By Katrina Rossos
Growing up in the “manatee capital of the world”, Crystal River, Florida, Alan Ivory was introduced to the concept of conservation at a very young age. The manatees migrate into the Florida springs in the winter or at sporadic times when the Gulf of Mexico temperatures drop. Approximately 600 manatees can crowd these natural springs every cold season. In high school, Ivory even kayaked for 170 days straight to see the manatees migrate.
Currently, Ivory is a senior majoring in wildlife ecology and conservation. Despite growing up around manatees and forming a love for wildlife in his youth, Ivory’s road to studying ecology was not direct. He attended a health academy high school and decided to pursue biomedical technology with the initial thought of ultimately becoming a pharmacist. When he began his undergraduate career at University of Florida he was a biology major. At the end of his first semester, he was the victim of a prank that caused him to miss his final exams in pre-calculus, forcing him to retake the course over the summer. He took the course at Santa Fe College and received his associate’s degree and then decided to come back to UF. However, he was unable to return to the university as a biology major so he chose wildlife ecology and conservation – all still with the intent of becoming a pharmacist.
“I started talking with Dr. Steve Johnson and he made me way more passionate about my childhood passion of animals. I started taking [Johnson’s course] ‘Wildlife of Florida’ and I started enjoying it way more than I was enjoying medicine,” Ivory said. As part of the course, Ivory joined Johnson on a camping trip in the Florida panhandle. “It was a beautiful moment. That was my career shift moment.”
Teaching Children about Wildlife
This past summer, Ivory served his internship as a camp counselor at Camp Wildlife, located at Camp Bob Cooper in Summerton, South Carolina. The weekly sleep-away camp welcomed about 50 new kids every week ranging from 8 to 16-years-old. Ivory slept in a 24-foot yurt, located about a half-mile deep into the woods, that fit two counselors and 14 kids. At the camp, the children receive their hunting certification and they are taught shooting, archery, and wildlife identification.
“I definitely feel like I shined when it came to the wildlife ID,” Ivory said, who has no qualms about picking up a hognose snake and showing his campers the reptile up close! He mostly worked with the 8 and 9-year-old children and thoroughly enjoyed teaching them about animals. It was important to Ivory that he instill knowledge and appreciation for the local wildlife, so he took his campers on daily nature hikes. Additionally, Ivory made learning about the natural world more fun by turning the typical wildlife identification PowerPoint presentations into an exciting, interactive game for the kids where they can learn about the wildlife and keep score along the way.
While participating in the internship, Ivory was immersed in South Carolina’s flora and fauna. Although much of the wildlife is the same as north Florida, he had never seen red bellied snakes before and in Summerton Ivory said they could be spotted everywhere. The peninsular location of the camp was also rife with yellow-bellied sliders where Ivory spotted hundreds of the turtles ready for the breeding season.
Valuable Lessons and Next Steps
One of the most valuable experiences he had at the camp involved encouraging the children. There was one evening when he and the campers were climbing a rock wall and one 9-year-old boy was unable to reach the top. Ivory finished his climb and then when he got down he saw that the boy was crying.
“I asked him, ‘What’s wrong, buddy?’ He said, ‘I didn’t want to disappoint you Mr. Alan.’ That broke my heart. So I said, ‘No, we’re doing this again and I am going to help you every step of the way.’ So every single foothold I was holding his foot on, my fingers got blisters on them, but he got to the top and we hugged at the top and came down together. It was a beautiful moment,” Ivory said.
Part of the internship also included weekly presentations for the campers. As a result, public speaking skills, patience, and confidence were the major strengths that Ivory gained from this internship experience.
“As cliché as it sounds, I just feel like a better person all the way around,” Ivory said of his internship.
Now, moving forward Ivory is interested in pursuing the study of coastal and wetlands ecology as well as manatee and sea turtle biology. He is both submitting applications for job opportunities and applying for graduate schools.