Another in our series of guest blogs, this is from Kaggie Orrick (@kdorrick) who joined our program after working in a private game reserve in South Africa for several years.  She addresses some of the similarities and differences in living conditions and answers how one can do conservation work in New York City: -JAD

The Contrast of an Ecologist in the Big Apple

One of the first questions I get when I tell people I’m studying conservation biology in New York is “Why?” And I get it. It’s a little ridiculous. Especially since I’m interested in large carnivores and herbivores, specifically of the African variety. Not going to find much of that in New York unless you head over to the Bronx Zoo. Or you squint your eyes when looking at Roaree, the Columbia University mascot. Not exactly what I was used to when I lived in South Africa.


Lion in South Africa


Lion not in South Africa










But New York has some major perks! The city is the international hub for, well, everything. Most businesses across the world have offices or departments set up in New York because, well to be honest, it’s a hotspot to bring conservationists, scientists and the general public together. Offices of American Natural History Museum, Wildlife Conservation Society, Panthera, EcoHealth Alliance and others are all based in New York. It is ideal for the big names and for getting your name out there. Not to mention an education from a superb school.

So I’m not that crazy.

However for the friends and family who know me they also know I am not a city girl. My claim of being a born and bred San Franciscan is waived by the fact I essentially left San Francisco at the age of 13 when I attended a small high school in the Ojai Valley. Thacher cultivated my love for the outdoors, and what better way to do that than the backdrop of the Los Padres mountains. Holiday breaks were filled with hiking or skiing, preferably in the Sierra mountains, leaving very little time to explore my native city. This didn’t stop in college. Attending a remote small liberal-arts school in Maine, I surrounded myself again by mountains, forests and rivers. The real kicker came from my life choice to move to South Africa, conduct large carnivore research on a game reserve, live in an old farmhouse with basic amenities and have limited electricity. To anyone who hadn’t picked up on it yet, I am far from a city girl.

Though even after the complete shift in lifestyle to New York, the small living quarters, the different smells, change in my biological clock (South Africa: going to bed with the sun; Academic life: never going to bed), I have found I love it here in New York. Everything about this strange and foreign land of Manhattan excites me and makes for a great quest of exploration. I have begun to blend in with some of the natives (I even yelled at a cab driver who almost ran me over the other day) and have picked up on some of the colloquialisms. Though for all the differences I see between South Africa and New York they both have some pretty great qualities to them. I never would have been given the opportunities to indulge myself in culture and the arts in South Africa, and in New York I am surrounded by them every single day. I am able to establish long-term contacts and start making a name for myself in the academic and scientific world. However, the longer I spend in New York more I find interesting (and sometimes entertaining) similarities and contrasts. I have selected a few below:

Kags and Ketsweri

Kaggie in South Africa



Kaggie not in South Africa











South Africa: Waking up at 2 a.m. to the sound of hyenas right outside my door.

New York: Waking up at 2 a.m. because Happy Hour has just begun at the bar I live above.


South Africa: Worrying if the volunteers are going to injure themselves with a panga and where the lions are moving to next.

New York: Worrying if the professors are going to injure me with the amount of reading and papers due and where my thesis is morphing to next.


South Africa: Worrying about the lack of money for my 110 Defender and fighting for a place in line at the petrol station.

New York: Worrying about the lack of money for my thesis and fighting for endless grant fellowships.


South Africa: Going for a run on the reserve and noting the different tracks along the dirt road.

New York: Going for a run in Central Park and noting different sized dog tracks along the snow.


South Africa: Eating endless amounts of pap (made from ground maize), pasta, and rice.

New York: Eating endless amounts of EVERYTHING.*


South Africa: Annoyed that I can never get reception to call my family.

New York: Annoyed that I always get reception and can’t hide from my family.


South Africa: Keeping an eye out for predators while out on the reserve.

New York: Keeping an eye out for predators while out in the city on a Friday night.


South Africa: Compulsively not leaving a single crumb out on the counter to avoid a giant infestation of rats and ants and cockroaches.

New York: Compulsively not leaving a single crumb out on the counter to avoid a giant infestation of rats and ants and cockroaches.


South Africa: Going to bed with the sunset, starting work at 5:00 a.m.

New York: Going to bed right before sunrise, finishing work at 5:00 a.m.


South Africa: No time to exercise. I am constantly sitting, either in a vehicle or around base, but at least I’m outdoors 24/7!

New York: No time to exercise. I am constantly sitting, either in my apartment or around the library, but at least I have access to gyms 24/7!


South Africa: Spending 20 minutes warming up the generator on a cold day (15 degrees C) in order to get electricity in the house.

New York: Spending 20 minutes warming up my body on a cold day (15 degrees F) by using my electric blanket.


South Africa: Waiting for the GPS to pinpoint my location to 5m or less in the Diamond Block order to record an animals location.

New York: Waiting for Google Maps to pinpoint my location in Brooklyn in order to tell me how to get home.


South Africa: Drive everywhere! Everything is too far away and/or there are too many dangerous animals around!

New York: Walk everywhere! Everything is so close and/or there are too many vehicles around!


South Africa: Easy access to Kruger National Park, downside is that you are always surrounded by other cars or people.

New York: Easy access to Central Park, upside is that (if you look hard enough) you can usually find a place that isn’t surrounded by cars or people.


South Africa: Forcing colleagues and friends to endure horrible renditions of all my favorite musicals at the top of my lungs.

New York: With my colleagues and friends getting to experience the most beautiful performances of all the best musicals and plays.


South Africa: Using the Drakensberg Mountains to orientate myself and find my way back to my vehicle.

New York: Using the Eastern Mountain Sports store to orientate myself and ask for directions.


South Africa:  Nervous I’m going to get a flat tire on my drive home from research.

New York: Nervous I’m going to break a heel on my walk home from school.


South Africa: Lost in the solitude and natural beauty.

New York: Captured by the never-ending culture and experience.


Ultimately, there is an insane amount of perks for both locations. While at the end of the day I definitely prefer the solitude and beauty of the Drakensburg Mountains as oppose to the New York skyline, I can’t complain that I get to live here for the next 2 years of my life.  Conservationists can thrive in any environment they are put in, and New York isn’t too shabby of a place to be… I am enjoying all the experiences while I can!

For more comparisons and contrasts of my life in New York City, or just my musings of both the scientific and real world check out my blog:


* I second this, and would like to encourage Kaggie to start attending Drew Lab meetings (Fig. 1 below) -JAD


Fig. 1. Chili Dark Chocolate Brownies I made my students for last week’s lab meeting