Call of the Wild

Conservationist Jeff Flocken speaks for the animals. Especially those whose numbers are diminishing.

Jeff Flocken has traveled the world advocating for whales, tigers, polar bears and other wildlife. He’s held an anteater like a baby. When special hotel accommodations were hard to come by on the weekend of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, he welcomed Harry, a three-toed sloth, to his home near the Ballston Metro. (Both the sloth and its chaperone were attending an inaugural gala put on by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation.)

And when he saw the glowing eyes of what turned out to be a low-crouching puma in a Costa Rican jungle, Flocken’s first instinct was to edge closer, not farther away.

But there is one family of critters that makes his skin crawl. “Frogs and toads,” says his wife, Mary Crimmings.

Granted, we’re not just talking about your average spring peeper or 3-inch American toad. During frequent visits to the tropics with various animal conservation posts (he now heads the D.C. office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare), Flocken says he encountered one too many cane toads. Attracted to light, they would often line up outside the doors of his cabin—as many as 50 at a time.

“They’re large and vicious and invasive and poisonous,” he explains with a shudder. As adults, the toads can measure up to 6 inches long.

Still, that wouldn’t stop Flocken from fighting for their survival, were it threatened. Projects spearheaded by his team at IFAW have run the gamut, from a petition to list the African lion as an endangered species, to working with eBay to stop ivory sales online, to rallying U.S. communities against puppy mills.

His daughter, Collette, 7, a student at Ashlawn Elementary School, explains her dad’s job succinctly. “He helps animals,” she says.

Flocken has always been an animal lover. Though his own household menagerie was never exotic—growing up in the Midwest, he had a family dog; now he has a family cat—he spent his childhood reading and watching everything he could find about creatures great and small. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he took a trip to Kenya in 1990 to research giraffes. That’s when he first witnessed, up close, the depletion of a species. He has since traveled to every continent except Antarctica.

“I saw the conflict and I saw the encroachment,” he says, recalling those early observations on the African savanna. “There wasn’t the room or the reverence for wildlife to have a healthy coexistence [with humans]. And I could see the poverty. People needed to have resources. Just saying you can’t go there anymore doesn’t work. Figuring out the right balance is the real [challenge].”

Inspired by that trip, Flocken pursued a career in conservation. He landed a job as an international affairs specialist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and later became head of the National Wildlife Federation’s endangered species program. He is also co-founder of Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders (EWCL), a two-year mentoring program founded in 2004 that has helped 100 new conservationists develop their careers.

Julie Scardina, animal ambassador and corporate curator for SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, who is also an EWCL board member, describes the mentoring program as a natural extension of Flocken’s personality, “which is basically: I want to bring people together to do greater things than one person can do alone.”

In fact, she’s working in partnership with Flocken to do just that. Together, the duo coauthored a book, Wildlife Heroes, that was released in March. It features 40 conservationists who have devoted their lives to wildlife issues ranging from pollinator decline to habitat degradation to poaching.

“They’re the Jane Goodalls of their species,” Flocken explains, drawing parallels between the legendary primatologist and the book’s like-minded unsung “heroes.”

Some have taken up the cause of mountain gorillas. Others are focusing on creatures such as the okapi (a close cousin of the giraffe) that inhabits the diminishing rain forests of central Africa; and the cat-like fossa, a member of the mongoose family that lives in Madagascar. Experts estimate there are fewer than 2,500 fossa left in the world.

For Flocken, penning the book was a matter of writing down the true stories he so often uses to drive his points home on Capitol Hill and with private philanthropists and corporations. He recounts the experiences of animal biologists like Leandro Silveira, who researches jaguars along the Araguaia River in Brazil, and Rogério Cunha de Paula, who introduced a wolf-proof chicken coop to locals living near a Brazilian national park, thus curbing the shooting of maned wolves.

“It’s fine to think TV stars and rock stars and athletes are cool,” Flocken says. “But how much more cool can you get than someone who’s given up a normal life to live in the bush and go save the last bonobos? These people are really doing something good.”

Flocken’s job, as storyteller and fund-raiser, is to make sure that good work doesn’t go unnoticed.  “So everyone can see that there’s hope in finding room for both humans and animals on the planet.”

Madelyn Rosenberg is a freelance writer living in Arlington. She has two picture books due out this fall: The Schmutzy Family and Happy Birthday, Tree, a Tu B’Shevat Story.

Categories: People