Dr. Dani Rabaiotti is a researcher based at the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology. She has previously studied bats and foxes, but is now involved with the ‘Hot Dogs’ project, which looks at how climate change might affect the behaviour of African wild dogs.
Dani has also written Does it Fart?, True or Poo?, and Believe it or Snot, which provide serious answers to silly (but important!) animal behaviour questions.
Read on to find out more about Dani and her conservation work.
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO BECOME A CONSERVATIONIST?
I grew up watching a lot of natural history shows, and I’d say that was probably the main driver. It wasn’t necessarily spending time outside; it was more spending time watching TV and then going to zoos and aquariums as a child. It just really made me passionate about animals—so although I wasn’t too much of a scientist, I knew that I wanted to work with animals and that I had to do science in order to do that.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE ANIMAL OR HABITAT?
When I was really small, I wanted to be a marine biologist because I loved the marine environment. I learned to scuba dive when I was 15, and I just have a real soft spot for marine animals. I could watch fish forever and I love all marine invertebrates—crabs, sea cucumbers, nudibranchs . I still love going to the National SEA LIFE Centre Birmingham Aquarium and seeing all the marine animals.
HOW DID YOU END UP WORKING ON WILD DOGS WHEN YOU ORIGINALLY LOVED SEA CREATURES?
I think for me it was about what I enjoyed doing and studying. You get one impression of marine biology from watching television—going scuba diving all the time in nice warm water —but in real life, there is a lot of chemistry involved and studying things under a microscope, which isn’t really what I wanted to do. Scuba diving ended up being more of a hobby, which is great—too much of anything can make it less enjoyable. I still go scuba diving when I get the chance, and I do go to zoos and aquariums, but I also enjoy hiking.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
There are different ways to be a conservation biologist, so for me, it looks like working with the data collected by people in the field—a whole team of people based out in Africa. What I do is manage the data collection and analyse the data when it comes in. I sit at a computer and build a lot of mathematical models in a coding programme.
I also do a lot of work with captive dogs at the zoo, where we can trial some of the technology that we use in the wild. On a day where I go to the zoo, I might go in and film the dogs getting fed or walking around while they are wearing a collar that collects data about their movements. This helps us improve how we collect and understand the data collected from Africa.
That is quite different from what a day would look like for our field team, and this is why it is so important that you have many different people who do different things. Our field team would get up in the morning, check on the wild dogs, collect data on one group of dogs, enter the data, go check on a different group of wild dogs, come back and enter those data, and so on. On the other end is me, receiving the data and using it to build mathematical models.
WHEN YOU BECAME A CONSERVATIONIST, DID YOU EXPECT TO HAVE TO USE MATHS?
I hated maths but I enjoyed the problem-solving element of it. I think part of the reason I hated it was the way it was taught—there was a problem that we had to solve and it was really boring, without any interesting examples. But once I got my own dataset, it all just clicked into place. It is just a problem-solving process and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know all the ‘proper’ ways of doing things or all the technical language around it. At the end of the day, if you know you’ve got a wild dog and you want to find out how far it’s moving every day, then you’ve got to do a bit of maths—and that’s interesting and can give you some really interesting insights into animal behaviour. I think the really key thing is, even if you don’t enjoy something , you can link it with something else that you are interested in. And often it turns out that you don’t actually dislike it—you just didn’t enjoy the way that thing was taught.
WHAT OTHER SKILLS DO CONSERVATIONISTS NEED?
A key element for working in conservation is being able to read across quite a lot of different subjects—maths, ecology, biology, social science. You don’t have to specialize in one area, but just be reasonably good at a few things. Also, conservation is all about people; being able to talk with people is really important, and being able to tell them about something in a way that is clear and helpful to them.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUNG PEOPLE INTERESTED IN GETTING INVOLVED WITH CONSERVATION WORK?
I think the important thing is to find what works for you and your schedule. If you’re at school during the week, then you can’t go and volunteer every day, but maybe you could do one day a week. Or maybe you could get involved in a club or a hobby . Go to places (online or in-person) where you will meet people who are already working in the field. Try to learn about the job beyond what you see on television. I think the best piece of advice that people gave me was that you don’t have to do fieldwork abroad. There are lots of local opportunities that are really helpful and easier to get involved in. Also, don’t be put off if you don’t see people like you in the conservation community. If you love it, forge your own path that will work with your life and your circumstances.