In the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in southeastern Oklahoma, you will find well-loved and well-respected Jared Wood handling and observing alligators, following a passion he developed as a kid. “I love all animals,” Wood begins. “My mother always encouraged my fascination with animals by letting me bring them home to play with, but I always liked reptiles the best.”
Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, Wood describes attending an annual event that affected his lifework — a rattlesnake roundup. “Locals would collect and kill thousands of rattlesnakes as part of a community festival,” he recalls as he shifts in his chair during our interview in his office. Conviction changes the tone of his voice: “Even if they are venomous, I just didn’t think that was the right thing to do. Those experiences led me to pursue a career in wildlife conservation, specifically reptile conservation, because they’re so misunderstood.” On his office wall hangs a poster displaying pictures of the venomous snakes of Oklahoma.
Wood did his undergraduate studies in fisheries and wildlife management at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. During that time he raised 18 orphaned alligators, which led to the current project he is working on.
“A mother alligator either abandoned her nest or was poached, we don’t know, so there was a nest with no mother,” Wood tells the story. “Biologists sent the 18 young to Southeastern Oklahoma State University. I oversaw their care until the time came to let half go after one year in captivity, and half go after their second year in captivity. We studied their survival and movements through the winter,” Wood explains.
Graduate studies led Wood to Kentucky and then Florida. “I left the alligators behind and worked with invasive reptiles during graduate school,” he continues. “When I moved back to the Texas area, one of the wildlife technicians from Oklahoma’s Red Slough Wildlife Management Area asked me if I’d be interested in picking up where I left off monitoring alligators. That person was David Arbour, an alum of Southwestern Adventist University (SWAU), whom I already knew. We formed a working relationship when I was an undergraduate, and we stayed in contact after I moved to Kentucky. It’s kind of neat to have a SWAU connection on this project. So that’s how I first got back into working with alligators in Oklahoma.”
Wood, along with wildlife technician Arbour and two professors from Southeastern Oklahoma State University, started their research by doing a lot of monitoring of alligator nests and mothers using game cameras. About a year ago the state of Oklahoma decided to fund a study on alligators and awarded them a grant to work on it for the next two and a half years, “with the hope that it will continue into the future,” Wood tells me. “This project is really a collaborative effort, which is fun because I also get the opportunity to work with old friends, including my undergraduate mentor.”
As we continue to talk, Wood looks through his pictures on his phone and finds a picture of an alligator the team took that went viral on social media. “CNN even showed this one,” he says, and smiles. In the photo an alligator is “icing,” or “snorkeling,” sticking its snout up through ice so it can breathe. “We want to know everything about the alligator population in Oklahoma,” Wood explains about the project. “To be able to successfully manage the population, we have to better understand their demographics, movement patterns, behaviors, and ability to withstand extreme winters that alligators in other parts of their range don’t experience.”
Living Out His Faith
We shift from talking about Wood’s alligator project in Oklahoma to talking about his position as an associate professor at Southwestern Adventist University and how his varied skills and conservation efforts flex between research projects and the classroom. He says, “I’m kind of known as the dinosaur guy at Southwestern,” and he is. He leads a dinosaur excavation expedition each June in the Lance Formation in eastern Wyoming. Besides his teaching duties, he is also curator of the Dinosaur Museum and Research Center on campus, home of more than 35,000 fossils, the largest collection of dinosaur bones in north Texas.
About his background, Wood shares, “I went into science because I wanted to help declining animal populations, and I wanted to do something to make a difference in the world. I ended up working primarily with reptiles, because, as a generalization, they are the most hated group of vertebrates. At Southeastern Oklahoma State University my work with alligators and turtles made me realize, Hey, I really love wildlife research. I thought I just wanted to be a game warden or a park ranger, ride around on a four-wheeler all day and handle animals, but my undergraduate professor really sparked my interest in research. That’s why I went on to the University of Louisville to continue my training in wildlife biology.”
Wood grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist, but no Adventist college offered what he wanted to study, wildlife biology. In the last year of his Ph.D. studies, his aunt, Penny Landeros, sent him a job announcement from her alma mater, Southwestern Adventist University. “It said they were looking for someone to teach ecology and zoology courses, help with the paleontology project, and I think microbiology might have been in there too,” he remembers. “I said to myself, Well, that’s a mixed bag of skills, but I can definitely do the zoology and the ecology courses, I have curation skills, and I’ve had an interest in dinosaurs since I was a kid. I mean, who doesn’t like dinosaurs, especially if you study large reptiles?” He breaks into a smile. Interestingly, the first time Wood ever set foot on an Adventist college campus was when he began his career at Southwestern Adventist University seven years ago.
On the end of Wood’s desk, a plastic shoebox without a lid holds fossils Wood collected this summer but has not yet had a chance to catalog for the Dinosaur Museum and Research Center. A miniature T. rex skeleton sits beside it, along with a couple of massive-looking dinosaur teeth. I notice a picture book on Wood’s bookshelf, 365 Ways to Save the Earth, amid other books about ecology and various field guides and textbooks. From the corner of his office, he shows me his favorite snake hook out of his collection of snake hooks and tongs. He points out his ever-ready field equipment in the other corner of his office, a radio receiver for tracking animals, and binoculars and scopes for observing alligators and birds.
“I love science,” Wood shares. “When I was an undergraduate, I loved giving presentations at elementary schools, and I always wanted to make a connection between science, what we do as wildlife biologists, and what students and the public can observe and understand regarding conservation initiatives. As a professor who works at a Christian school, I do get asked to preach, but I don’t necessarily enjoy preaching. My way of serving is stewardship, and for me that’s conservation — environmental stewardship. I just want to protect what God gave us, and any chance I get to work with wildlife is a way for me to be a good steward.”
— Michelle Bergmann is a freelance writer for Southwestern Adventist University.