Jobs at DOC: Jess Scrimgeour, Technical Advisor – Ecology

Department of Conservation —  28/09/2012

Come behind the scenes and into the jobs, the challenges, the highlights, and the personalities of the people who work at the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Today we profile Jess Scrimgeour, Technical Advisor – Ecology.

Name: Jess Scrimgeour (I’ve seen a variety of wonderful and creative spelling errors of my last name, but my favourite has always been Mrs. Scrimblabla).

Position: Technical Advisor – Ecology (Tongariro/Whanganui/Taranaki)

Jess Scrimgeour climbing up a cliff at Ruapehu with Ngauruhoe.

Out on a beautiful day climbing at Ruapehu, with Ngauruhoe in the background. Can you believe it’s only a half hour drive from home?

At work

What kind of things do you do in your role?

I work with the Department of Conservation in different areas to help them to do what they do best, and often have conversations with rangers/programme managers/community groups around “Are we doing things right? Can we do them better? And if so, how?”. Then I (hopefully) can help find a better way of doing things, whether this be through designing robust monitoring studies, training people, doing some data crunching or talking to someone who knows the answers I don’t and taking the credit for their smarts. So if you think you’ve got an ecological problem that you need a hand with, give me (or any other technical advisor) a yell. I’m told I can be quite useful at times.

Oh, and I occasionally get pulled to the front desk to identify cool critters that the public bring in; just recently a wriggling of maggots. Did anyone else know that that’s what a group of maggots is called? I had to look it up.

Jess Scrimgeour climbing up a cliff at Ruapehu with Ngauruhoe.

With my husband Ben on our recent trip to Oz, and as you can see we were ridiculously excited to be there

What is the best part about your job?

Only one thing? I suppose it’s the small things that are best (shout out to all the shorties!); when I’ve helped someone with a problem and we get to a good solution at the end. It’s a feeling of teamwork, of being useful and that maybe today we might have made a difference. Those are the days I love the best. And that has a lot to do with the fact that I am very lucky to work with a great bunch of people in DOC.

What is the hardest part about your job?

My husband once said that if my pay stretched to include all the hours I think about work outside of work hours, I’d only be paid a pittance. He didn’t actually use the word pittance, because he doesn’t really talk like that, but I think it’s a rather dashing word. I am yet to learn how to leave work at work, and find it intrudes at the most inopportune (another dashing word!) time.

A dead cat pictured with remains of over 100 short tailed bats that it killed.

A dark few days whilst doing short-tailed bat monitoring in Rangataua Forest. This cat pulled over a hundred bats from two roost trees in the space of a week before we caught him. Lesson: cats are bad

What led you to your role in DOC?

I grew up in a National Park in South Africa, and from a young age wanted to be a wildlife ranger like my best friend’s dad. I’d like to say it was because at such a tender age I’d already developed strong conservation ethics, but truth be told it was the lure of adventure and heroism, with dreams of saving the world from poachers, and staring off with my binoculars, serious and intent on my purpose (and the wind in my hair for added heroic effect). I didn’t waver (much) from this dream when moving to NZ, and I like to think I work in conservation now for all the right reasons—but every now and then I stare off in to the distance, humming my own theme song….

What was your highlight from the month just gone?

Well, I’ve just been on a climbing trip to Australia for three weeks, and work has yet to delight me with a better highlight. For other climbers out there, we went to Blue Mountains, Freycinet and Mt Arapiles. It was awesome.

The rule of 3…

3 loves

  1. My husband Ben, who gave me the name Scrimgeour. He also works for DOC so is likely to read this, so I better watch my tongue. Hi Ben!
  2. Being outside on a beautiful day climbing with friends. What I mean by this is maybe two or three climbs, with the majority of the day being used to talk about all the epic climbing we have done on all the other days when we climbed so epically (no one can ever name any specific examples of those days though…).
  3. My back garden, which through some trials and many an error was transformed from a weedy corner in to a sanctuary of native plants, a pond and a beautiful bench Ben built for me. Turns out the pond breeds mosquitoes like you wouldn’t believe, but I love it still.
An image of Jess Scrimgeour's garden with a bench built by her husband Ben.

My lovely garden. This was taken about two years ago, so it’s much more established now. Check out the bench Ben built, it weighs a tonne but no better place to lie and read a book in the sun

3 pet peeves (I hope these aren’t supposed to be rational)

  1. When I can hear someone chewing food, I physically have to remove myself from the sound.  It has the same effect on my nervous system as hearing nails scraping down a black board—an immediate and violent reaction that leaves my teeth on edge. Worse yet when you’re stuck in a plane with some punk kid next to you eating his food with an open mouth—the horror!
  2. I get irrationally irritated when I’m brushing my teeth in the morning and someone (who shall remain unnamed) decides that’s when he needs to brush his teeth too. We have all morning to coordinate teeth brushing activity, but after four years of marriage we still haven’t sorted it out.
  3. Busy supermarkets. Nothing worse than that lady who parked her trolley in the middle of the aisle at peak rush hour to peruse the shelf, holding everyone else up on either side, only to decide she didn’t want anything there in the first place. Too late, lady, we’re already in gridlock and require traffic management to get things moving again. A feeling very akin to road rage….

3 foods

  1. Homemade pizza.
  2. Biltong.
  3. Basil pesto.  If I could have basil pesto on everything I would, but I feel like I might die of coronary heart disease before the age of 35.

3 favourite places in New Zealand

  1. Pureora Forest. Beware the magic of that place, it’ll get hold of you and never let go.
  2. Rangataua Forest (outside Ohakune). I’ve spent many an hour here amongst the giant red beech doing bird and bat monitoring (6000 strong short-tailed bat population!).  It’s burrowed itself deep into my heart.
  3. Oddly enough, Turangi. People give the place a hard time, but I love my wee little home in this wee little town.

Favourite movie, album, book

  • Movie: The first one that popped in to mind was ‘August Rush’. Still tugs at the old heartstrings. I’m quietly shoving my vast collection of animated movies under the sofa as we speak—apparently it’s unseemly for a grown woman to still go dewy eyed over ‘The Little Mermaid’.
  • Album:  Right now, it’s Lana del Ray ‘Born to Die’. She has a beautiful voice and a somewhat morbid drama to her songs. But the album listened to the most in our household is probably Foo Fighters ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace’.
  • Book:  If you’re a bit of a fantasy buff, then I would recommend ‘Name of the Wind’ by Patrick Rothfuss. Pure escapism, and despite having read it three times already, I plan to do so many times more.

Deep and meaningful…

What piece of advice would you tell your 18 year old self?

Life is going to turn out great, so relax and enjoy the ride. Oh, and you should pay more attention in stats at uni—you’re going to regret all the doodling you did in class.

Who or what inspires you and why?

My parents inspire me greatly. They have this amazing ability to draw everyone in around them and make them feel valued. They instilled in me the belief that everything we do has an effect on others, so always respect those around you. I try and uphold them each day in the way I behave, so that they will be proud of the daughter that they raised.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A wildlife ranger! Although I did briefly dabble with acting in high school, and almost convinced myself that I might just be good enough to make it as a career. Luckily common sense prevailed and I recognised that I possessed far more enthusiasm than skill. I continued acting throughout university, but nowadays I content myself with being my own little drama queen at home (and sometimes at work).

And now, if you weren’t working at DOC, what would you want to be?

A teacher. Before starting with DOC in Turangi I was a rainforest ecology lecturer for undergraduate students in Australia, and I discovered a passion for it. It’s still one of the aspects of my current job I love best; doesn’t matter whether it’s teaching kids about native species, teaching community groups how to do bird counts or even teaching someone how to do pivot tables. I reckon if we want to make a real difference in the world, it’s teaching the next generation how to be better than we were. That moment when you see someone start to understand, and then see that spark grow in to action—brilliant!

Jess Scrimgeour standing in front of a class of kids teaching them about conservation.

Teaching kids about conservation as part of a summer programme about night creatures, where we all painted our faces like bats and owls.

What sustainability tip would you like to pass on?

Recycle and re-use. Go down to your local dump—it’s amazing the things people throw away. Someone else’s trash might just be your treasure. My favourite treasures found so far are a beautiful wooden abacus, a Michael Jackson vinyl record in perfect working condition, and a hand painted picture of Mt Ngauruhoe. Same goes for op-shopping, there’s some fashion jewels out there, even if the wider community doesn’t quite agree with your idea of fashion.

Which green behaviour would you like to adopt this year—at home? At work?

Ride my bike more, and stop being such a wussy about it when it’s rainy or cold.

Jess Scrimgeour holding an orphaned fruit bat with another hanging from her shoulder.

Raising orphaned fruit bats when I taught rainforest ecology in Australia

If you could be any New Zealand native species for a day, what would you be and why?

A short-tailed bat. They roost together in their thousands; they seem to me to have a great capacity for friendship and loyalty (my aversion to sharing a bathroom may not stand me in good stead here though). They might be small, but when threatened they’re feisty things. Even grown men have a healthy respect for those teeth when handling them. And they break the universal rule of the bat world each night by walking the earth. That’s pretty awesome.

Pre-DOC I taught rainforest ecology in Australia, and one of the best experiences was giving lectures whilst raising orphaned fruit bats. They were my most attentive students!

What piece of advice or message would you want to give to New Zealanders when it comes to conservation?

Be proud New Zealand. Our environment and everything in it is without compare. Take your children in to the forest, along the streams and up the mountains. Teach them the value of what we have, so that they might protect it and teach their children too.

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