Anne Hilborn

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In my blog I ramble on about various aspects of cheetahs and doing fieldwork that interest me. There is the occasional tangent about academia, but mostly it is cheetah pictures.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 09:35PM

June 21 2015

I went to see the new Mad Max movie and was impressed for the usual reasons- eye popping visuals, multiple female characters being badass, the amount of character development that happens with minimal dialog, the refusal to have a romantic subplot etc… Tom Hardy plays Mad Max as a rather different type of action hero than you usually see in Hollywood blockbusters, and it occurred to me that he had many of the qualities of a fine field assistant. Believe me, the usual Hollywood action hero would make an utterly awful field assistant, but Mad Max…Different story. I complied my personal list of qualities that would make me likely to hire him. Bear in mind this list is heavily influenced by the type of fieldwork I have done in both Serengeti and Alaska which involves long periods of time spent in isolation with a small group of people where pretty much everything depends on having working vehicles or boats.

Thanks to feministmadmax.tumblr for some of the images.

Why Tom Hardy’s Mad Max has the many qualities of a good field assistant.

1. Thinks independently and presents his ideas but takes direction well.- want someone smart who thinks for themselves but will do what you say.

2. Understands who is boss. Don’t want someone talking over you or changing protocol on your project. You also don’t want a guy who resents having a woman as a boss. I haven’t seen this happen many times, but when it does it is a complete mess.

3. Isn’t grabby. Max doesn’t touch any of the female characters unless it is in the act of fighting, driving the rig, or administering first aid. This is very rare in male cinematic ‘heroes’. Usually they regard the woman/women they ‘save’ as owing them something, be it attention, some sort of domestic labor, or sexual activity. Or they just cop a feel if possible. Even my faves such as Sean Bean as Sharpe and Jonny Depp as Jack Sparrow do this.

Jack Sparrow cops a feel
Jack Sparrow cops a feel

Sharpe after trying to seduce Theresa when she really wasn't into it

Max does not, even when crammed in the belly of the war rig with several half naked young women, he takes absolutely no interest in them. For me very few things make a work dynamic go uncomfortable and edgy as someone touching me without my consent. Being in a car for 12 hours with someone who tries to tuck your hair behind your ear or in a field camp with someone who touches your stomach as you pass—nope. Not good. Thankfully is hasn’t happened very often to me (but sexual harassment and assault in field camps is common-see Kate Clancy and co.'s research on this issue) but it is such a relief to have someone working with or for you where you know it won’t be an issue.

4. Knows when to let the best person for a job take over- Yes, I am talking about the rifle scene.

Field jobs are a great place to learn new skills, but when the chips are down and resources/time/tempers are short, the most qualified person should do the job. This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way. When I was younger I felt I had A LOT to prove about how tough and skilled I was and would often try to do things beyond my abilities. In 2002 I was a bird skinning trip to Siberia and to get to a study site we needed to row across a sizeable river. For the first few days I sat in the boat and one of the guys on the team rowed everyone across. But after a while I felt like I shouldn’t be just sitting there like useless cargo so I offered to row. Now I once rowed a boat when I was 10 and that made me think it was fairly straightforward.

How I'd thought I'd look rowing a boat. Not very accurate

Let me assure you it is not. At all. Even now after a fair amount of practice I cannot row a boat in a straight line, but back then I made a complete hash of it. I am eternally grateful and astonished that one my passenger sat mute and silent as I completely soaked him as I flailed with the oars. Eventually with much bruised pride, I admitted defeat and let the guys take over the rowing. In that situation I was not the right person for the job and as I have matured I’ve realized that letting someone who is more competent than myself do the job doesn’t somehow diminish my value. This realization was helped along by becoming more competent myself and being in situations where someone else less skilled wanted to take over. Most of the time I’ll let him or her go ahead, but if time is tight, or the result is important then, no. I’ll pull rank and do it myself, and it helps to have someone who doesn't get upset by that.

5. Can work effectively independently and as part of a team- Want someone who you can trust to do good work on their own but who can also work effectively with other people.

6. Has mechanical skills and can fix stuff- I’ve been stuck too many times with a broken fan belt, over heated radiator, broken door etc.. Mechanics are hard to find in the middle of nowhere and having someone on your team who can do even basic car repairs is immensely valuable.

7. Knows how to dig a car out of the mud. This is KEY!! The scene where the war rig is stuck in the mud is one of my favorites because it reminds me off the many many times I’ve been stuck in the mud, alone and with others, jacking, digging, throwing boards, sand ladders, spare tires... anything we had under the wheels, grinding in low range, desperately swearing and hoping that this time the car will move.

That time I got my parents stuck in a marsh in Serengeti. Pics by Ulrike Hilborn

Utter jubilation at getting the car unstuck

Despite our success, my dad doesn't seem very pleased about the whole situation

I approve of Mad Max’s digging out technique and his hustle in doing it. Because while there may not be blood thirsty war boys after us, we have cheetahs to find, and we don’t want to waste the day stuck in the mud.

8. Thoughtful. Now this isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of an action hero but it is exemplified by the boot. Max lost a boot to a warboy when he was still a blood bag, when he had Nux under his power he took a boot back leaving Nux with only one. In the scorching desert when you spend most of your time fighting or crawling around a very very hot vehicle, missing a boot is a problem. When Max returns from sorting out some of their pursuers, he carries back much needed weapons and ammunition, and a boot which he gives to Nux. Now he didn’t have to, he could have spared himself the trouble of carrying it all that way, but in doing so he signaled to Nux that he accepted him as part of the team and his safety and comfort were important. Thoughtful things like that between members of a field crew really help make what can be a boring repetitive job and a cramped living situation much easier to bear. Someone who does the dishes without asking, or remembers to pack your favorite snack for lunch. Or knows that you hate driving a boat in windy situations so does it instead. Or can see when you are stressed and about to break and makes you dinner or does a job or chore so you don’t have to. These things can be immensely important.

9. Has some first aid skills- you know, can sort out a collapsed lung.

10. Doesn’t mind staying filthy for periods of time. Mad Max obviously hadn’t changed clothes in years and the logical part of my mind knows that makes sharing a car or tent a challenge. In less extreme circumstances however, it helps to have someone who doesn’t mind getting filthy. Cutting ear bones out of rotting salmon, digging cars out of the mud or just camping for days in the dust are dirty jobs and you want someone who won’t use up precious water in non-essential washing.

11. Doesn’t say much- If I am in a car with someone for days at a time, I don’t want them to be talking all the time. One of the reasons I am good at being a cheetah researcher is because I can spend 5 days alone following cheetahs. So when I am sharing the car, I am not big on a lot of chit- chat, especially not in the morning. When I was training Laura to replace me on Cheetah Project, one of the reasons we got on so well was because there would be almost no talking in the car until the mid-morning tea break.

12. Can drive stick. All field cars in Serengeti are stick shifts and not being able to drive stick pretty much excludes one from being a field assistant.

While this list is pretty impressive, I am realistic and know there are some reasons that would also make him a challenging field assistant.


1. Not great communicator. Max as an agreeably silent car companion is great. Max as a field assistant who doesn’t let you know where he is going or if the car needs repairs or if he is having problems with data collection, or permitting issues etc.. is less than ideal. Max giving a research presentation to stakeholders might be a stretch. Having good communication skills in science is necessary and you want someone in the field who can effectively communicate both with you and other people.

2. Has rolled a car and might be considered a reckless driver.

Admittedly there are extreme extenuating circumstances. However, it will probably take a fair amount of time and training for Max to stop driving as if he was running for his life and more in the slow granny style we aim for. Landrovers in Serengeti and boats in Alaska are expensive to buy and maintain. Driving off road is tough on cars anyway, but this is exacerbated by fast or careless driving, and on Cheetah Project safe and careful driving is very important. Wrecking a car is one of the fastest ways to get fired.

4. He's hot. Now this is a whole can of worms that I am not going to fully get into. I’ll just say that I would find it really awkward to be attracted to someone who worked for me, especially if we spent a lot of time together such as in a car or research camp.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 01:29AM

June 12 2015

Initially I had mixed feelings about #distractinglysexy because it seemed to play into the tired trope of women scientists not being attractive. But then I saw how many women were using it to post pictures of themselves doing cool and interesting work in the lab and field with comments that pointed out the ridiculousness of Tim Hunt’s remarks. And I decided it was generally a good thing.

For me the point is not that women scientists can’t be sexy but that we are not distracting. If men cannot work besides us without losing focus on their own work, that is their problem not ours. I have worked in many labs and field situations with lots of different people and seen all sorts of romantic and sexual relationships occur. That is life, scientists are human and have messy human emotions. But we still manage to get the work done. Being able to work with people of other genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, class, economic backgrounds and combinations of the above is a prerequisite for being a decent human. Science is rife with sexism, racism, and many types of oppression, but segregation (as Tim Hunt suggested) is really not the way to make it better.

Another aspect for me is that competence in the field/ lab is really attractive. The pictures show women doing work they love where the focus is not on how they look or how conventionally attractive they are. As a cisgendered woman, it is assumed that much of what I do and how I present myself is deliberate and meant for the male gaze. For me, these pictures push back against that, showing women doing awesome things where their appearance is besides the point. One of the many reasons I like fieldwork is because it doesn’t matter how I look but how competent I am. The important things in the field are can you drive a boat, can you set up a mist net correctly and skin a bird attractively and quickly? Can you find cheetahs and watch them for 11 hours a day without falling asleep or losing track of them? Can you collect, measure, tag and get a genetic sample from a salmon in under a minute? Can you work in crappy weather without complaining? Can you dig a Landover out of the mud? These are the things I judge myself and my coworkers on and how we look while doing them is not particularly important.

I know many other women will have a variety of different opinions and experiences regarding this issue, and that is what makes it complex and fascinating. There are as many experiences being a woman in science as there are women, and I like that #distractinglysexy shows at least some of that diversity.

For mainsteam media coverage of #distractinglysexy try these links



By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 12:48AM

October 2014

With the unseasonal rains, the herds of zebra and wildebeest turned up in the Seronera area again. The zebra came first, and suddenly the place smelt like a horse barn. Now I've always considered yearling wildebeest to be the largest prey that cheetahs go for, but an afternoon spent with two young males exploded that idea. These are two young but hunky males that suddenly turned up south of Apollo and Bacchus's territory. They were in long unburned grass and they took advantage of the cover to bring down a zebra, and not a small zebra either, but a 3/4 size one. The next day they were almost obscenely fat, and the when I found them they were sitting on a termite mound, being stared at by a semi circle of wary zebra.

Zebra staring at cheetahs full of zebra

The wildebeest turned up a bit later, providing a bonanza for Apollo and Bacchus. I spent a couple of days with them and learned a bit about their routine. It started with a lot of sleeping. Then at some point they would rouse themselves and start walking slowly towards the river, peeing on every tree that happened to be in their way.

Bonding through coordinated scent marking

. Once at the river a whole cluster of cars would inevitably surround them and I would curse to myself about my blocked view, about animal harassment and any other charge I could think of to lay at the feet of the tourists. However the cheetahs were fairly undisturbed, making their slow way across the river and up to the plains on the other side where they sat and inspected the available wildebeest offerings.

Crossing the main road in Seronera to get to the wildebeest on the other side

I watched them take down an adult wildebeest one afternoon, and a hell of a fight it was. One of them was doing all the hard work at the dangerous front end. The end with the horns and hooves and the real risk of trampling and goring. Meanwhile the other one was nibbling daintily and unhelpfully on a back leg. Eventually he figured his brother might actually need some help, so he moved around and grappled with the front end as well. The wildebeest succumbed fairly quickly after that.

Apollo and Bacchus got to eat a decent amount of the carcass before a hyena came in. They surrendered it without much of a fuss, being pretty fat already.

A nice easy meal for a hyena.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 18 2016 12:16AM

September 2014, again

There has been a fair amount of unexpected rain, and with the burning done by the parks staff, this has led to incredibly green swards. The gazelle and zebra have flocked to them, making Seronera in August look incongruously like the short grass plains in February.

The high density of prey was good for me because I was short on data on cheetah hunting behaviour in high prey density areas. Usually they are asleep in the long grass with not a gazelle to be seen. Recently, I was meandering around the short green grass of Boma kopjes when I found Cooper.

Cooper surveys the desolate emptiness of Boma Kopjes without Bradley

He contact called a bit, thought about chasing some gazelle, then lay down under a tree to sleep off the sadness. A bold black backed jackal came up to investigate. I was impressed as I have seen cheetahs chase jackals with much determination and joy. In fact they love to chase any of the carnivores that are smaller than them. I blame it on being in the middle of the pecking order, cheetahs have to duck and dive to avoid lions and hyenas, so they take out their frustration by chasing jackals, servals, and anything else that is small and furry.

However Cooper evidently couldn’t care less about the jackal, who having sniffed his full, wandered off.

Bradley and Cooper are very devoted brothers (I have great series of pictures of them spooning and grooming), and finding no Bradley worried me. But I cheered myself with the thought that he was probably out on the shag. Cheetah brothers will sometimes approach females together and sometimes one of them will sneak off to get a mating to himself. The other explanation for his absence was that he was dead. An explanation I wasn’t keen to consider, so I was very very pleased when Dennis found both of them together and fat about a week later.

The other pair of brothers in the Seronera area are Apollo and Bacchus. They may have been godlike once but now they are mangy and cross looking and if it wasn’t frowned upon to rename cheetahs (special cases being made if the cheetah is named after someone you now hate like an ex boyfriend or his mother), I was very tempted to rename them Preserved and Killick after the character in Patrick O’ Brian’s nautical historical novels (which I listen to ad nauseam while on follows). As well as being physically unprepossessing, they display a distinct lack of brotherly affection towards each other that I find troubling.

I once watched Apollo do nothing about Bacchus’s bloody face for hours after eating. Hours I tell you!

Richard and Armitage would never let that happen

Neither would Bradley and Cooper

However recently I found Apollo and Bacchus and there was a gratifying amount of bonding between them and I softened my harsh assessment of their behavior.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 11:35PM

September 2014

September will go down as the month where I finally managed to do the fieldwork as I planned it oh so many months ago. The idea that I came up with in my innocence was that I’d follow the same cheetah for 5 days in a row. This rested on a number of assumptions that turned out to be a wee bit false. Namely that cheetahs didn’t move at night and at dawn would be sitting in where I had left them at dusk. Not so, and I struggled mightily to even find the same cheetah 2 days running. I struggled to the point where I reconsidered my plan of attack and even went back and read some scientific papers to see if just following a cheetah for a day instead of multiple days would still allow me to accomplish the objectives of my PhD (It will...fingers crossed). So while I made an attempt to find the previous day’s cheetah again, usually I followed a different one every day. However this changed the day I found a mother and her 3 cubs for 6 glorious days in a row. She is a rarely seen female, and we hadn’t seen her seven month old cubs before. She spent the 6 days in a fairly small area, hunkering down and not moving for the night and also importantly, hunting a lot. She had 3 cubs to feed, which meant in 6 days she killed 5 times. None of this sleeping-off-a-full-belly- for-two-days rigmarole I had come to expect from single cheetahs. It was a glorious richness of data, and I never wanted it to end. However real life of office work intruded and the day after she was nowhere to be found. I named her Wendi after my sister in law who had recently visited.

Wendi has a female and two male cubs. All of them seemed to take special delight in trying to get her to play with them by the means of face patting, neck biting and sudden attacks when she was trying to sleep. I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic when she would suddenly retaliate with the nip to the hindquarters or crotch.

There is only so much a mother can take before she goes for the disciplinary crotch bite

Wendi brought down a gazelle late in Day 4 and it was getting on towards sunset before the cubs had had their fill of eating and playing with the carcass. It was a pregnant gazelle and the cubs played tug of war with the head of the fetus for an unnecessarily long time.

Wendi led her cubs a short distance away, but then spotted a hyena heading for the remains of the carcass. Hyenas can be deadly to cheetah cubs, so like a conscientious mother, she took them at a fast clip in the other direction. However in the other direction was a herd of about 40 elephants. This lead to an utterly magical Serengeti moment of 4 cheetahs walking in the gorgeous light very near elephants, everyone ignoring everyone else. I felt incredibly lucky to witness it.

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