The Questionnaire: A Conversation with Eric D’Aleo

The Questionnaire: A Conversation with Eric D’Aleo

The Center's Female Coyote: Credit: Eric D'Aleo and Squam Lakes Natural Science Center

Eric D’Aleo is a naturalist at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness, New Hampshire, where a day’s work includes such duties as coyote training, education programs, and a cruise on Squam Lake. He’s a man of many interests (check out his images of moose and loons in this month’s photo gallery) whom we first met through his participation in our annual conference.

Summer is a busy season for the center, and it wasn’t easy to get Eric to sit down long enough for an interview; we caught him while he was reviewing images from an ambitious new game camera project. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

Early Influences: I grew up just outside of Saratoga Springs. For me, wandering the woods was pretty normal. Like everybody else my age, I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I first wanted to be a marine biologist…but I didn’t live near an ocean and realized that I couldn’t do that very easily.  

The new trail camera project: Our 210-acre property is divided into 21 ten acre plots, with at least one camera in each plot. Currently we have 46 species that we’ve seen, from everything as small as a red-backed vole and a shrew to as large as a moose. The only reason we have pictures of the vole and shrew is because a bear knocked the camera down so it was angled facing the forest floor.

The long-term goal of the project is to have an on-line presence for the public to view using story maps, create an exhibit at the center, and a school program where students can ask and answer their own questions about a species’ land use.  I’m working through the process of creating the story maps right now. I’m fascinated by that – we’ll be able to use the maps to tell a more thorough story than if we only focused on an animal itself.  We can consider how an animal fits into the broader landscape, and how people do as well. We had some logging done on the property a few years ago, so I’ve got cameras on forest that is regrowing. When we do selective cutting in other locations on the property, we can compare species use before and afterwards.

Coyote-in-Training: We have two captive coyotes on the property. One is on exhibit and the other is used for educational programs. Our program coyote arrived five years ago when her mother was hit by a car while transporting her between dens. We received a call from NH Fish & Game about the pup that was just days old. We realized having no parents, she was not a candidate to be rehabilitated and returned to the wild. We decided that this was a unique opportunity to establish a working relationship with a coyote and accepted her as part of our animal collection.

Working with the coyote is fun, but it’s challenging. She trains us as much as we do her. The staff who work with the coyote serve as her ad hoc family unit. We are the members that she identifies with. So I’ll get a completely different reaction from her than you will, even if you are a “dog whisperer.” It requires trust on both her part and ours. In each training session, the key thing we try to do is maintain and build on that trust. Our secondary goal is to train her to exhibit behaviors that she would normally do in the wild, to help educate the public.  We also train behaviors that allow us to visually inspect her for veterinary reasons.

Coyote Mood Swings: She goes through a seasonal cycle even though she has been spayed. During the breeding season she’s not the same animal that she is now. So you have to be able to read the seasonal and daily changes because there are some times when she just doesn’t want to participate.  It may be too hot, or she’s stressed because of too much activity in the area. You can come in one morning and find her distracted because of something that happened overnight. It varies.

Stretch, Sniff, Chomp: This is a social species, so she needs social interaction – that play kind of stuff, but you’re not doing everything like you would with a dog. We’ll set up things to exercise her mind. Puzzles she has to figure out. The first time she was introduced to a cardboard box was extremely frightening to her, because it was novel…she'd go over, stretch out really far, sniff quickly, and back off. This happened numerous times. Then finally she'd quickly bite it and release it and back off. That’s one of the ways that coyotes will test to see, “OK what is this thing?”

Now she’s learned that usually there are treats in the box. So when we have one she is very excited, but we've worked with her on developing restraint. She actually sits and waits. When we release her, she goes full bore into opening the box.

How Lake Cruises Relate to the Science Center’s Mission: Most of the time when you visit a facility like ours, you don’t have the ability to put everything in context - to see the whole land area. You can gain that perspective from a mountain or on a lake like Squam Lake. If people want to get on the water to see loons and wildlife [through the center’s cruises], summer is a wonderful time of year to do so. You gain a broader perspective of the wildlife, people, and the landscape. Pairing that with a walk on the center’s trails helps further our mission, to “advance understanding of ecology by exploring New Hampshire’s natural world.”

Interests Outside of Work: There’s my photography. Family. I’m always writing – it tends to be reflective, heavily influenced by the natural world. I carve wood spoons, draw, paint, and I’m doing my family history…Italian, German, Norwegian, and Swedish.

Wildlife at Home: I try to manage my one acre property for wildlife. I cut a number of pine trees about 15 years ago, but left 15 foot high stumps when I finished.  I left them with the idea that woodpeckers would be attracted to them over time. It took 10 years, but when the wood was nice and rotten, I found a beautiful male pileated woodpecker pounding away at the wood looking for insects.  My first thought, “OK, mission accomplished.”

I have a small pond I constructed for wood frogs, tree frogs, and peepers. One year I had a mink in the pond that was eating the frogs. I noticed it rolled around on a frog after it killed one. I was kind of frustrated, but sat there and thought simultaneously, “This is awful! This is so cool!”

Advice on Nature Appreciation: It’s well and wonderful to be excited about the grand things…but there are National Geographic moments happening in your backyard. All you have to do is allow yourself to be aware of what’s happening, and take the time to slow down and see it.


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