with many more weeks of recovery. Soon it was apparent that both of my knees were prone to dislocation. Nearly every year, from that first dislocation and into my teens and early 20s, one or the other of my kneecaps dislocated for a total of 13 times. This resulted in serious knee instability and leg weakness. Treatment options exist today but, despite multiple visits to specialists and physiotherapists, it was apparent there little could be done at the time. I was told to limit my activities to prevent further dislocations and worsening the knee damage…and so my dream to be a show jumping competitor was over.
The chronic kneecap dislocation impacted me physically and mentally through my early life. Prior to the dislocations, I was very active with dreams of running in the Olympics and pursuing other sports. I loved running on the beach and I was on our school cross country and track and field teams. By the time I was 14 I was pulled out of gym classes and, instead of exercising with the other students, I worked on homework in the school library. By limiting physical exercise my knees got weaker and weaker. In hindsight, I REALLY wished those specialists had recommended knee strengthening exercises rather than limiting all activity!
After multiple years of casts, splints, tensors, knee braces and surgery, my knee stability was so poor I spent the majority of my 20s and into my 30s in constant fear of kneecap dislocation. Simply walking down stairs made me fearful I might experience another painful dislocation. I lacked confidence in any physical activities…often people laughed at how I ran when I attempted to participate in fun sports like ultimate frisbee!
Over two decades later I now have advanced osteoarthritis in both knees…and, boy, do they make some amazing knocking and crunching sounds! The arthritis was diagnosed when I was 35 and I was told it was at the same stage as arthritis typically seen in a 50-60 year old! Fortunately, my family doctor referred me to a great physiotherapist at Back In Motion in Victoria. Finally, after having seen half a dozen or more physiotherapists in my life, I found a good physiotherapist who explained exactly what needed to be done. He prescribed very specific treatment and exercises so my knees are now stronger than ever. I can finally go down stairs and pursue many activities without fear of kneecap dislocation!
Despite the physical and psychological effects of chronic kneecap dislocation, I happily resolved I was headed down a very different life path had things been different. While my challenges led to becoming a ‘nerd’ in high school … I participated in music camp and was in the school band (where I learned discipline and teamwork) and I participated in a Science and Technology program (where we learned about the scientific thinking process and participated in a ‘work experience’ program) … in the end it was these influences and a high school work experience placement that really influenced the direction of my life putting me on a path of marine mammal research!