Micaela Szykman Gunther didn't grow up in the country or on a farm. As a youngster she didn't spend hours hiking in deep forests or exploring tide pools. Her childhood was not marked by outdoor adventures.
"It's kind of strange," says Micaela, a wildlife biology professor at Humboldt State. "My parents are city folks, but as a kid I had some special attraction to animals. Ever since I could walk I would follow strange dogs and cats around the neighborhood."
That early love for the neighborhood dogs and cats eventually translated into a desire to study and work with animals on a deeper level.
"I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian," she says. "I worked toward being a vet, but when I went to Kenya on an undergraduate study abroad program I changed my focus."
Experiences in Kenya inspired her to study wildlife in its natural habitat. To that end, she has worked for the past six years at reintroducing wild dog populations in South Africa. Comparing the practice of reintroducing wild dogs in South Africa to similar projects concerning wolves in Montana, Micaela's work focuses on striking a balance between people and wildlife and helping people feel comfortable living alongside the dogs. To learn more about the animal's behavior and movements, she utilizes noninvasive study methods such as GPS tracking via high-tech collars and examining fecal samples.
Her latest research project concerns Humboldt County's river otter population.
"I was looking for a local project," she says. "I'm a carnivore biologist, but mountain lions and coyotes are pretty hard to study. Also, I'm more interested in social behavior and those larger, nocturnal carnivores are more solitary and difficult to observe."
Micaela says that little is known about river otters in the area, but she notes the animals are especially interesting as they are an indicator species of environmental health. Local river otters have been found in brackish marshes and even in the ocean, she says. Her research interests include investigating how the animals take advantage of different environments and currently focuses on determining the size, structure and movements of the otter population around Humboldt Bay. Students will assist her in studying the river otters, a project she hopes will continue for the next 10 years. It's these types of hands-on learning opportunities available to students that originally drew her to Humboldt State.
"What brought me here was working in the field," she says. "I wanted to teach in the field and Humboldt State does that. We go outside and do things wildlife biologists do. Students learn to capture and handle animals, track them via prints, fecal samples and radio transmitters — it's very field oriented."