Exclusivity in conservation

At the start of this year I invested a great deal of time researching and enquiring about potential internships for my summer break. These plans have, unfortunately, had to be amended slightly.

So many of these ‘internships’ cost in excess of £1000 per week, and that’s not even including flights, visas, travel insurance or any essential equipment.

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Above the clouds, on route from Kilimanjaro to Istanbul

I did manage to find some opportunities that were free or even offered partial funding, but these are few and far between and many of them were not suited to me (as an undergraduate student) or required more time than I could commit.

(Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances last summer, I began my first year of university with very little money and this has at times been a bit stressful, so I am keen to get back into full time work this summer and hopefully gather some savings together to support me through second year – so spending the entire summer volunteering is not an option for me.)

Despite not being able to find a suitable internship for this summer, I am planning some photography trips and may even venture abroad at some point, so all is not lost and I still hoping to make my time off uni worthwhile!

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Berat, Albania

Anyway, back to the subject of expensive internships…

I joined a Facebook group where lots of conservation careers opportunities are shared, and I have noticed that many people question how much good a lot of these ‘providers’ actually do.

It is my belief that these organisations should be there solely for the protection, restoration and research of the natural world, and anybody interested in contributing to this great work should be welcomed with open arms.

But instead, profit seems to take precedence over inclusivity, the ‘visitor experience’ is more important than the task at hand, and it almost seems as though in many cases these businesses are trying to sugar-coat the situation.

The reality here is that we are failing our planet, and even in the midst of people who are supposed to care, money is still placed at a higher value than caring for the natural world.

We need to be encouraging people from all backgrounds to take an interest in conservation, yet there is this elitist attitude that is preventing people from accessing it.

Of course, providing food and accommodation for volunteers does require some contribution, but there is a significant difference between covering costs and expecting students (or their parents) to pay several thousand pounds for the experience.

It is perhaps a little ironic that I am now about to discuss the expedition I went on to Tanzania and Kenya when I was eighteen, with an organisation called Camps International.

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Elephants in Tsavo, Kenya

This was in itself a significant financial commitment, and I spent close to a year and a half fundraising and working to get the funds together for it. During the fundraising events that I held (with the help of my parents) I had to become an advocate for Camps International, talking about the many projects they conduct around the world and persuading people that it was a worthwhile cause to donate to.

The month that I spent out there was perhaps one of the most influential times of my life. We worked hard and achieved a lot while we were there, from building a house for a lady whose children had died, to planting trees, to constructing elephant deterrent fencing to reduce human-wildlife conflict.

Towards the end of the trip we had a talk from the women’s group that had been founded by Camps International in the community surrounding our camp in Kenya. The camp was near a busy highway which had hundreds of trucks passing through every day, and it was common for women from the surrounding villages to sell themselves as prostitutes there. Camps International had provided alternative jobs for these women, and as well as helping them directly, had also helped to prevent the spread of HIV, which was rife in the community.

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Tumaini women’s group

Of course, we did get days off from volunteering, and during our month there we had the privilege of going on a safari and engaging in a diving course off the coast of Tanzania.

Returning to my previous comment about many of the trips I have seen advertised catering more for the visitor experience than actually being for the benefit of the wildlife or people, I recently saw an expedition being sold to students on the fact that ‘you can take selfies with turtles’.

Somehow, I don’t think satisfying students’ social media egos is quite what the turtles need, and I think that this kind of advertising will attract the wrong sort of people onto the expeditions – not to mention that this could actually be quite a stressful experience for the turtle, which is a wild animal and would not likely be comfortable being so close to a human. In my opinion, contact with wild animals should be minimised, and volunteers should only be approaching them when absolutely necessary.

The planet desperately needs our help, and if students (or other people) are searching for conservation-related opportunities to participate in, they should be able to engage with projects that are affordable, but that also have a meaningful impact. We shouldn’t be putting a price on our planet’s well-being.

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So you want to work in a zoo?

You study zoology? So what do you want to do with that then, work in a zoo?

It’s a question I have heard over and over again.

I suppose that part of me finds it amusing, but another part of me just wants to beat my head against the wall.

I suppose for anyone who doesn’t know what the subject of zoology entails, thinking that I want to work in a zoo is a reasonable assumption – in reality, I wouldn’t need a degree in zoology to get a job in a zoo; a qualification in animal management would be sufficient.

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‘Zoology’ is derived from the Latin ‘zoo’ – of animals – and ‘-logy’ – denoting a subject of interest

Zoology encompasses a broad range of topics relating to animal life; for example so far in my first year I have studied modules in biochemistry, cell biology, animal anatomy and physiology, ecology, animal behaviour and genetics.

I appreciate that zoology is a somewhat unusual subject (the reaction I get anytime a person asks me what I study is a testament to that), but I have to admit it is rather frustrating to have to repeatedly explain that I won’t be mucking out rhinos for a living.

Personally, I’m not actually particularly keen on zoos. Initially they were simply exhibits where people could pay to see interesting animals, although in recent years the focus has shifted to the conservation of endangered species and I believe that zoos can be used to produce insightful and constructive studies into animal behaviour and disease.

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Green mamba at Chester Zoo

Studying animals in a captive environment compared with their natural habitat does present challenges in itself and could produce results that are not representative of wild populations.

Behavioural studies in particular are likely to form very different conclusions when they are conducted ex situ as opposed to in situ: captive animals often develop repetitive behaviours that arise from stress or boredom. However, studies into how animals learn could be successful in zoos, as the environment is more easily controlled than it would be when studying wild animals.

I was pleasantly surprised on a recent visit to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park to only see a couple of animals displaying the stereotypical pacing behaviour that I had been expecting – the enclosures there are well enriched, and I saw many animals actively engaging with the materials that had been provided for them.

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Ring-tailed lemur at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park

Research into diseases can be conducted in zoos: for example, Chester Zoo is leading the way with research into elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV), which can be fatal and currently has no effective cure.

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Asian elephant at Chester Zoo

While this aspect of conservation would no doubt be a fascinating and rewarding place to work, it is not an area that I feel particularly drawn to.

Studying zoology here in Lincoln is a stepping stone to the career I would like to build and I am constantly thinking about what I would like to do after I graduate… at the moment I am not entirely sure about what I would like to focus on; I am keen to become involved in conservation projects and I find reptiles, birds and insects especially captivating. Whenever I get chance, I head out to practice with my camera and I am considering options that would take me down the route of wildlife photography and film-making.

Studying ecology over the past few weeks has given me a new appreciation for considering ecosystems as a whole, and the complex network of relationships and fine balance maintained between species is proving to be fascinating.

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Wild elephant herd in Tsavo National Park, Kenya

The next two years could present opportunities that I haven’t even thought of yet, so I am trying to remain open-minded about the future – one thing I do know however, is that I am unlikely to end up working in a zoo!

I am a little bit afraid of spiders…

I am a little bit afraid of spiders. And I am very ashamed to admit it.

As a zoology student and general outdoor person, I pride myself on being made of ‘tougher stuff’. Snakes, rats, mud – all fine.

Spiders, however, do cause a slight issue.

I have a couple of vague memories from when I was small, in which these eight-legged beasties feature.

The first must have been from when I was very young, because I can remember not actually feeling afraid at the time. There was a rather large spider on the landing and my mum was yelling for my dad to remove it. I think that’s probably where it began, the terrible thought process (or lack of) that spiders were something to be feared.

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An unusual spider seen in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

The second was when I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth. There was another very large spider crouching on the floor, and I was vigilant, keeping an eye on it in case it decided to scuttle over my bare toes. But then my mum was there, and I was distracted, at least until I unwittingly stepped backwards, and she said, ‘mind the spider!’ – and then came the leap of terror away from it.

Another time, I was rummaging around in the cupboard, on my hands and knees (it was one of those low-down cupboards underneath a staircase, so there was no other option) and then as I backed out again caught sight of the two spiders sat just inches away from my face.

To summarise, I have encountered many spiders during my twenty one years on earth and so far, I’m not overly enamoured.

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I don’t want to be afraid of these creatures. They’re actually insanely beautiful and I am fascinated by the webs they create. For this reason, (and for my own pride) I began to work on my fear.

(On a side note, I had a friend who, once she found out about this, used to send me a picture of a spider every day. I’m not entirely sure that this helped much, but I felt that she deserved a mention anyway.)

Before, anytime a spider had run across my bedroom floor, I had sat on my bed, drawn my knees up to my chin and watched it until it disappeared, only to then wonder incessantly where it had gone and when it would return.

After telling myself that I was a wimp, I got braver and would cover the spider with a cup, slide a piece of paper underneath and carry it outside.

I’d say that this is probably as good as it’s ever got…

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A spider in Valbona National Park, Albania

Fast forward a few years, and at the end of sixth form I went to Tanzania and Kenya for a month to volunteer in community and conservation projects.

There are a lot of weird and wonderful gigantic bugs in Africa and for the most part I was comfortable with them. In Tanzania I saw the odd spider, but they were usually quite small and remained at a reasonable distance.

Upon arrival in Kenya, I noted the four huge spiders on the light above the dining area but was determined not to be bothered by them.

In Kenya we had lovely little wooden buildings to sleep in, and the first thing I did after choosing my bed was to unfold the mosquito net and note (with much satisfaction) that it touched the floor.

With the heat and the tough manual labour we were doing, it was imperative that we drank huge volumes of water (between five and eight litres per day), so inevitably every night you would have to hop across camp in the dark to relieve yourself… and having to untuck a mosquito net from your mattress while still half asleep but bursting for the toilet is less than fun – so the fact that my net reached the floor and could prevent mosquitoes while not having to be tucked in was a marvellous thing!

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My bed, complete with mosquito net

Five nights went by and I didn’t think anything of this decision.

Then, everything changed.

On the sixth night, I fell asleep laying on my left side, with my right arm resting on my hip over the top of my sleeping bag. At approximately two o’clock in the morning, I woke up and, still in a fuzzy, sleepy state registered that something was crawling on my arm, next to my elbow.

This realisation jolted me from half asleep to wide awake in a matter of milliseconds – I swiped at whatever it was, felt it brush past my hand and then hurriedly searched for my torch in the pitch black. It seemed to take hours to find the torch, although I know it can’t have been more than a few seconds.

Turning it on, I shone it onto the bed and saw my early-morning visitor for the first time.

A huge, black spider was making its way along the edge of my bed. I froze and watched it as it disappeared over the end of the mattress.

To cut a long story short, I woke up the other girls in my room and one of them kindly got up, located the spider and took it outside for me.

(I feel I should clarify here: I didn’t scream at any point during this ordeal. If I am genuinely afraid then I tend to go completely mute – if I do scream it’s probably not real fear!)

The whole group seemed to be talking about it at breakfast the next day; it had certainly freaked me out and I learnt my lesson about tucking in mosquito nets – I will never let one drag on the floor again!

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Unfortunately I never got a photograph of the spider that climbed into my bed – this is one of the ones that hung from the beams and lights above the dining area in Kenya

After returning to England, I did a little bit of investigation and believe that this spider was a ‘wandering wolf spider’ – commonly found in buildings and perfectly harmless – just not particularly welcome in my bed in the early hours of the morning.

Since this incident, I have been much better with British spiders (they are honestly tiny in comparison), although I’m still not comfortable touching or holding them (I haven’t actually tried, but the thought makes me uneasy, so I can make an educated guess!)

Inevitably, at some point in the future I am going to travel to more exciting places which will be home to various species of large spider. Let’s hope I can kick this fear by then, or I could be in for more trouble!

Starting out as a dog trainer

When I was living in Manchester, I missed my border terrier, Rusty terribly.

In an attempt to ease this pain, I joined the site ‘Borrow My Doggy’ – a platform where owners who’d like help with their dogs can connect with people who are unable to have dogs of their own but would still like some canine-time in their lives.

I soon got talking to the owner of a young husky and we arranged to meet. Maximus was incredibly nervous and for the first half hour of me being there he wouldn’t come anywhere near me. By the end he had let me stroke him, but it was clear that he was unsure, and he soon moved away again.

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Max

Our first walk was tough. His owner dropped him off at a park near me and then headed off to the gym for a couple of hours. It was late November, freezing cold and the light was fading, and I was walking a highly energetic, strong, skittish dog on an extendable lead.

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Walking in Platt Fields Park

Max was frightened of a lot of things: in particular, if we walked near the roads, the cars and buses scared him, and he would lunge away, diving into the end of his lead and nearly dislocating my shoulders in the process (yes, I did grip the lead with both hands!)

He was also very wary of me, so if I needed to reel him in to pass other people or dogs he would leap up and twist away, making it incredibly difficult to hold onto the lead.

Two hours is a long time to have to fill in an inner city park, so we ended up sitting on someone’s garden wall in the dark for about thirty minutes waiting for his owner to return. At this point I was considering the fact that maybe Max and I weren’t the best walking match… being dragged around by a dog that I couldn’t even make a fuss of wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind!

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Waiting for Max’s owner to return

However, I was undeterred and walking Max became a frequent activity. Four months later, on our last walk before I moved back to Norfolk permanently, we left the park, crossed Oxford Road (one of the busiest bus routes in Europe) and went for a long walk down a footpath heading to Highfield Country Park. Once there, we sat in the sunshine and I stroked Max’s head, tickling behind his ears as he keenly watched his surroundings.

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Close enough to cuddle! The final walk we had together was the best by far

Put like this, it all sounds rather idyllic, but this was the moment that I realised that I could train dogs. My other career prospects weren’t looking all that promising at that point in time, and this was one of the few things in my life that was bringing me enjoyment.

Following my return to Norfolk, I began to read books and research dog behaviour, and then enrolled on an online course to achieve my first qualification in dog training.

That was nearly two years ago now.

At present I am in the early stages of setting up my dog training business here in Lincoln. I have been trying to get the ball rolling with this for a few months now, and despite a few setbacks along the way, since the new year I have had a steady influx of clients.

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German shepherd I was working with a few months ago

There is unfortunately a huge amount of misinformation in the world of dog training, and as I frequently read books and articles relating to canine behaviour and training and communicate with other professionals who I have met through my studies, I have had to adopt a very objective attitude and apply everything I learn to my own ethos, considering it in light of the message I would like to deliver through my training.

Enter the four quadrants of learning – dogs (and other animals) can learn by all of these methods:

Quadrants

Here is an example of how each of these can be applied to dog training:

Positive reinforcement: dog sits on command, and is given a tasty treat

Negative reinforcement: dog stops pulling on lead, and pressure from the collar is released

Positive punishment: dog pulls on lead, and is smacked as a result

Negative punishment: dog jumps on owner, and owner turns and walks away

Positive punishment can often produce results much faster than positive reinforcement, but this is because it works with fear – the dog will behave out of fear of being threatened or hurt by its handler.

Imagine you are walking, and you are unsure of where to go. You have someone guiding you, but any time you put a foot wrong they deal you a painful jab in the ribs. You’ll soon start to step more cautiously and eventually you’ll be unwilling to move at all for fear of being hurt again. Nobody has shown you what they expect, and the punishments being administered are irregular and confusing.

Alternatively, imagine that your guide is feeding you a sweet every time you take a step in the right direction. You’ll be eager to learn, and the exercise will become a fun game.

Even if both methods will produce the desired results, one of them is clearly much more ethically sound and enjoyable than the other.

This sums up why I will not use positive punishment. It has no place in dog training and anyone who believes that it is necessary clearly does not have a sound understanding of canine behaviour.

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A gorgeous puppy I have been working with recently

I would like to think however, that the vast majority of modern trainers do not use positive punishment as part of their training repertoire.

The issue I would really like to discuss here is the rising wave of ‘positive-only dog training’.

Until recently, I would have described myself as a ‘positive dog trainer’. My techniques are almost purely reward based, and by this I do not mean shovelling biscuits down a dog’s throat to get it to behave. Rewards can come in many different forms – it all depends on the dog.

The other day, I read an article that completely bashed ‘positive’ trainers. The author of said article used many positive training techniques in their work, and like me was against forms of positive punishment, but seemed to feel that training that only used positive reinforcement was ‘wishy washy’ and ineffective.

They also made the excellent point that there are many aspects of our lives with dogs that fall into the other two categories (negative reinforcement and negative punishment) which we are often completely unaware of. As a result, ‘positive trainers’ are inadvertently using these methods as part of their every day routine, but are unaware of it (or ignoring it!)

I do use some negative reinforcement and negative punishment in my work. For example, recently when a client’s puppy was leaning into her lead, I paused, maintaining a steady contact on the lead (not pulling back, but not giving forward either) until she released the pressure herself. This is negative reinforcement.

Similarly, Behavioural Adjustment Training (BAT), which was highly recommended by my course provider to read up on (a method for working through aggression and related issues by providing more choice for the dog and encouraging the dog to release itself from a situation, without the owner hauling it away or feeding it a hundred treats as a distraction) works by use of negative reinforcement. If the dog makes a ‘good’ choice, the pressure it is under is released. (If you’re interested in learning more about this method, I’d suggest the book BAT 2.0 by Grisha Stewart).

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A dog walking client

This blog post has ended up being rather more long-winded than I had originally intended, but the point I am attempting to convey is that while I feel strongly about animal welfare and would like to see more respect in dog training, I do not think that working with positive reinforcement in isolation is the best way forward.

Dogs are highly intelligent, sentient creatures – their mental abilities have been compared with those of a two-year-old child – and a kind, compassionate method of training will go a long way to building a trusting, close relationship with humans. But sometimes, they need boundaries to be set.

This opinion may be unpopular with some, however I believe that we need to stop seeing punishing the dog using pain and fear as being the only alternative to positive reinforcement.

It isn’t black and white.

Why do I have a horse at uni?

My fellow students are often surprised to learn that I have a horse while I am at university. It isn’t something that I particularly endeavour to tell people – partly because they don’t have any reason to need to know, and also due to the fact that I do not want to be on the receiving end of the judgemental attitude that equestrians are unfortunately often subject to.

Firstly, I would like to point out that this is not your average twenty-one-year-old student who happens to have a horse: Dakota does not belong to me (I have her on a part loan agreement) and as well as working every weekend I am also setting up and running my own business which fits around my university commitments.

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A sweaty Dakota after schooling – photo by Carol Page

Naturally, caring for Dakota is quite time consuming and this can, on occasion make things a little stressful – although I would say my time-keeping skills have definitely improved as a result!

So why did I decide to do this? Why not wait until after university to loan or even buy a horse of my own?

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to learn to ride. I can recall gazing out of car windows at every horse we passed, and consistently pestering my mum to take me for lessons. At the age of six I had a couple of lessons, and in the second one, lost my balance, fell and broke my arm.

One journey in an air ambulance, one night in hospital and some months of physiotherapy later and I was still asking for lessons, but my mum had witnessed the fall and was quite frankly terrified to let me ride again.

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Hacking out with friends

So, began a long eight years with intermittent lessons and many sad moments as I saw school friends going for their lessons and progressing, until at the age of fourteen, I finally persuaded my mum to let me try again.

The rest is history really. I could bore you with the details of how I have struggled with my confidence on horseback, or how I met some amazing people who taught me how to ride ‘real’ horses and gave me so many amazing experiences, but this blog post might end up turning into a novel if I do that!

What you need to know is that in that time, a lot of things changed, but what never changed was my longing to learn to ride well and to have a horse of my own.

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Being a trotter cross, Dakota is quite weak in the canter – but we have recently started to make much more progress with this – photo by Kira Bray

During sixth form, I had periods of time where I was unable to ride due to horses being out of action or bad weather, and then when I left home for the first time I found that lessons in riding schools were incredibly expensive, and I didn’t seem to get an awful lot out of them. I can honestly say that the lack of horses in my life made me highly miserable, and when I returned home again, finding horses to ride was a huge priority.

When I made the decision to leave home for the second time and return to studying, I knew I couldn’t give horses up again. Just a few weeks after I had moved out, I saw Dakota’s advert and (after initially discounting it, thinking she would be too difficult for me) I went to try her.

Now I ride her three-four times a week, I can take lessons whenever I want (well, when my bank account allows it) and am on a lovely yard surrounded by friendly, encouraging people.

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A sunny day at the yard – photo by Kira Bray

The benefit of this to my mental health has been enormous. When I am at the yard, I can momentarily forget about other things and just enjoy where I am. Building a relationship and achieving new things with Dakota has built my confidence both around horses and in other areas of my life. The exercise means I can usually get to sleep more easily than I used to be able to, and I rarely have a day where I don’t want to get up.

Dakota isn’t the easiest horse to ride; I am very fortunate in that she is not naughty and doesn’t buck or rear, but due to her being a trotter she will rush if given half a chance, and she is also quite easily excited!

This combination is perfect for me: I know she is safe enough that I am not going to be put at risk, but she is challenging enough to enable me to improve my riding. I have many aspirations for things I would like to achieve with Dakota, and I feel so incredibly lucky to have been given this opportunity.

It definitely isn’t always easy, and there have been moments where I’ve panicked and wondered how on earth I’m going to manage to look after the horse, go to work and manage to get my studying done, but somehow, I made it through the first semester with good results, so I guess it can be done!

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Dakota at sunrise

Oh hello, 2019…

It was precisely three years, five months and six days ago that I published my opening blog post here.

Wild Call blog began as a way for my seventeen-year-old self to document and share my shenanigans with animals as I studied for my A-levels, and then left home for the first time. I say ‘first time’ as things didn’t quite go according to plan, and six months later I found myself back in my parents’ cosy cottage in rural Norfolk.

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Captain Beaky making himself at home

As life changed, the blog gradually became much less of a priority, until one day it occurred to me that I had not written anything for many months. Life was busy and my interest in writing had faded, replaced with a multitude of other exciting prospects.

Now however, at the age of twenty one, I am feeling the urge to revive Wild Call blog again. My experiences over the past three years have, in some respects flipped my view of the world completely on its head and now I envisage that the blog will not only be a place for me to share my ever growing passion for the natural world, but to also touch on some slightly more ‘human’ aspects of my life.

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Sunset snuggles with Rusty

So, perhaps as I have deleted all previous content of Wild Call, I should give you some kind of brief introduction…

My name is Charlotte Page and I am a first year zoology student at the University of Lincoln.

I live by myself here in Lincoln and am currently juggling my studies with a part time job in a café, caring for my loan horse and setting up my own dog training and walking business.

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Dakota posing for the camera

As you can probably tell, life is busy but very exciting at the moment. I have so many stories, ideas and experiences to share and honestly cannot wait to begin blogging again.

I hope that you will join me on my journey – I’m not entirely sure where I’m going, but there will definitely be animals!

Stay tuned for the first ‘proper’ post, arriving this weekend 🙂