Gerald MacDougall has relished a career that has included time as a conservation officer and as a wildlife biologist that has allowed him to spend much of his time outdoors close to wildlife.
©Guardian photo by Jim Day
Gerald MacDougall has always had a close relationship with wildlife, often so close that some critters would bite back.
Muskrats, mink, raccoons and squirrels have all sunk their teeth into the former conservation officer.
“There’s hardly an animal I haven’t been bitten by because they’re wild animals, right,’’ he says almost matter-of-factly. “You need the booster (shot) every once in awhile.’’
MacDougall turned 60 Monday, his final day on the job after eight years of managing all fish and wildlife programs on P.E.I., and bringing to a close 37 years in the wildlife field.
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He heads into retirement after racking up plenty of bites, bruises and even some potentially deadly encounters with fishermen and hunters in what he calls a dream career despite having a number of painful and frightening experiences along the way.
One of his nastiest run-ins with wildlife was when he was showing students a horned owl. By the end of the day, the bird got a bit cranky and drove three talons right through MacDougall’s hand and out the other side.
He was taken to the emergency department to receive treatment. An infection led to nasty, coloured streaks running up his arm.
Still, at times some hunters and fishermen proved more dangerous and unpredictable than the wildlife.
While MacDougall was arresting a man for illegal fishing, the fisherman tried to whack MacDougall over the head with a beer bottle pulled from his pocket.
Another unco-operative outdoorsman took a shotgun by the barrel and tried to “knock my head off with it and then he loaded it up and he was going to shoot me.’’
MacDougall also had a very dangerous encounter with a man who was suffering from brain damage. He noticed the man had a firearm in the back of his truck. He pulled the man over and asked to check the gun. The man said he was shooting skunks in the dump.
MacDougall checked the firearm. It was loaded with one round in the chamber and the man had a big magazine with another 26 rounds in it.
MacDougall told the man it was illegal to have a loaded firearm in a vehicle. The man went berserk. He kicked the doors in.
“He just lost it,’’ recalls MacDougall, who called the RCMP for back-up.
MacDougall says he always tried to be polite and respectful when dealing with hunters and fishermen but would often take away guns and illegal game, much to the outdoorsmen’s chagrin. Some would respond aggressively and even violently, but for the most part MacDougall would choose not to lay assault charges.
He didn’t back down, however, when it came to laying down the law.
“I was a tough conservation officer in my mind and there’s no doubt about it,’’ says MacDougall, who has trained people in the art of self defence.
“I found that I had to be tough, or at least act tougher than I really was, because I wanted people to look over their shoulders. I wanted them to stop their illegal activity. And it was rampant up west at the time (he was a conservation officer on P.E.I. from 1980 to 1990).’’
Each day MacDougall checked in outdoors for work, he would count his lucky stars. Earning a living immersed in wildlife fit him to a tee.
He is certain, for instance, some people would pay quite handsomely for some of the marvelous experiences he has been paid to do, like going up in a helicopter to observe scores of eagles.
“I love being out there,’’ he says.
He also spent most of his time outdoors growing up with two brothers and three sisters on the outskirts of Dartmouth, N.S. where he could see deer and ruffed grouse.
He would row in a pond, fishing bass. He would mountain climb.
He was just 10 when he first held a gun. He would go on to hunt deer and rabbit.
Always reading nature books, he had a keen interest in birds.
“I knew where every bird’s nest was in my neighbourhood,’’ says MacDougall. “I spent most of my time outdoors. I really loved it.’’
MacDougall says his own children would live his job in a way. Everywhere he went, people would make inquiries about hunting and fishing or register a complaint.
“It was like a family thing being a wildlife officer,’’ he says. “It was everywhere we went.’’
His Irish wife, Alanagh, who retired two years ago from her work in early childcare, had cause to fear for her husband’s wellbeing on the job. She would answer calls at home that were nasty and threatening towards her husband.
“Oh they wanted to beat me up,’’ he says. “They were going to shoot me next time they saw me.’’
None of MacDougall’s children have followed in his outdoorsy footsteps in their careers. Son Daniel is working for the National Gallery in London, England; daughter Robin is an orthodontist assistant on P.E.I.; and second daughter Tamara is in Rhode Island studying to be a nurse.
MacDougall has left a strong mark on conservation and wildlife. Twice he received the prestigious International Shikar Safari Award as Wildlife Officer of the Year.
He helped develop a conservation officer program with Holland College. He also played a key role in bringing in the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1998, broadening the definition of wildlife.
MacDougall believes he also had a strong impact over the years in improving how law-abiding fishermen and hunters are in P.E.I.
“I don’t think there has ever been a day I didn’t want to come to work,’’ he says. “I feel very satisfied with what I’ve accomplished over the years but at the same time it went by so quick.’’
Not surprisingly, retirement for MacDougall, who lives with Alanagh in Parkdale (but would much prefer a log cabin in the woods), will see him outdoors a good deal of the time.
When he is not busy working on his book about his life as a wildlife conservation officer, he plans to photograph the great outdoors, take up painting wildlife again, paddle and sail.
Gerald MacDougall quick biography
Here are a few interesting outdoor bits about Gerald MacDougall:
He was presented with an eagle feather in 2012 at a First Nations ceremony for his work with the Mik’maq people.
His passion for photography, camping, hunting, angling, bird watching, sailing, canoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, bicycling and motorcycling offer plenty of pursuits that keep him outdoors.
He volunteers many hours with environmental non-government organizations, including the Natural History Society, Trappers Association, Island Nature Trust and the Wildlife Federation.
He has a particular fascination in the osprey for how it skillfully drops into the water and picks up fish, and for the confrontational manner in which the bird protects its nest.
A white water rafting expedition on the Tatshenshini River in the southwestern Yukon in 1998 was nearly MacDougall’s last outdoor experience. He went overboard into the cold water, was swept through raging rapids, getting banged up badly against the rocks. When he was pulled to rescue, his eyes were rolling in the back of his head and he could not move.