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Bakersfield Cactus Bakersfield Cactus Photo by Teresa Prendusi
28 July 2020

It's Okay to Care

Written by: My Nguyen

When I first read the project description and goals for the fellowship position at Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, I knew I had to apply. The goal is to develop a conservation implementation strategy for a species listed under the Endangered Species Act. After I was accepted, I often daydreamed about working with the elusive Sierra Nevada red fox or gray wolf (since then, I have learned that the former is not yet officially listed under the Act, and the latter is not under the jurisdiction of my Region). On my first day, my supervisor shared a list of species that would be a good fit for the project – they were all plants.

Although I studied animal behavior and ecology for most of my academic career, it seems like my professional career has steered me towards plants, from eradicating invasive ones to rehabilitating native ones. I have a certain affinity for plants but, to be candid, the idea of working towards the recovery of a plant species scared me due to the complex nature of their reproduction and genetics. Most of all, I was worried that it would be difficult to connect with partners and engage with the community when the species is a plant rather than a cute, fluffy mammal that can be fawned over.

Out of the list, I chose Bakersfield cactus, or Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei. The cactus is known for its large, showy magenta flowers, but I chose it, in part, because something about the knee-high clusters and heart-shaped pads were endearing. To my pleasant surprise, many other people felt the same way about Bakersfield cactus. I asked one of the species experts what organization she would like to be affiliated with in the references, and she responded that she is helping simply as “a friend of Bakersfield cactus”.

I found many people inside and outside of Fish and Wildlife Service who shared their insights with me out of an eagerness to talking about conservation, without expecting something in return. I was prepared for the conversations to be transactional, but they ended up all becoming a space to share knowledge, novel ideas, and a mutual excitement to do conservation.

We all come to conservation for different reasons. Perhaps we spent a lot of time outdoors as children, or perhaps a professor inspired us to pursue a niche topic of study, or perhaps we really love animals. However, I think that many of us are tied together with a common thread – stewardship. We do this because we care. I asked my supervisor how I should approach the common interview question of, “Why do you want this job?”. I told her that responding with the truth, which is that I care about conservation, is too nebulous, or too general, or too insincere. She told me that it is okay to care, and to say that it is because I care, because everyone who is employed by the Service does care. I have learned many lessons and collected many snippets of advice through these short months, but I think this is the piece of advice that I will hold closest to me moving forward.

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office

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