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Meet “Barf” the turkey vulture and learn from Tanya Lowe what it’s like to be a conservationist.

Episode filmed live at the 2015 World Science Festival in New York City. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.

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Tanya Lowe:

I really do have one of the coolest jobs in the universe. So I work with amazing animals, I am a caretaker of about 90 permanent residents. I get to train them. I am also a teacher. I get to take animals out to places like this and to classrooms, scouting programs and share them with people just like you. I’m also a conservationist that has the amazing ability to help conserve wildlife through breeding and reintroduction programs. And so I have an amazing opportunity every day to help wildlife. And a lot of people ask me how I got started with doing what I’m doing. It all started for me as a child. My mother always fostered a love of animals. We always had pets. Parents, let me tell you, between horses, dogs, cats, and reptiles, I really didn’t have time to get into trouble. They taught me, pets taught me responsibility.

Tanya Lowe:

They taught me how much work it was to work with animals, but also how rewarding it was to build a relationship and a bond with them. On top of that, my grandparents would often take me to SeaWorld when there was a park in Ohio. When I was there, I was always fascinated with the bird of prey show. One day I pointed at a beautiful bald eagle, named Liberty, and I told my grandparents, “One day, I’m going to do that.” As grandparents do, they smiled and said, “Tanya, you can do whatever you want when you grow up.” Little did they know. I ended up going to Canisius College and getting my undergrad in psychology with animal behavior and zoo biology and founded Hawk Creek Wildlife Center. One of my adventures with Hawk Creek was going to the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, Missouri.

Tanya Lowe:

Upon taking a tour with the director, Walter Crawford, I was taken to a yard that had about six bald eagles tethered in it. This one bird kept catching my eye, until I asked Walter about that particular bird and he said, her name was Liberty. I said, “Was she ever used at the shows in SeaWorld Ohio?” And he said, “That’s the only bald eagle we had there from the ’90s until the park closed.” As a shiver went down my back, that bird looked at me right in the face and I did the only thing I could do, I told her, “Thank you,” because it was the exact same bird that I pointed to over a decade earlier, with my grandparents. That’s when I knew that I was on the right path of doing what I was meant to do. Now, that’s how I got started, but you guys want to know what the best part of my job is? I get to work with amazing animals. We’re going to introduce you to some of those. And for our first animal, I am going to need Science Bob. Where’d you go?

Science Bob:

I’m right here.

Tanya Lowe:

All right, excellent. Science Bob is going to get an amazing opportunity. I have an awesome chair for you.

Science Bob:

Okay.

Tanya Lowe:

Okay, it’s very comfortable. So this is… Wow, okay. Well, Jessica was supposed to clean this, this morning because our first guest Chase, slept on it last night.

Science Bob:

Do you want me to sit on that?

Tanya Lowe:

Yeah. Sit on that, right there. Yeah, you’re good.

Science Bob:

Things we do for science folks.

Tanya Lowe:

Yes. Exactly. Oh, that’s awesome. It’s going to make your lab coat look so much better. All right. Now you have a camera with you, Science Bob?

Science Bob:

Oh, I do have… Camera, all right. Thank you.

Tanya Lowe:

Bob, what you’re going to do is you’re going to focus that camera on my hands.

Science Bob:

Okay.

Tanya Lowe:

Get a lovely picture of my hand. All right, so you are going to have just a few moments to get that once in a lifetime shot, right before impact.

Science Bob:

Of what?

Tanya Lowe:

You’re going to find out. Our first guest is going to be coming in from the back and with a name like Hawk Creek, you can bet that we have hawks. This first guy here is Chase. Now, Chase is a Harris’s Hawk and this Southwest native, like all other raptors, has sharp talons for catching prey and a sharp curved beak for pulling that pray apart. Unlike other birds, other raptors, he’s got long legs for perching on cactus and he’s got a long rudder-like tail to help him fly low to the ground and around objects. So those of you that are in his flight path are going to realize that that means that the lower you duck, the lower he’s going to fly. Okay?

Tanya Lowe:

Now this bird is also extremely intelligent. They have the intelligence of roughly a seven-year old child. Those of you with seven-year olds know how fun that is to work with. Sometimes he outsmarts me, I’m not going to lie. But he is an amazing flier. And to give you an idea of a Harris’s Hawk’s intelligence, if they are out hunting a snake… That’s okay, he just dropped a piece of food. He’s very neat, he picks up after himself. When they’re hunting snakes, an owl will swoop down, grab a snake, and hope for the best. A Harris’s Hawk knows that there’s a good chance that something he’s going after, a snake he’s going after could be venomous. And so they will end up down on the ground, they’ll put their wings in front of them and they’ll walk around the snake. The snake will strike the part of the hawk closest to it.

Tanya Lowe:

And that means that the snake, he gets a mouth full of feathers and the hawk reaches out lightening fast with its foot, grabs the snake behind the head, has a meal, has control of that snake’s weapon, and can have a nice, tasty meal without a fatal bite. They are very intelligent birds and they are very social. They live in groups of about seven birds. Thank you very much, Science Bob.

Science Bob:

All right.

Tanya Lowe:

Hope you got that shot. All right, so very intelligent birds that live and hunt in groups and communicate a lot. Now, Science Bob, don’t go too far because I’m going to need your help to get our volunteers. We’ve got some volunteers that are going to come up for a really amazing opportunity. All right, I am going to have all of you step up to about this line here. So all of you move up.

Tanya Lowe:

Perfect. Perfect.

Tanya Lowe:

Okay. Now you guys hang tight for a second.

Science Bob:

Little more room, go on over [inaudible 00:06:26].

Tanya Lowe:

Now, like everyone in the audience to please stand up and I want you… You go to stretch a little bit? All right. Very carefully without hitting the person next to you, put your arms up to the side. Okay, at this point, anyone that is less than six feet tall, carefully fold in your wings and sit back down. If you’re six feet tall, stay up with your wings out.

Tanya Lowe:

All right. Now, everybody, if you look around at the folks still standing… You guys, you have wings too, put your wings out. All right, everyone that is still standing, congratulations, you have the wingspan of a turkey vulture, just like Barf. All right guys, take a seat. Now, I’m going to have all of you lay down on the floor with your feet towards the audience and your head towards the screen. All right. So this is Barf, and Barf is a turkey vulture, which means he is a scavenger. He eats carrion. You guys know what carrion is? Not carry on, carrion. Carrion’s dead stuff. Okay, so you guys have to lay down and pretend that you’re dead.

Tanya Lowe:

Don’t move. All right, so stay nice and still. And this is Barf. He is a turkey vulture. And these guys are really amazing. They have an incredible sense of smell. One of the only birds in the world to have a well developed sense of smell. In fact, he can smell rotting meat eight miles away when he’s soaring 1,000 feet up in the air. You going to go back to Jess there buddy? Good boy. And so that means that Barf knows everyone in this room that has not showered. I see a couple people that look a little guilty when I said that. But on a serious note here, Barf and I have a very a close relationship. And he is a personal favorite of mine for a lot of reasons. One is because he is the first bird that I trained for free flight for doing demonstrations like this and so him and I have a long relationship, he came to Hawk Creek in 2004.

Tanya Lowe:

So we’ve been working with each other for a really long time. And I’m pretty sure I’ve learned more from him than he’s learned from me. But we’ve also been traveling and talking about a lot of different things. One is imprinting. You see, Barf is very comfortable with all of these people here because Barf is what we call an imprint. He does not understand that he is a turkey vulture. He was raised by people. So as far as he’s concerned, he’s the cool kid at the party and everyone is just looking at him in his magnificence. All right. Which also means that he has decided that I am mom, I am also girlfriend, I have many roles because he doesn’t understand what he is. The first time he saw a turkey vulture, he was terrified. He was so scared. We were flying out in the field exercising and he actually saw turkey vultures coming in. He folded up his wings, threw himself to the ground, ran in between my shoes, and threw up on my shoes. I threw them out. Okay, so we’re going to see if I can get one more pass from Barf here. Nice and low, there we go. All right, now you guys were excellent carcasses, thank you very much. You guys can head back to your seats. Good boy.

Tanya Lowe:

And now, as I said, Barf and I do travel all over the place. And we’re like talking about how amazing vultures are, because they are some of the coolest animals on the planet. Thankfully, vultures in North America are doing very well. But we also like to let people know that vultures over in Africa and in Asia are not. Vultures, most people think that they’re kind of ugly and gross. People don’t pay a lot attention to them. It’s much easier to get people’s attention about big charismatic animals like elephants and rhinos. But in Africa, vultures are being poisoned on purpose by poachers because of what they eat. They are the cleanup crew. They eat things with botulism, anthrax, E. coli, salmonella, and they don’t get sick. They keep our environment clean. So when a poacher goes out and kills a rhino, or an elephant, or any other animal life, the vultures will start circling the carcass to go down and eat it because that’s what they’re supposed to do, which draws attention to poaching and the illegal activity.

Tanya Lowe:

So poachers put out poisoned meat first to get rid of the vultures. In Asia farmers, in India, specifically, farmers will leave their cattle out in the field after they die. These cattle had been treated with a medication that is fatal to vultures, for some reason, when they ingest the meat, it causes renal failure. They lost over 95% of their vulture population, which left their environment and their villages in a lot of trouble. Without the vultures, carcasses were everywhere. Feral dogs took up the slack, feral dogs were not affected by the medication given to the cattle, they also are not afraid of people. So if they ran out of food, they had no problem going into villages. And they started spreading a seriously fatal disease called rabies. So they learned the hard way how important these animals really are. But people are doing something about that.

Tanya Lowe:

Scientists are putting out vulture restaurants to help vultures. So they have a healthy food source and the scientists can monitor the birds and if they’re showing signs of poisoning, they’re able to be trapped and taken to rehabilitation centers and helped before they get into the stages of renal failure. So people can make a difference. And if you’re interested in animals, I encourage all of you to do a couple of things. One, study hard in school. Two, take a lot of science classes. Three, get involved, just by volunteering at your zoos at wildlife centers, at animal shelters, gives you valuable experience for the future if you want a career working with animals and you can learn a lot about what it takes to really work with them. Last thing I want to encourage you guys to do is on your way home, when you go home, whenever you’re going somewhere, keep your eyes to the sky. Look for raptors in your neighborhood and never stop learning because that is the best part about my job is yes, I get to work with amazing animals, but every single day, I get to learn something new from or about them because there’s so much to learn. Thank you guys very much, we’re going to say goodbye to Barf.

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COOL JOBS: THE BIRD WHISPERER

Meet “Barf” the turkey vulture and learn from Tanya Lowe what it’s like to be a conservationist.

Episode filmed live at the 2015 World Science Festival in New York City. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.

Transcription

Tanya Lowe:

I really do have one of the coolest jobs in the universe. So I work with amazing animals, I am a caretaker of about 90 permanent residents. I get to train them. I am also a teacher. I get to take animals out to places like this and to classrooms, scouting programs and share them with people just like you. I’m also a conservationist that has the amazing ability to help conserve wildlife through breeding and reintroduction programs. And so I have an amazing opportunity every day to help wildlife. And a lot of people ask me how I got started with doing what I’m doing. It all started for me as a child. My mother always fostered a love of animals. We always had pets. Parents, let me tell you, between horses, dogs, cats, and reptiles, I really didn’t have time to get into trouble. They taught me, pets taught me responsibility.

Tanya Lowe:

They taught me how much work it was to work with animals, but also how rewarding it was to build a relationship and a bond with them. On top of that, my grandparents would often take me to SeaWorld when there was a park in Ohio. When I was there, I was always fascinated with the bird of prey show. One day I pointed at a beautiful bald eagle, named Liberty, and I told my grandparents, “One day, I’m going to do that.” As grandparents do, they smiled and said, “Tanya, you can do whatever you want when you grow up.” Little did they know. I ended up going to Canisius College and getting my undergrad in psychology with animal behavior and zoo biology and founded Hawk Creek Wildlife Center. One of my adventures with Hawk Creek was going to the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, Missouri.

Tanya Lowe:

Upon taking a tour with the director, Walter Crawford, I was taken to a yard that had about six bald eagles tethered in it. This one bird kept catching my eye, until I asked Walter about that particular bird and he said, her name was Liberty. I said, “Was she ever used at the shows in SeaWorld Ohio?” And he said, “That’s the only bald eagle we had there from the ’90s until the park closed.” As a shiver went down my back, that bird looked at me right in the face and I did the only thing I could do, I told her, “Thank you,” because it was the exact same bird that I pointed to over a decade earlier, with my grandparents. That’s when I knew that I was on the right path of doing what I was meant to do. Now, that’s how I got started, but you guys want to know what the best part of my job is? I get to work with amazing animals. We’re going to introduce you to some of those. And for our first animal, I am going to need Science Bob. Where’d you go?

Science Bob:

I’m right here.

Tanya Lowe:

All right, excellent. Science Bob is going to get an amazing opportunity. I have an awesome chair for you.

Science Bob:

Okay.

Tanya Lowe:

Okay, it’s very comfortable. So this is… Wow, okay. Well, Jessica was supposed to clean this, this morning because our first guest Chase, slept on it last night.

Science Bob:

Do you want me to sit on that?

Tanya Lowe:

Yeah. Sit on that, right there. Yeah, you’re good.

Science Bob:

Things we do for science folks.

Tanya Lowe:

Yes. Exactly. Oh, that’s awesome. It’s going to make your lab coat look so much better. All right. Now you have a camera with you, Science Bob?

Science Bob:

Oh, I do have… Camera, all right. Thank you.

Tanya Lowe:

Bob, what you’re going to do is you’re going to focus that camera on my hands.

Science Bob:

Okay.

Tanya Lowe:

Get a lovely picture of my hand. All right, so you are going to have just a few moments to get that once in a lifetime shot, right before impact.

Science Bob:

Of what?

Tanya Lowe:

You’re going to find out. Our first guest is going to be coming in from the back and with a name like Hawk Creek, you can bet that we have hawks. This first guy here is Chase. Now, Chase is a Harris’s Hawk and this Southwest native, like all other raptors, has sharp talons for catching prey and a sharp curved beak for pulling that pray apart. Unlike other birds, other raptors, he’s got long legs for perching on cactus and he’s got a long rudder-like tail to help him fly low to the ground and around objects. So those of you that are in his flight path are going to realize that that means that the lower you duck, the lower he’s going to fly. Okay?

Tanya Lowe:

Now this bird is also extremely intelligent. They have the intelligence of roughly a seven-year old child. Those of you with seven-year olds know how fun that is to work with. Sometimes he outsmarts me, I’m not going to lie. But he is an amazing flier. And to give you an idea of a Harris’s Hawk’s intelligence, if they are out hunting a snake… That’s okay, he just dropped a piece of food. He’s very neat, he picks up after himself. When they’re hunting snakes, an owl will swoop down, grab a snake, and hope for the best. A Harris’s Hawk knows that there’s a good chance that something he’s going after, a snake he’s going after could be venomous. And so they will end up down on the ground, they’ll put their wings in front of them and they’ll walk around the snake. The snake will strike the part of the hawk closest to it.

Tanya Lowe:

And that means that the snake, he gets a mouth full of feathers and the hawk reaches out lightening fast with its foot, grabs the snake behind the head, has a meal, has control of that snake’s weapon, and can have a nice, tasty meal without a fatal bite. They are very intelligent birds and they are very social. They live in groups of about seven birds. Thank you very much, Science Bob.

Science Bob:

All right.

Tanya Lowe:

Hope you got that shot. All right, so very intelligent birds that live and hunt in groups and communicate a lot. Now, Science Bob, don’t go too far because I’m going to need your help to get our volunteers. We’ve got some volunteers that are going to come up for a really amazing opportunity. All right, I am going to have all of you step up to about this line here. So all of you move up.

Tanya Lowe:

Perfect. Perfect.

Tanya Lowe:

Okay. Now you guys hang tight for a second.

Science Bob:

Little more room, go on over [inaudible 00:06:26].

Tanya Lowe:

Now, like everyone in the audience to please stand up and I want you… You go to stretch a little bit? All right. Very carefully without hitting the person next to you, put your arms up to the side. Okay, at this point, anyone that is less than six feet tall, carefully fold in your wings and sit back down. If you’re six feet tall, stay up with your wings out.

Tanya Lowe:

All right. Now, everybody, if you look around at the folks still standing… You guys, you have wings too, put your wings out. All right, everyone that is still standing, congratulations, you have the wingspan of a turkey vulture, just like Barf. All right guys, take a seat. Now, I’m going to have all of you lay down on the floor with your feet towards the audience and your head towards the screen. All right. So this is Barf, and Barf is a turkey vulture, which means he is a scavenger. He eats carrion. You guys know what carrion is? Not carry on, carrion. Carrion’s dead stuff. Okay, so you guys have to lay down and pretend that you’re dead.

Tanya Lowe:

Don’t move. All right, so stay nice and still. And this is Barf. He is a turkey vulture. And these guys are really amazing. They have an incredible sense of smell. One of the only birds in the world to have a well developed sense of smell. In fact, he can smell rotting meat eight miles away when he’s soaring 1,000 feet up in the air. You going to go back to Jess there buddy? Good boy. And so that means that Barf knows everyone in this room that has not showered. I see a couple people that look a little guilty when I said that. But on a serious note here, Barf and I have a very a close relationship. And he is a personal favorite of mine for a lot of reasons. One is because he is the first bird that I trained for free flight for doing demonstrations like this and so him and I have a long relationship, he came to Hawk Creek in 2004.

Tanya Lowe:

So we’ve been working with each other for a really long time. And I’m pretty sure I’ve learned more from him than he’s learned from me. But we’ve also been traveling and talking about a lot of different things. One is imprinting. You see, Barf is very comfortable with all of these people here because Barf is what we call an imprint. He does not understand that he is a turkey vulture. He was raised by people. So as far as he’s concerned, he’s the cool kid at the party and everyone is just looking at him in his magnificence. All right. Which also means that he has decided that I am mom, I am also girlfriend, I have many roles because he doesn’t understand what he is. The first time he saw a turkey vulture, he was terrified. He was so scared. We were flying out in the field exercising and he actually saw turkey vultures coming in. He folded up his wings, threw himself to the ground, ran in between my shoes, and threw up on my shoes. I threw them out. Okay, so we’re going to see if I can get one more pass from Barf here. Nice and low, there we go. All right, now you guys were excellent carcasses, thank you very much. You guys can head back to your seats. Good boy.

Tanya Lowe:

And now, as I said, Barf and I do travel all over the place. And we’re like talking about how amazing vultures are, because they are some of the coolest animals on the planet. Thankfully, vultures in North America are doing very well. But we also like to let people know that vultures over in Africa and in Asia are not. Vultures, most people think that they’re kind of ugly and gross. People don’t pay a lot attention to them. It’s much easier to get people’s attention about big charismatic animals like elephants and rhinos. But in Africa, vultures are being poisoned on purpose by poachers because of what they eat. They are the cleanup crew. They eat things with botulism, anthrax, E. coli, salmonella, and they don’t get sick. They keep our environment clean. So when a poacher goes out and kills a rhino, or an elephant, or any other animal life, the vultures will start circling the carcass to go down and eat it because that’s what they’re supposed to do, which draws attention to poaching and the illegal activity.

Tanya Lowe:

So poachers put out poisoned meat first to get rid of the vultures. In Asia farmers, in India, specifically, farmers will leave their cattle out in the field after they die. These cattle had been treated with a medication that is fatal to vultures, for some reason, when they ingest the meat, it causes renal failure. They lost over 95% of their vulture population, which left their environment and their villages in a lot of trouble. Without the vultures, carcasses were everywhere. Feral dogs took up the slack, feral dogs were not affected by the medication given to the cattle, they also are not afraid of people. So if they ran out of food, they had no problem going into villages. And they started spreading a seriously fatal disease called rabies. So they learned the hard way how important these animals really are. But people are doing something about that.

Tanya Lowe:

Scientists are putting out vulture restaurants to help vultures. So they have a healthy food source and the scientists can monitor the birds and if they’re showing signs of poisoning, they’re able to be trapped and taken to rehabilitation centers and helped before they get into the stages of renal failure. So people can make a difference. And if you’re interested in animals, I encourage all of you to do a couple of things. One, study hard in school. Two, take a lot of science classes. Three, get involved, just by volunteering at your zoos at wildlife centers, at animal shelters, gives you valuable experience for the future if you want a career working with animals and you can learn a lot about what it takes to really work with them. Last thing I want to encourage you guys to do is on your way home, when you go home, whenever you’re going somewhere, keep your eyes to the sky. Look for raptors in your neighborhood and never stop learning because that is the best part about my job is yes, I get to work with amazing animals, but every single day, I get to learn something new from or about them because there’s so much to learn. Thank you guys very much, we’re going to say goodbye to Barf.