Today I leave Knoxville at 12:05 pm and arrive in Nairobi at 9:20 pm Thursday. Doubly excited (if possible) because with the help of my friend, Dee White, I am going to be able to visit the Mara Hyena Research Project camp where she volunteers during the summer each year. WOW!

Below is an article I wrote about Dee and the hyenas of the Masai Mara which was published by KnoxZine in 2014. I am reprinting it with their permission.


Getting the Last Laugh In

“Hyenas aren’t sexy,” says Dee White, from her charming Holston Hills cottage.

White, close to retiring after over 25 years as a social worker and Coordinator of New Born Screening in the Genetics Center at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, was finally able to return to her first love, animals.

She became involved in hyena research on the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya.


“I grew up with animals around and have always had a keen interest in animal behavior.  I’m not sure when I first dreamed of going to Africa. The desire seems to have always been with me.

A Long, Strange Trip Begins

“As child of the ’60s my life took a few turns before I settled down.

“In 1965 I attended UT for two years.

I wanted to become a veterinarian but was strongly discouraged from pursuing that goal by professors who said I was just taking up space in pre vet courses.

“This was before the UT College of Veterinary Medicine was opened. They said there was not a vet school in the country that would admit me, a female.

“When my fiancé was drafted, I quit school and joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). After he was killed in Vietnam I went to Mexico for a while and then ended up in St. Louis where I found a job at the Missouri Botanical Garden.”

St. Louis Zoo

While working there, White had the chance to apply for a job at the St. Louis Zoo. Her timing was excellent. Women had never been hired as keepers before, but a nursery—the first for the zoo, was being created in the basement of the reptile house. Soon a Children’s Zoo was built and populated with small exotic animals. More animal births occurred. In the busy summer months students helped out as volunteers.

One outstanding high school student volunteer was eventually hired at $1.25 an hour. That student was Kay Holekamp. White said Holekamp had an understanding of the animals’ needs and a gift for working with the sensitive charges in the nursery.

After a few years in the nursery, White wanted to work with large animals in the main zoo.

The mind set at the time was that women wouldn’t be able to handle the labor involved.

Dee White, overcoming sexism at the St. Louis Zoo, and working  with a Bengal Tiger.

She eventually worked in all animal areas, proving that women could do the job. Today the majority of zoo keepers are female. She also was the first female union shop steward at the St. Louis Zoo.

Realizing she needed to finish her education, White returned to the University of Tennessee. “I was in my thirties and knew what I needed to do to finish my education. I was by far the oldest in any of my classes.” She finished her BS and went on to get a Master’s Degree in clinical social work.

Finally, Africa

In 2008, at a St. Louis Zoo employees’ reunion, White tracked down Kay Holekamp, her favorite former employee.  Holekamp was now a Distinguished Professor at  Michigan State University. Her research team focuses on behavioral ecology and evolution. They have been studying spotted hyenas in the wild for 26 years. This is the longest on-going research of larger mammals.

As the two women renewed their old friendship, Dr. Holekamp remembered White’s dream of going to Africa. Five years ago, Holekamp invited White to visit the research team in Kenya.

“I burst into tears and went to the bank, cleaned out my savings account, and bought an airplane ticket. The first year was just to unite with an old friend and to fulfill an old dream that I thought was lost. I was there for 2 weeks and fell in love with the country and the animals.

It turned out I could do something to help the project so Kay hired me.

Dr. Kay Holekamp with research assistants in the field.

White is now Field Notes Coordinator for the western Mara. She has been to Kenya five times and her retirement from UT allowed her to stay two months this year.

Working in the Field

“When we are working in the field, we live in tents, use pit toilets, eat two meals a day, and live a pretty Spartan life. We are in a remote field camp guarded by Masai askaris (soldiers) at night. Many wild animals use our paths to get to and from the river at night and sometimes during the day.

(l-r) Benson, Masai Research Assistant; Stephen, a soldier; and Wilson, a Masai Research Assistant.

“We have to be hyper vigilant so as not to spook any animal who might run us down. We have to watch where we put our feet and keep an eye to the trees for snakes. Baboons and vervet monkeys are a constant nuisance, as they will steal anything that looks interesting. A particularly rowdy group took my tent all the way to the ground this year.


“Hyenas are most active just before dawn and just before dusk so we leave camp by 5:30 in the morning, in the dark, and track animals who are wearing radio collars. We usually find them at a communal den or on a kill. Then the behavioral observations begin. Everything is recorded and then transcribed and eventually entered into a massive database.

Collard spotted hyena.

“Mid-day is very hot and is spent transcribing notes, repairing tents or solar panels, getting water, running errands, or teaching at local schools and giving lectures at tourist lodges. At 5 in the evening we go back out again and follow hyenas till 8 or so. Then it’s back to camp for dinner and bed. Then we get up the next morning and start all over, 7 days a week 52 weeks a year.


“This year local drought situations created a competitive situation between the Masai cattle and the wild herbivores on the Mara. Twenty four hyenas of our clan were lost because they ate from poisoned carcasses put out by herdsmen. The mothers died and their babies (all but one) starved to death at the dens waiting for moms that never came back. Because dominate animals feed first at a carcass some of the dead were high ranking females.



“We are going to be watching closely to see how the clan re-ranks the surviving members. There is a possibility that lower ranking females may form a collation and take over leadership of the clan.  Another possibility is that the clan could split in half. It is all fascinating and exciting and I can’t wait to go back next spring.”

Retirees can take it easy or they can be open to new opportunities that come their way. White says, “I am not done, not done at all.”

Dee White with a sedated spotted hyena.

To learn more about spotted hyenas and the MSU Hyena project in the Masai Mara visit The Kay Holekamp Lab. Her students maintain a blog, Notes from Kenya, with stories and photos of the hyenas, camp life, and research news. Also enjoy the amazing photography on the Mara Hyena Project page on Facebook.

Photographs courtesy of MSU Masai Mara Hyena Project.

© Judy S. Blackstock, 2014.

Life at it fullest

Today I am living life to it fullest.

I spent time in bed with fresh coffee and the day’s newspaper.

I pulled weeds at a leisurely pace in the warm sun.

I clucked over and watered my zinnias and plants of tomatoes and potential broccoli.

I lost a game of Scrabble online to a very worthy opponent.

I visited a friend at NHC to hear her laughter.

I started searching the internet for an airplane ticket to Kenya.

The above was written a month ago. Perhaps I felt I might jinx myself if I posted before I had my ticket in hand. Leaving in two weeks!!


My September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001 I was in the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, Africa, on a safari with two friends.  The following are abbreviated notes from my journal starting that day. Note: Kenya time is 8 hours ahead of the U.S.img098

Tuesday: Up at 5 a.m. for the balloon ride. Stars still covered the sky. Passed herds of zebra; striped mongoose ran across the road in front of us. Rode in the balloon with a group of Japanese girls who were a hoot. Twiga was the name of the balloon. Easy set down and then the champagne breakfast.

We left immediately for a game drive which produced cheetah with four cubs, hippo, crocodile, several lions, thundering gnu, wet warthogs, elephant, etc. Out 9-1/2 hours total, no swim time today.

Wednesday: Game drive, breakfast, re-pack, trying to figure out why Jennifer’s camera isn’t working. I’m ruining a bunch of film.  Need to call Irene to talk about a different plan since we can’t ride the train to Mombasa.

Phone service spotty. Didn’t connect until the evening.  She said there was news but she wasn’t sure whether or not to give it to me.  I asked if it concerned any of our families and she said no. I told her to go ahead and she said that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center, that no one knew for sure what was going on , but that all air travel in the U.S. was stopped.

To this day I have never fully realized the shock the terrorist attack caused America. It was the next morning before we had access to one newspaper which a driver brought from Nairobi. It passed from table to table at breakfast.

No television, no radio. No way to leave the country.

It is difficult to express how remote it does seem, even after reading the headlines it is very removed. I can’t imagine what the U.S. did without airplane traffic for 24 hours? or more? one article in the paper said the attack was second only to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

So we continued with our trip as planned.

Flight  to Mombasa about two hours.  Cloud coverage so that we didn’t see Kilimanjaro. Mombasa is dirtier and poorer looking than Nairobi, at least what we saw. Staying at The Voyager,  an all inclusive resort with 4 swimming pools, 3 restaurants, book store, free liquor.  Also have a tv room. Terry went down to watch some news. I couldn’t do it.

Up at 5:45 a.m. for coffee and toast before getting on the minibus to go down to the south coast to Kisite Marine Park. Going out on a motorized dhow to snorkel with dolphins.

img097On the ferry ride out of Mombasa the headlines of our driver’s newspaper said as many as 11,000 dead. He expressed sympathy for what had happened. Many have when they find out we are Americans.

Still difficult to take in. We are driving through the coastal countryside with palm trees on bumpy roads, stopping to let very newly hatched baby chickens cross the road.  Maybe my psyche is keeping the news at bay since there is nothing I can do about it.

There were no problems in leaving Kenya by the time our safari was over. Security much tighter in every airport, but on-time departures everywhere. My son, Stephen, met us at the Atlanta Airport.

September 18 I am back in the office, just two minutes late in clocking in–could have been on time but forgot to find location of car keys before Amy left and the front door screen fell out as I opened the door.

I have been spilling out about the trip and in return listening to accounts of what everyone has been through trying to grapple with the events–anger, depression, disbelief, fear.  

While on the internet I came across an article on refocusing life priorities, something people think of after such a disaster as the attacks of September 11. 

In the closing paragraph the author asks if we were to die suddenly, violently, what else would we wish we had done with our lives. “Maybe we would wish that we had enriched our lives by simply choosing, as often as possible, to pay attention to the fact that we are living it: to how great a hot cup of coffee really is to the way a child’s smile suddenly lights up her face to the incredible taste of summer’s last tomatoes. Pay attention. I think I can do that.” M.P. Dunleavey