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.

Aussie Anti-Tourists Live it up in East Tennessee

This is a re-posting of an article I wrote for

IMG_9007It is 9,750 miles one way from Melbourne, Australia to Knoxville,Tennessee. It’s a long way to travel to attend a few football games and concerts, but Graham and Debbie Blackley left their lovely home in Bairnsdale, Australia, for an authentic experience in Sevierville, Tennessee.

The Blackleys stayed in Karen Pyne’s Sevierville home for three weeks. Both Pyne and the Blackleys are members of the international Home which allows members to list their home, offering it as private living quarters for visitors. The exchange is a reciprocal agreement with Graham and Debbie using Karen’s home now, and Karen being able to use their home in return, at a time agreeable to both parties.

While Karen has been a member for several years, the Blackleys recently joined. Graham explains, “We are anti-tourists hence we steer away from the tourist meccas. A service such as Home Exchange makes it possible to find places to stay which are different from a standard motel or hotel.” During the Blackleys stay, Karen vacated the premises and enjoyed camping in the mountains and visiting her daughter.

And now the question on everyone’s mind…

How and why did you choose Sevierville?

Graham:  I have a life theory: if the mob all do the same thing, or head in the same direction, that must be the wrong way to go. We don’t like cities or crowds so we immediately eliminated the east and west coasts. The deep south and the flat central states also got the flick. We narrowed it down to here because we had good memories of traveling the south central region of Aquitaine in France, and Tennessee is very similar geographically. Karen’s home appealed to us [with] it being in a quiet spot surrounded by trees with water close by.

The Blackley's enjoying Karen Payne's backyard in Sevierville.

The Blackley’s relax in Karen Pyne’s backyard in Sevierville.

Where do you live in Australia?

Graham: Well, Australia has six states and two territories. Victoria is the state we live in. It’s southeast on the coast. I looked up some figures to check out how it compares to Tennessee and Victoria has 88,000 square miles compared to Tennessee’s 42,000, but close to a million fewer people. We live outside of town on 130 acres that is mostly pasture and woods. The nearest town is Bairnsdale with about 15,000 people.

Used with permission from

Used with permission from

What did you do during your visit?

Graham: When we made the exchange with Karen, I spent lots of time online looking at what things happened in East Tennessee so we had an idea of what we wanted to do before we arrived. I found that the Titans had a game in Nashville, which we went to, and then Karen’s daughter, Beth, and her son, Brock, took us to the UT and Oklahoma game. That was exciting. I know the Volunteers lost, but two overtimes!

I am a cabinetmaker and wood crafter and I found the Tennessee Valley Woodworkers Association and contacted them. We arranged to attend a meeting in Manchester and they gave us a very warm welcome. Then we met friends of Karen’s in Knoxville, the Tevaults, and visited in their home. Don is also a wood carver. I enjoyed sharing stories with him and seeing his workshop.

Graham talks books to Knoxville poet Linda Parsons Marion.

Graham talks books to Knoxville poet Linda Parsons Marion.

We’re really into music, so I looked online for musical events and that took us to Bristol, Virginia, to the Rhythm and Roots Festival. It was outstanding.

Debbie: Yeah, that was a great day. Friendly people all over the place. We even made the evening news! They interviewed us, said we came the longest distance. And we heard music downtown in Knoxville on the Market Square one evening. I got to try fried green tomatoes at the Bistro’s brunch before we went to a play downtown. I like browsing around in antique stores which put us in Clinton one day, looking around the shops.

Graham & Debbie Blackley at a Market Square concert.

Graham & Debbie Blackley at a Market Square concert.

What else do you count as highlights?

Graham: Anytime we spent in the mountains. We enjoyed you taking us to Cades Cove, and hearing the elk bugling at Cataloochee was spectacular. One day we just took off driving and went to Cherokee. Beautiful, beautiful scenery.


Debbie: Yes, the mountains. I got to see a bear at Cades Cove. Graham had seen them before in Canada, but I never had so I was thrilled about that. Let’s see, we saw elk, turkey, deer, the bear and two groundhogs. I was hoping for a skunk. We don’t have skunks or raccoons or squirrels in Australia. Karen has enough squirrels in her backyard that I don’t get excited over them anymore!

Why did you visit Cherokee, NC?

During my time as an educator…I placed considerable energy into improving the educational outcomes of Aboriginal students. I had an opportunity to travel to British Columbia and New Zealand to tour schools and meet with Indigenous teachers, Principals and Administrators. I read quite a bit about Native American history prior to our travels and saw the parallels with other Indigenous peoples as a result of European expansion and settlement. I had no time on our recent trip to engage in any way with the Cherokee…. I was keen however to visit the land of the people…and try to feel just a little of the story.

Tell me about your Australian home and those 130 acres. I understand it is partially underground?

Aussie house

Used with permission from

Graham: Yes, it’s an earth sheltered house. The east and west and roof are covered with soil so it is very heat efficient. We built the house ourselves except for a concrete bunker. A lot of the land is pasture and that’s rented out to a sheep farmer. We’ve got vegetable gardens and orchards with red currants and boysenberries, passion fruit, oranges, avocados, plums, olives and hazelnuts. We’re pretty self-sufficient when it comes to food. Everything harvested is canned, frozen, or dehydrated. I hunt and fish. We use the venison in place of beef, and lots of rabbit and fish. I made my own dehydrators for drying foods and a brick oven for making pizzas.

Used with permission from

Used with permission from

I have to ask. Do you have kangaroos in your yard?

Debbie: Yes, we have kangaroos and wombats and wallabies. The rail fences in Cades Cove gave Graham an idea of a fence to keep the wallabies out of the garden. We also have lots of parrots and cockatoos come to our yard. Australia, particularly in the south, has hundreds of species of birds: eagles, falcons, kites, honeyeaters. Lots of very colorful birds.


Debbie Blackley sees the first hints of fall at the Cataloochee Valley overlook.

Graham, you said you were an anti-tourist, but you love to travel. What are you looking for when experiencing new places?

Graham: In Stuart Wilde’s book, Infinite Self, which I highly recommend, he classifies people as ticktock people, those who are caught up in the drudgery and routine of life, and fringe dwellers. I like the latter. Fringe dwellers take steps to ensure they avoid groupthink mentality. We enjoy seeing the sights when we travel, but most of all we enjoy experiencing the culture. The way others live in their little corner of the world.

We managed to radiate out in all directions from Sevierville, going to Nashville, Bristol, Manchester, and Cherokee. We even went to Brock’s school in Norris one day. A check of the mileage on our rental car put us at almost 2,000 miles at the end of our visit.

Writer Judy S. Blackstock (center) and her family enjoyed a play with Blackley's.

l to r, Maxwell Blackstock, Carole Romeiser, and Writer Judy S. Blackstock (center)  enjoyed a play with the Blackleys.

We ate out more in Tennessee than I think we have in the last 20 years at home. Food was really good quality, we thought, and cheap. At home it is expensive and the cheap stuff is cheap for a reason. So we deliberately ate at pit BBQs and pancake houses. We stopped anywhere that was different to home. At an antique shop in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, the local oatmeal cake was recommended, so we had that and fried pies too. We both came home about 3 KG (6.6 lbs.) heavier!!

Would you come back?

Debbie: Definitely. I would love to take a week and camp in the mountains.

Any last thoughts?Graham: I like the idea of Tennessee because some things about it are everything I am not. For example, it is a Republican state, and I’m at the other end of the political spectrum. This however was even more reason for being here.

We don’t think we have ever seen such a concentration of churches. We have churches here but participation seems far more optional.

One interesting thing to me is something of southern culture I am unable to understand, but I thought of it after visiting in Seattle,Washington, our last stop before returning home.

Washington does not seem to have soul. Tennessee does. I had heard of southern hospitality and to us, this seems very real.

 If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy How To Be a Conscientious Traveler. Please look for it on’s site and check out the other articles on the unusual, the wacky, and the strange!

Unless otherwise noted, photographs by Judy S. Blackstock

© Judy S. Blackstock, 2015.


Parade Day

Photograph by Carole Ann Borges

Today I took my place in Knoxville’s Pride Parade, the colorful jump-start to PrideFest, an annual event to promote equality and inclusion of all people. Our group, KnoxZine, stood behind a float loaded with young, gyrating lesbians and in front of very tall crossdressing Carmen Miranda imitator. 

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Photograph by Stacey Diamond

The only attention getters for us were the t-shirts we wore and Bruno, our handsome 14-month old Newfoundland who calmly took in the ooohs and aahhhs of the cheering crowd.

What drew me, a straight person, to join in this parade?  I like being in the middle of something different from my norm. Participating is an easy way to absorb the unfamiliar, and an informal, fun event like today’s is very inviting.

An unexpected plus was watching the people on the sidelines, waving and cheering us on  This euphoric feeling came over me–like I was Pat Summit leading all the Lady Vol athletes on a victory march.  I’m glad to live in a city that promotes the rights of individuals to express themselves without fear.

The parade turned off Gay Street onto Clinch Avenue and I stepped up beside another crossdressing beauty, happy his macaca wasn’t running and singing, “Love is all we need.”  To which I replied, “You are right about that, Honey.”

Decision Time

It is dark, cold and early Tuesday morning when I wake up before my alarm goes off. I am getting ready to board a bus with 48 other people, mostly unknowns, to travel to the Women’s March on Nashville. This march, a grassroots effort started in Knoxville, 004developed to remind legislators that participants would be watching their actions this year. Of major interest are women’s reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, and paid maternity leave.


Why am I doing this? Because a friend asked me. Because I like doing different things. Because it could be something to write about for my blog or KnoxZine. To look deeper into myself. Most of my friends do not have a problem supporting equal pay and maternity leave, but reproduction rights, specifically abortion, is a dividing line.

Do I believe in abortion? I  believe that every woman should have the right to decide what is best for her body and her life, the right to make the choice herself. Would I have an abortion? I have no answer for that question because I have never been faced with making that decision. No matter my beliefs it comes down to what I would do in real life.

I’ll be posting some of the comments from my fellow passengers and more pictures later.112