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What's in a name?

Posted: January 3, 2017

Juliet was right. They are special no matter what they are called.
USFWS-Pacific Region; Wisdom Album on Flickr

USFWS-Pacific Region; Wisdom Album on Flickr

We have written many a post about Doe 1234 or Buck 9874.  Deer identified only by the unique tag number we assigned them when we crossed paths.  And while each of those individuals contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the species as a whole, they are still individuals.  So why can’t Doe 1234 get her own name?  

As always, there are 2 sides to the coin.  Giving a wild animal a name beyond its tag number create attachments.  If we are looking to increase the profile of a project or species, this can be very good.  People protect what they care about.  However if those attachments are too strong, it may backfire if a beloved study animal succumbs to an untimely (or timely for that matter) end.  

Remember Flower?  The matriarch of the Whiskers clan and star of Meerkat Manor.  She was bitten by a snake and died at the end of the third season.  Songs were composed in her honor, vigils and funerals held, tribute videos even!  Producers of the show were highly criticized for not stepping in to save her.  The depiction of Flower and the “personality” portrayed on screen created strong ties with the audience.  No one seemed to remember that meerkats get killed, eaten, starve, and otherwise expire…all the time. 

Ok, that’s the extreme side of why it may be bad to give a wild animal a name…and a TV show.   

Let me tell you about Wisdom.  I fell in love with this bird (Yes, a bird!) the first time I laid eyes on her and heard her story.  Wisdom is a 66 year old Laysan albatross and the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild.  First banded in 1956, she has been returning to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge for 60 years to breed.  She’s on flickr, tumblr, facebook and twitter (Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument), and the USFW has a Where in the world is Wisdom? page.  

USFWS announced on December 7 that Wisdom had been spotted and is incubating an egg!  It’s the best news I’ve heard in months.  Did I mention I love Wisdom?

Midway Atoll NWR is the world’s largest albatross colony – almost 70% of the WORLD’s Laysan albatross and 40% of black-footed albatross call it home.  Total breeding population on the island is nearly 1 million birds!  Why do I know this?  Wisdom!

The USFWS’s PR campaign for Wisdom began about 3 years ago.  But she was an ambassador for clean oceans and a model showcasing the need for marine preserves even before that.  It has created awareness for a cause and care for a place that most people will never see.  

Will I be sad if Wisdom does not return to Midway Atoll NWR next year?  Yes.  But I wouldn’t be any less sad if she was called Z333 (the number on her red auxiliary band). 

Ah, Juliet.  Truer words were never spoken.  

So what’s the point of all this (other than to tell you I love Wisdom)?  

I’ll get to that in a minute but first let me tell you about Jet.  While meerkats and albatross face dangers of their own, they are not hunted.  Naming a research animal that may meet its end via bullet is definitely an added risk.  

This didn’t stop the Wyoming Migration Initiative from selecting Jet as the face of the project.  For the past 2 years or so, I’ve been following Jet on Facebook as she makes her way from Hoback to the Red Desert and back again.  She sports a real time satellite collar that gives updates on her daily locations every 3 days.  

Like our collared and tagged deer, Jet and her fellow study participants are legal for harvest.  However, mule deer doe harvest is very limited.  Bucks, of course, are another story.  Probably why Jet was selected as study representative and not one of her male counterparts.  Nonetheless, there is a chance she may meet her end during migration or in the tough Wyoming winter or (slimly) at the hands of a hunter. 

I’ve invested 2 years into following Jet.  I know every day there is a chance her collar will give the dreaded mortality signal.  Like Wisdom, I won’t be any less sad if I knew her as Doe XXX.  

These individuals are not the main focus of the projects of which they are a part.  The research will continue with or without them.  Data will still be collected and we will learn about the larger population of mule deer or albatross or meerkats.

Should we select and name one of our study animals to represent the project?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Our does have a much lower harvest rate than our bucks.  We’ve had tagged does live into their teens on multiple occasions.  Would it change anything if we knew them as Everdeen or Buttercup?  

What’s important is what all those beautiful does (and handsome bucks) tell us about the population in which they live helping us reach our ultimate goal, those ever important study objectives.  

But knowing one of those study animals helps us connect with the project, the research, and the population.   However, that attachment is not predicated on a name.  Remember the saga of Buck 8917

For me, it’s this attachment that keeps me motivated.  Did some of my study animals have names beyond their number when I was a graduate student?  Yup.  There was No tail, 2-foot, and Ralphie.  They are all dead now, but so worth the emotional investment even if you are sad to see them go.

As Baba Dioum said in 1968, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." 

We will be getting to know a whole new group of deer very soon.  So here’s to another year of research, of teaching, or learning!  

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
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