Karen Waldrop may be schooled in catching bears, identifying poisonous snakes and taking blood samples from elk calves, but she insists her job as the state’s wildlife director isn’t as “glamorous” as people may think.
“I am in meetings 90 percent of the time,” Karen said in her office last week as she rolled her eyes.
But after hearing the 39-year-old talk about her recent work with bear cubs, her close call with a rattlesnake and her dinners of squirrel and venison, it’s clear Karen’s life and line of work are anything but boring.
“I love it,” Karen says of her position as Wildlife Division director with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “It’s my niche.”
Karen’s been with the department for about seven years, but her passion for wildlife began as a kid growing up in north-central Florida.
Admitting she has a particular fondness for reptiles and amphibians, Karen said her love of things slimy and scaly tortured her mom.
“I’d be out on the river or something, and I’d see a snake and go, ‘Oh, I want to catch it!” she said.
Karen recalled one time when she caught a snake and forgot to tell her mother.
“It was in a Bionic Woman cup,” she said, laughing. “I forgot I had the snake in there. My mom’s going through all my gear, washing stuff … and I hear her scream.”
“It was a little rough green snake, it wouldn’t have hurt anybody,” she adds, with a sheepish grin.
Karen said she always knew she wanted to work with animals, but she also had an interest in biology and identifying things. It wasn’t until she took a class in wildlife conservation at Florida State University, where she was studying biology, that she learned she could make a career out of her two main interests.
“The professor said there were universities where you can go and study and get a major in wildlife biology … so I asked my professor where, and he mentioned University of Georgia.”
So, she packed up and transferred to UGA.
There she earned a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in wildlife biology. After earning her Ph.D. at Clemson University and doing research at the University of Kentucky, she started working for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in 2005 as a research coordinator.
It was then Karen got involved with what she said was her favorite project, working with elk herds in Eastern Kentucky. Karen and other researchers gathered blood samples and put radio collars on elk calves as part of a project monitoring the state’s elk population.
Karen also spent time working with snakes. While walking past the tanks at Salato Wildlife Education Center where they keep the poisonous snakes, she recalled one morning on a job in eastern Kentucky where she had a close encounter with a rattlesnake.
“I thought I had stepped on a stick, but it wasn’t, it was a snake,” she said, “And he took his head and went wham and hit me right in the leg. I did everything you weren’t supposed to do: I ran, I jumped, I screamed … I forgot I had my chaps on.”
The incident left her with a bruise – and a new nickname.
“They (her co-workers) started called me ‘Rattlesnake,’ just joking around,” Karen said, laughing.
In 2007, Karen was appointed Wildlife Division Director, a position that forced her to spend more time behind a desk and less time with the elk and rattlesnakes.
As director, one of Karen’s responsibilities is overseeing the division’s many projects, but she says she’d rather get in on the action instead of just observe it.
“What I really want to do is go out and work in the area,” Karen said. “I want to turn some dirt, drive a tractor, do those kinds of things.”
Sometimes, Karen does find a way to get back out in the field. Just recently, she was working in bear dens in eastern Kentucky weighing bear cubs, just steps away from the massive sleeping mother bear.
“Those are hibernating so it’s not too bad,” she said.
Though she spends a lot of her time with animals, Karen’s a “people person,” too, and she dedicates a good chunk of her time to working with the community on wildlife needs and concerns.
“I don’t care if someone’s calling about a snake in their attic or elk tearing up their pasture … or if a sportsman is worried about a certain hunting season … I’ll spend 30 minutes talking with somebody,” Karen said. “I think that having that relationship with the public is really important.”
Part of that relationship includes education and outreach, which is why Karen often gives tours at the Salato Center to students and other young people. Karen says the number of outdoorsmen/women is decreasing as kids are choosing sports and school extracurriculars over hunting and fishing.
Technology is also taking its toll.
“The more electronics that are out there, the more computers that kids are sitting behind, the less time kids are spending outdoors,” Karen said.
“Kids are staying inside and they’re not experiencing the same things that … I did, catching snakes and doing all that stuff … It’s terrible. “
Karen has gotten through though to at least one youngster – her 10-year-old stepson, Zachary, who she’s been taking squirrel hunting along with their dog, Annie.
“He says he wants to go into wildlife biology, just like his mom.” Karen said.
In her free time, Karen said she likes to hunt and fish, and she makes good use of what she catches.
“We live off venison pretty much at our house,” Karen said. “We eat a fair bit of squirrel – tastes like chicken.”
But she has her limits.
“I don’t eat the crazy exotic stuff (like) possum and groundhog,” Karen says. “Although, groundhog’s not bad.”
Karen’s hobbies are evident by her office décor. Shed antlers line the tops of her shelves, and a buck’s head is mounted on one of the walls. A framed photo of her parents, Jean and Bruce Alexy, sits on one of her bookcases, which reminds Karen of an inspiring story about her father.
“When I got my Ph.D. (in wildlife biology) … my dad said, ‘You just kind of fulfilled my dream,’” she said.
Karen’s father then told her he had always wanted to be a park ranger because he wanted to work outside, but his parents told him it wasn’t a “realistic career,” so he went to law school instead.
“I never knew this about my dad,” she said. “I guess that’s why he never told me one way or the other what I needed to do with my life.”
Karen says she knows wildlife biology isn’t the most lucrative career choice, but she appreciates the freedom her parents gave her in pursuing her dream.
“You don’t go into it to make money … you go into it for the passion,” Karen said.
“It’s not just my job – it really is my life.”