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My Experience As an Urban Refuge Intern with Patuxent Research Refuge

I began my position as an Urban Refuge Intern with Patuxent Research Refuge in September of 2012, just as the school year was beginning.  This being an off-refuge position, I spent the majority of my time in schools.  I was thus able to reach countless more students in my school district of Fairfax County, Virginia than would have been possible thirty-plus miles away up at the refuge in Laurel, Maryland.  It felt great knowing I was doing my part to educate the youth about the importance of the natural world, as well as demonstrate to them how their day-to-day choices have a real impact on the fate of the environment and, as a corollary, the very nature of our continued existence on our beloved Earth.

One group of students in particular really touched my life in a special way.  These third- and fourth-grade children were designated to be pulled out of their regular class for one hour each week to work with my supervisor and I on various environmental projects.  As these students had underperformed on their Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests the previous school year, the goal of these weekly meetings was to get them to focus on the concept of change as demonstrated through various transformations occurring year-round in the natural world.  It was hoped their test scores would improve in this subsequent school year due to increased proficiency in such important test-taking skills as pattern recognition and attention to detail.

A number of students in this group (self-named the “Brainstormers”) were fairly rambunctious, which was perhaps at least partially related to why they were performing poorly on their assessments in the first place.  There were weeks when these kids were so poorly behaved that we felt near our wits’ end by the close of our lesson with them.  The acting up got particularly bad when we took them outside, which was unfortunate because connecting children with the outdoors (in the most literal sense possible) is one of the greatest joys of environmental education.  We were able to endure the running loose, the yelling, the fidgeting, and all the other issues encountered by keeping our minds focused on what was truly important: we were exposing these kids to something they had had few previous opportunities to explore, at least in a formal educational setting.

I will never forget the day these students completely blew me out of the water.  After an entire school year of mitigating less-than-stellar behavior, it was mid-April and I was getting ready to transition to a different job for the summer season.  During our last meeting with these kids my supervisor presented me with a stack of beautifully handcrafted farewell cards, one from each student.  The time I thought they had been using over our last several meetings to write to their pen pals in Russia had in actuality been used to make these treasures for me, complete with pictures and all kinds of color!  She then gathered them all around in a circle and had them take turns describing what they would miss most about me.  I was touched beyond belief.

It’s moments like those that make one realize why educators do what they do.  Teaching children about the environment might not always be a cake walk, and the rewards are often subtle and long in the making.  If ever I get discouraged due to poor behavior or lack of enthusiasm among future pupils, I will think back to this one moment that completely reaffirmed my belief in spreading the good news about nature to our young folks.  One letter in particular stands out in my mind.  I cannot recall the exact words, but it went something like this (adorable misspellings not included): “When we first started I did not feel good about myself.  I did not think I was smart.  Now I am a smart boy, proud boy, nature boy.  I can do anything.”  I consider my job well done if I can touch just one student in that manner in the course of a school year.

Alex was an intern at Patuxent Research Refuge.

Keeping the “Wild” in America’s Wildlife

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge is located in the heart of Lowcountry, a band of low land between South Carolina and Georgia, and one of seven refuges administered within the Savannah Coastal Refuge Complex.  The visitor services manager at Savannah had been out the week before, and wasn’t sure our team was still planning to stop by. You can imagine her surprise when she called to see how the trip was going, and I replied that we were enjoying the 4-mile long Savannah Wildlife Drive that morning! If anyone has met Monica Harris, then you know she’s able to pull off almost anything in a pinch. Within 20 minutes, between our conversation and pulling into the visitor center, she had called two interns and a retiree from the refuge to come fishing with us.

When we drove back on the Wildlife Drive, our crew had grown to an additional 3 YCC crew members, and Greg Blanks, the Law Enforcement officer. We started filming on one of the impoundments, and had the crew casting from the bank as well as fishing in a small johnboat.

Alligators are a common sight around the Savannah refuge, and we saw one hanging around as we were filming. This alligator, however, responded eagerly when grass was thrown towards it and for anyone who knows a thing or two about alligators; that’s a bad sign. Typically alligators are cautious around humans, but when fed by people they can become accustomed to it. Nuisance alligators, as they are called, lose their fear of humans and can cause problems for visitors, including fishermen. Harris and Blanks had both received previous calls about this prowling gator, and decided with our film crew here it might be a good time to relocate him and document the story. This way, visitors can see the repercussions of feeding alligators.  

They called in resident Trapper Jack Douglas. Trapper Jack and his daughter led the team, which included our entire entourage, to trap and hog-tie the alligator. Many visitors, from as far away as Belgium, stopped in awe and asked questions about what they were seeing. Blanks, who is accustomed to answering visitor inquires, described the purpose of this alligator relocation effort and how detrimental it is to feed alligators on National Wildlife Refuges, or anywhere in the wild. 

My take-home from today was not only can we never plan for what might happen on a refuge, but more importantly, refuges are the home to animals, plants and fish. In their world, we are the visitors, and we must respect their boundaries. And remember: Don’t feed wild animals!

Anna Harris is the Vision Coordinator for Conserving the Future and a member of the team taking vision on the road.

What a Hoot!

Great Horned Owl at Ace Basin NWR

Talk about opportunistic wildlife watching! A great horned owl basically fell out of one of the angel oaks as we explored the grounds at Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge. The magnificent Grove Plantation House at ACE Basin is on the National Register of Historical Places and looks like Scarlett O’Hara could have greeted us on the back steps. But with a great horned owl ten feet from where we were filming, our lenses turned from the refuge mansion to the wildlife.  At first we thought it might be injured, but after 15 minutes of turning his head in circles and squawking slightly, he took off into the tall grass.  

Grove Plantation House

ACE Basin is on the way to Hilton Head, SC where we were staying for the night. It was our day off but when we drove by Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, located in Hilton Head and saw the popular public fishing pier managed by the state, we decided to drop a line.  Saturday afternoon was spent on the pier, hoping for a bull or tiger shark to take our cut bait.  We brought along the camera and captured weekend warriors pulling in puffer fish, skate, and blacktip reef sharks. We weren’t so lucky, but are looking for better results at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

Anna Harris is the Vision Coordinator for Conserving the Future and a member of the team taking vision on the road.

An Ambassador Among Us


A view from the visitor center at Santee NWR.

Santee National Wildlife Refuge, located in Clarendon Co, South Carolina, is like a lot of refuges: a hidden gem. Santee is close to I-95, but when you pull into the parking lot there is a sense of calm and restfulness with this refuge. The trees are trimmed, the lawn is mowed, and the visitor center is newly remodeled; housing a mock osprey nest, stuffed hog heads, several interpretative panels, and a kids corner with crafts.


Chris Spivey, Santee Refuge Law Enforcement Officer

Chris Spivey, the dual function law enforcement officer at Santee, was our host for the day. Spivey had arranged for a local hunter to come talk about the importance of their long-standing hunt program. We also had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Captain Spence, searching for record-breaking catfish in Lake Marion. These two guys were great, but it was the interaction between Spivey and the public that really amazed me.

Anna interviewing Bob


Everywhere we went people where asking him questions. Before we had time to exit the visitor center, which has to be locked when refuge staff are not around, Spivey had interacted with several visitors and spent more than an hour answering questions and educating them about the refuge. On our ride out, he stopped to let folks know the visitor center would be closed, but asked if he could answer any questions before we left. At the gas station, he was pulled aside by a woman discussing the two dead birds she had recently found in her feeder. And it was the final moment, when we were winding down at dinner, a young boy came up to Chris telling him, “Mister, I plan to come for my first hunt this fall,” (during the refuges youth hunt) that Chris gave him a big high-five and asked if he’d been practicing. He is a true ambassador for the Refuge System. 

The National Wildlife Refuge System is currently designing an Ambassador Program. This customer service training has a goal to make the Service #1 in customer service among all the land managing agencies. This is building on a program from the past, but updated by a Conserving the Future implementation team. When the implementation team thinks about what they want success to look like, I’d recommend giving a call down to Santee NWR, because the results are already in place.

Anna Harris is the Vision Coordinator for Conserving the Future and a member of the team taking vision on the road.

Tar-Hens and Tar-Jimmies

Dr. Rittschof, Duke professor.

The Atlantic blue crab is a species native to waters around Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge and an important cultural, economical, and perhaps most importantly, a culinary resource to the local area. On most weekends, the culverts and canals are crowded with folks throwing chicken legs on the ends of string hoping to pull in crabs, but sometimes finding eels, turtles, and an occasional gar on the end of their line.  

The 2nd stop on the journey.

The 3rd stop on the journey.




U.S. Capitol on the belly of the female blue crab.




This morning we had a mutually beneficial relationship with Duke University. Duke needed crabs to tag for research, and we needed crabbers on film. The Mattamuskeet refuge staff helped us connect with Dr. Rittschof, his daughter, and interns Tim and Deb. They were extremely helpful and able to answer the question about why these beautiful swimmers are so large in Mattamuskeet Lake. Professor Rittschof explained it’s a function of season. The lake is 18 miles long, 6 miles wide, and 1 meter deep; when the sunshines in the winter, the water warms up and being freshwater, the salinity levels are lower. This combination of warmth and low calcium allows for perfect molting conditions. The crabs caught today were tagged, flipped to identify sex (which you can tell by either a Washington monument for the males or a Capitol for females), and stored for release later in the day.

The Washington Monument on the belly of the male blue crab.

I never found out why the locals call these crabs tar-hens and tar-jimmies and I’m not sure the nickname gives these crustaceans justice with their blue bodies and pink-tipped claws, but it doesn’t deter from the fact crabbing’s an important recreational use along the coast and I’m glad we captured it here at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. 


Anna Harris is the Vision Coordinator for Conserving the Future and a member of the team taking vision on the road.

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