University of Vermont

Champlain Valley Carnivore Project, Burlington, VT

Alex Potash

A bobcat

My internship for Professor Murdoch and master’s student Sara Williams required me to drive around the Champlain Valley to check on motion-sensitive cameras nailed to trees. Across from each camera was another tree, which we baited with a few pieces of raw (and often spoiled) chicken, and a skunk-based scent lure. Upon hiking to any one of the 51 cameras I would swap out the SD card in the camera, nail a few pieces of chicken to the tree, and pour on the fetid scent lure. I, along with others working on the same project, later viewed the pictures and entered data including species, number of animals, time, and moon phase, into a spreadsheet for each photo. The cameras were equipped with infrared flashes, providing grayscale photos taken in the dark.

The work was almost always enjoyable, if a little tedious at times. I learned (or perhaps, confirmed) that regardless of circumstances I’d rather be outside doing fieldwork than inside doing data entry. I also discovered that the smell of pureed skunk glands is surprisingly less offensive than putrefied turkey necks. Lastly, after lots of experimenting, I found that no amount of Febreze can get that smell out of my car.

I saw pictures of animals that I had never seen before. I was always thrilled to look at the pictures and see a bobcat or two sniffing at the tree, or a black bear and her cub wandering past a camera. The majority of the pictures were of raccoons, opossums, and squirrels, but there were also coyotes, gray and red foxes, and fishers. I saved some of the best onto my computer, and every time I open up my laptop I’m greeted with a bobcat peering at me from behind a tree.

Though my work didn’t specifically entail much human interaction, I did find myself subject to both the good and bad traits of humans. One day, with Murphy’s Law in full effect, I found myself with a dead GPS, leaving me with no idea where a camera I needed to find was located. Thankfully, a nearby logger knew exactly where the camera was and his directions saved me hours of pacing through the forest. However, people frequently hampered the study. At the start of that same day Sara and I found that somebody had stolen the two backpacks that contained all of our supplies. It’s unclear to me why anybody would take them; they reeked of skunk and only contained items that were valuable to the study. Several cameras were stolen. At one site somebody broke into a cameras, took out the SD card, loaded inappropriate pictures onto it, and then reinserted it backwards into the cameras.

Any students wanting to do something similar should be prepared for several difficult weeks while acclimating to the scent lure. The first few times I worked with it I got a headache and felt nauseous. By the end of the semester though, I was no longer even aware of the odor, a fact that several of my unfortunate classmates will attest to.