One of the number one questions you get when you work with animals is "Which is your favorite?" This has to be one of the hardest questions I get. It gets even worse when I get asked this in person. (I apologize to anyone who has had to listen to my five minute rant on which animal is my favorite!) I decided to put together a top ten list of my favorite animals. Please note that I enjoy working with practically every animal I'm privileged to work with; these are just a few that I've always been so incredibly fascinated with.
#10 Beluga Whale
Ever since I was able to swim with a real Beluga Whale, I've been hooked. These incredibly graceful whales, with their squishy melon heads, can be found in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic waters of the Northern Hemisphere.
If you would have asked me what my favorite animals were a couple of years ago, vultures would have never made the list. It wasn't until I went to Africa and learned about these beneficial creatures, that I realized how incredibly important they are for the ecosystem. (They consume over 70% of all the carcasses.) I also learned how they were in serious trouble. Their numbers in Kenya have declined by 60% within the last few years due to poisoning, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat loss. These birds were also the reason I was able to go back to Africa and film the short documentary "Through The Eyes of a Vulture" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HB-0vq8BN_c
Similar to the vultures, my obsession with lions began during my first trip to Africa. They are easily one of my favorite animals to spot while on safari. (Even though 90% of the time they're asleep!) Sadly, they are in serious trouble. There a fewer than 30,000 that remain in all of Africa. This is due to human-animal conflict, trophy hunting, and habitat loss. If we don't do something about it, scientists believe lions will go extinct within twenty years. For more info on how you can help visit www.causeanuproar.org
I've been obsessed with emus since I was kid. I think this originates from my fascination with dinosaurs. This makes sense; scientists are now convinced dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than reptiles. I also remember when I was around eight being picked as a volunteer for the zoo's bird show. They made me sit on this giant nest with emerald green eggs. In seconds an emu came running by within feet of the nest! Then and there I told my young self I wanted a pet emu. My dream came true when I adopted Napoleon at the age of 15.
#6 The giant Aldabra Tortoises
I've always loved these ancient reptiles. When I traveled to the Seychelles Islands through Boise State University, I was elated when I found out my endemic species project was going to be on the giant Aldabra Tortoise. It was so surreal seeing them out in the wild. Luckily I was also able to film a short video highlighting my experience https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecBtH2cYPqA
Out of all the animals that made my list, the rhino is in the most trouble. Sadly, due to poaching for their horn, they will probably go extinct within my lifetime. I remember seeing my first wild Black Rhino like it was yesterday. The excitement. The luck. The amazing ability of how such a large creature could disappear in the brush within minutes. I remember going back to camp and talking with one of my friends who couldn't make it on that particular safari. He was so incredibly disappointed, knowing that was probably the last chance he'd ever get to see a wild rhino. There are less than 25 in the Masai Mara and only a few thousand left in Africa.
I've been obsessed with crocodiles and alligators for as long as I can remember. As a kid at the zoo, I would stand and stare at a motionless alligator for hours. (My poor parents!) If I could have told myself at the time that later on in life I would actually care for them, I probably would have fainted. To this day when I visit zoos you will find me doing the same thing; staring at motionless crocodiles and alligators! I guess some things never change.
If there is one animal that has taken my fascination to a complete obsession, it's the leopard. Their secretive nature and elusive behavior is what draws me to this unique cat. There is no other animal I'd rather see in the wild than the leopard. While in Africa I was determined to see one. I'd scour every tree, every bush, every riverbank in hopes of seeing spots. I was close numerous times, but missed the encounters by seconds. Like my guide Dr. Munir Virani said, "It gives me an excuse to go back to Africa."
My #2 choice might come as a shock to many. I love hyenas. They are one of the most fascinating and misunderstood animals on the planet. So many people hate them and think of them as nasty scavengers. In reality though, hyenas kill more prey than lions; who generally scavenge from hyenas. I've fallen asleep many nights hearing the haunting calls and laughs of these apex predators. Hands-down the best sounds to fall asleep to in Africa.
One of my favorite places to visit in the world is Kenya's Lake Naivasha. Why? Because it's home to hippos. No other animal fascinates or scares me more. I've been charged by boat and nearly peed my pants while hearing one a few feet next to me in the brush. (It was one of the most adrenaline pumping experiences of my life.) One of my favorite things to do while staying at Elsamere on Lake Naivasha is hanging out with the night guards around the cabins looking for grazing hippos. (Every night they graze just a few feet away from the cabin doors.) It's amazing how quiet they are considering their size!
Kibokos (hippo in Swahili) will always have a hold on me for one of my favorite animals on planet!