Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ., 27 March 2002
Vol. 2002, Issue 12, p. vp3
[DOI: 10.1126/sageke.2002.12.vp3]


Taming Lions, Unleashing a Career

Steven Austad

Department of Biological Sciences, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID 83844-3051, USA. E-mail: austad{at};2002/12/vp3 "I realized that if I kept making mistakes in my current job, the rest of my life would likely be too short for me to bother with long-term plans." The lions had very little to do with launching my studies on aging, except maybe Orville the Long-Toothed. He started me on the road to biology as a science. In the mid-1970s, armed with only a degree in English literature, a desire to write the Great American Novel, and a mild adrenaline addiction, I stumbled into a job as a wild animal trainer for the film industry in Southern California. Actually, I had always been fascinated by animals, having spent many adolescent days stomping about in the woods catching snakes and turtles, as well as taking potshots at birds and squirrels with my slingshot. But in college I fell in love with poems and novels about nature rather than the thing itself.

Mostly I worked with lions. Every time an animal appears on a movie set, whether it is a cat sitting on an actor's lap or a buffalo running through the frame, an animal trainer has helped set up the scene. For instance, I might have had to figure out how to make a lion yawn, or stalk but not attack someone, or simply walk through a scene without staring at the camera operator. Mostly, though, my job was to make sure that actors didn't get eaten on the set. Those sorts of incidents tend to slow down production.

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Mane interest. Austad tries to teach a grumpy lion, Boomer, to walk and stop on command.

A notable aspect of animal training is that you necessarily discover your mistakes. One of my mistakes was with Orville. I foolishly tried to separate him from a duck he had ambushed. I succeeded in getting him to drop the duck. Unfortunately, he then decided that I would be better prey. So he knocked me flat and set about gnawing on my knee. That mistake landed me in the hospital for knee reconstruction, where I had several weeks to consider what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I realized that what I liked best about my job was the challenge of trying to understand what made the animals tick. The Hollywood stuff--the megalomaniacal directors, the preening and petulant stars, the vapid conversations about deals or who-was-hot-and-who-was-not--I never could abide. Also, I realized that if I kept making mistakes in my current job, the rest of my life would likely be too short for me to bother with long-term plans. Trying to understand animals in a less applied, more systematic and intellectual sense--a scientific sense, in other words--suddenly seemed very attractive.

I returned to school, took loads of science courses to make sure that a scientific worldview appealed to me, then went off to graduate school determined to study lion behavior in the wild. After all, I was already familiar with lions. How their behavior in nature related to what I knew about them in captivity seemed like a ready-made dissertation project. The lion study never materialized, because someone else took over the Serengeti lion project, which I had hoped to do. But I did pursue field research, and several years later I found myself at a biological research station in central Venezuela. I was trying to understand a particular aspect of social behavior in birds, but a friend of mine, Mel Sunquist, was having a problem. He wanted to study foxes, but his traps kept filling up with opossums. Did I have any suggestions for him? I did. Forget the foxes; study the opossums, I told him.

Together we worked out a plan to use the opossums to test a controversial hypothesis about how physical condition might predispose female animals to produce more offspring of one sex or the other. The idea was that females in good condition would be likely to produce predominantly high-quality offspring: males. In almost any mammal, the rationale went, dominant males have lots of mates, so those males will have many more offspring than even the most productive single female. In order to test that hypothesis, we put radio collars on females and retrapped them monthly.

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Opossum possibilities. Austad gears up to put a radiocollar on a young opossum. His opossum studies sparked his interest in aging.

I still remember opossum #9, with her moth-eaten fur, arthritis, and cataracts. Snarling and hissing as fiercely as she could, she managed to struggle only a bit as I gently removed her from my trap and let her go. When I had similarly grabbed her a few months before, while she was still in her prime, she'd delivered a solid bite. She was putting a brave face on things, but at 2 years of age she was deteriorating fast.

Female #9 crystallized for me something that both Mel and I had begun to notice: These opossums were aging incredibly quickly. Almost everyone has noticed that larger animals tend to live longer than smaller ones. So the fact that this animal was deteriorating at such a young age caught my attention. Another friend at the field station, John Robinson, was studying capuchin monkeys. They were about the same size and lived in the same habitat, but they were routinely living into their 20s or even 30s. Why such a difference? I had recently read a book by Peter Medawar, who advised young scientists to investigate questions of broad general interest. What could be of broader interest than the puzzle and paradox of aging?

On rare occasions, an idea pops into my head and immediately springs to life. Out there, in the baking sun and long, brown grass of the dry-season savanna, I immediately recognized that I had found a question that would pique my interest for the foreseeable future. And so it has. Now, almost 20 years later, I'm more intrigued by the aging process than ever. Maybe it's because I've gotten older. My wife likes to remind me that I studied sex before I studied aging. Perhaps what obsesses you in your personal life is what drives your scientific interests. I don't really believe that, but scientists are supposed to be willing to entertain any plausible hypothesis--and it is tough to get young people interested in studying aging.

Maybe aging continues to enthrall me because it's such a broad topic, a dilettante's delight. If you figure out one small part of it, a seemingly limitless number of other facets remain. Or maybe it's because after attending my daughters' song-and-dance concerts at nursing homes, I've developed a belated interest in human aging. For most of my career, it was the intellectual puzzle of why things age at the rate they do that captured my interest. An old human, unless a friend or family member, was no more or less interesting to me than an old mouse or opossum. However, it's hard to watch the many lonely, vacant stares in nursing homes without being moved.

I'm still the same person I was when I fed my hunger for excitement by trying to make wild animals do my bidding. Last year I bungee jumped off a bridge below Victoria Falls, 110 meters of free-fall adrenaline surge, and I was delighted to find that the rush still had its power. But my encounter with gravity couldn't provide the long-term exhilaration that I hope to experience in the future. Perhaps I'll feel it someday if my research translates into discoveries that relieve a bit of human misery.

March 27, 2002

Science of Aging Knowledge Environment. ISSN 1539-6150