The Wild Life of Carin Peterson

 

Peterson (1)

It wasn’t a typical phone call, but then again, Carin Peterson doesn’t have a typical job.

“We’ve got a snake situation,” the voice on the other line said. “Can you help?”

When she arrived at the UT building—she declines to say which one, for fear of certain campus spots “developing a reputation”—she saw employees standing dumbfounded on a loading dock. Peterson had lured snakes out of buildings and dorm rooms before, but she’d never pulled one from a paper tray. The three-foot-long yellow-bellied watersnake slithered its way to Waller Creek as soon as she popped the printer open—but not before leaving a parting gift.

“That was the only time I was even bitten by a snake,” she says. “He got away, but that’s what we would have done with him anyway—release him out by the creek.”

Peterson, BA ’91, has been cornering raccoons, bats, birds, and a bevy of other wild creatures for the past 12 years. She runs the Animal Make Safe program in UT’s Environmental Health Services department, and that means that if you encounter a live animal inside a campus building, she’s the person to call. Each year, Peterson and her three student assistants respond to more than 100 such calls. Bats and raccoons are the most common, she says, although she’s come to the aid of dozens of other species.

“We’ve had snapping turtles wandering around campus,” she says. “We’ve had dogs and cats, the occasional skunk, and a couple goats in the back of a truck. There was a box of chickens once—who knows where that came from.”

No matter the species, Peterson’s goal is the same: to safely return the animal to its natural habitat. With a master’s degree in wildlife biology and years of experience working in zoos and veterinary clinics, she knows how animals behave. That expertise came in handy when a porcupine was found wandering in a parking garage.

“I could tell he was just looking for a place to hide,” she says, “so I put down a carrier and he walked right in.”

When that happens, Peterson says, onlookers often stare at her as if she’s just performed a magic trick. “It’s not because I’m magic,” she laughs. “It’s just bringing a different way of thinking to the table. You have to improvise a lot.”

It’s not always that easy. Raccoons pose a particular challenge, as they are highly intelligent and prone to making themselves at home in ceilings. Peterson works together with building managers and UT Facilities Services to find a solution. She often uses humane traps combined a technique called exclusion—essentially, sealing off an exit so that the animal comes out the other end. That can be as simple as covering up one hole or as complicated as surveying an entire building.

When she’s not out on calls, Peterson is focusing on the other half of her job. As training and outreach coordinator for Environmental Health Services, she creates training modules, tables at public events, helps with safety posters and educational materials, and works on the department’s website, among other tasks. She’s also working on a comprehensive wildlife management plan for the university. Tracking the wild animal populations on campus, she says, is a crucial part of keeping the Forty Acres natural and beautiful. For example, Peterson and her colleagues know that squirrel overpopulation is causing tree damage, and they’re working to figure out the best way to respond.

“This is a long-term plan that would look at all our wildlife numbers to see if they’re at optimal levels and help us check the balance between wildlife and humans,” she says.

—Marisa Martinez and Rose Cahalan

Photo courtesy Carin Peterson

 

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