Talking to strangers

‘Are your fox collars brown with a big black lump on one side?’ asked the woman on the phone.

‘Yup, sounds like them. Why?’

‘Umm, I’ve got one here. My friend found it on a dead fox on the road.’

Damn, damn. At that stage, I only had collars on two foxes and now I was back to one again.

I picked the collar up from her friend’s letterbox on my next field trip and sure enough it was Fern’s. Talk about a death-wish! The first fox I ever caught, she had been slightly too small to collar back in December, just an over-grown cub. Then I had re-caught her in late January and been so happy to find that she’d gained enough weight to fit with a GPS collar.

'Gully' - the other fox I had collared at the time

‘Gully’ – the other fox I had collared at the time

When I got the phone call, I had just returned from my first trip to download Fern’s data and all appeared to be going well – she had a small home range, mostly confined to a couple of ferny gullies, probably near her parents’ den. A wallaby had been killed on a road nearby and I had dragged it off into the bush, thinking that if Fern found it, at least she would be away from the cars.

Not far enough apparently. Both Fern and the wallaby were lying in the gravel when the cyclist found them – Fern must have pulled it back onto to road for a good chew.

Not great for my data collection, but so nice of the cyclist who stopped on her morning ride, extracted the collar from the flat fox carcass, bagged it up and wrote me a note detailing when and where she had found it.

My bad luck with data collection eventually reversed, but the help from total strangers continues.


Next to one of my main field sites was a big block of unburnt heathland. It was riddled with dirt-bike tracks and would have been perfect for fox-trapping. It was private property though, and I couldn’t figure out who owned it. Months later, just before I began the next season of fieldwork, the owner emailed my supervisor asking about our research, and I gave her a call.

Not only was she very happy to let me work in her property, did I need any accommodation? Because she had a cottage down there I was welcome to stay in – I’d find the key in the third gumboot next to the door and there should be plenty of firewood around the back.

I was heading home from her place late one afternoon (the second fortnight I had stayed there and I still hadn’t met her!) when I realised that the trailer I was using to transport cage traps had no lights. As dusk fell I was getting pretty worried about driving for another two hours on country roads, towing a blacked-out trailer. I was passing through the last town for the next 50k and pulled into a servo – ‘excuse me, this is a really odd question but…’

‘Sure,’ said the lady behind the desk. ‘We’ve got a farm down the road, you’re welcome to leave it there.’ And she gave me directions and called her hubby so that he could make room for it next to the shed.

And so many others:

The chap in the fire-tower who, once he learnt what on earth I was doing, driving around and around in circles every day in the middle of summer, gave me the tower phone number in case I was ever worried and wanted more info about fires in the district.

The local vet who let me sit in on appointments so that I could learn how to use sedatives.


The lovely bloke who welcomed me and John in one night when we appeared out of the rain to tell him about an injured calf – he already knew about the calf but sat us down by the heater for an hour and gave us fruit-cake and cups of tea.

The private philanthropist who generously supports my (and so many other students’) research – no strings attached but a copy of your final report would be appreciated.

The owners of isolated properties who don’t set their dogs on this mud-soaked, antenna-waving biologist traipsing up their driveway, but allow free access to their properties.

And the other researchers around the globe who respond to my cold-call emails, share their experiences and provide advice.

When you spend too much time alone in the field listening to the news on the radio, the wider world can seem a bit depressing. The strangers I meet, however, are immensely kind.


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