By Pat Foster-Turley
November 18, 2022
I was older than 30 when I entered the Ph.D. program in zoology at the University of Florida (UF), a “re-entering woman” with high test scores that earned me a scholarship there. I was also well into my career, and was chairing the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Otter Specialist Group and leading the development of the Action Plan for Otter Conservation with a global team of biologists and conservationists. I also had logistical support (Malaysian counterpart, vehicles, etc.) from the Government of Malaysia to study otters there, and a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum Services to cover my travel and other expenses. So, when I went to Gainesville it was with full intentions to study Asian otters for my Ph.D.
But the male faculty members I encountered there created a roadblock. “You need to branch out from otters and study something else.” I was directed by an esteemed mammalogist to instead work on his own project in South America studying howler monkeys up in the trees. No, no, no!
But that’s when Dr. Elizabeth Wing saved me. She was the director of the zooarchaelogy collection at the Florida State Museum of Natural History on campus, a field she created herself after facing her own set of male roadblocks as the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in zoology from UF. You can read more about Liz here: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/elizabeth-wing-portrait-in-persistance/. Liz brought me into the fold of her students and put me to work as a research assistant sorting fish bones from samples collected from Indian middens to learn more about these past cultures. This experience helped me collect, preserve and identify fish bones and other items in the otter scats that I brought back from Malaysia. Liz was always there for me through all the trials of graduate school and in the process, she became my dear friend.
In all the years now that Liz has been in the continuing care retirement community at Oak Hammock, I have been periodically making the trek to Gainesville to visit her. When she was in the independent living section with her dog Abby I would pick her up and we would drive to The Yearling Restaurant out in the countryside to view the scenery coming and going, to walk in a park, to pick blueberries and, the highlight for us, to eat frog legs. I was able to continue taking her on these excursions to “eat frog legs” when Abby died and Liz’s health and memory instigated her move to the assisted living area of Oak Hammock where she had a new pet, a beloved cat, to keep her company. But then this summer she was moved to the nursing care unit and the cat was rehomed with a relative. Her daughter Molly told me that her mom no longer even remembers that she had a cat, and forgets most everything from moment to moment. Would she even know me?
I was nervous about taking her out a few weeks ago, but with Molly’s permission the nurses helped me get Liz into my car and out again on the return. Going to a restaurant with her wheelchair and frailty was beyond my reach, but hey, we could still go for a drive, right? And so we did. She recognized me right away as her longtime friend that she hasn’t seen “in a hundred years” she said. But she thought I was her childhood playmate who grew up with her and she had no memory at all of her time at the University. No matter. She was happy to see me, and I her.
So, in the here and now we two old friends took a long leisurely drive on a beautiful fall day through Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park with the windows and sunroof open. She was eager to read all the signs, and we spent quality time happily chatting about the restoration of longleaf pines, the height of the mature pine trees, the light shining through the palmettos, and the swamp sunflowers with their glorious yellow blooms facing the sun. For a while I parked at the water’s edge of an empty boat ramp and we looked at anhingas and hawks. And later, in Micanopy I parked us outside a café where bluegrass performers were playing and together we feasted on hot fudge sundaes while listening to the music.
When I dropped her off again at Oak Hammock I was pleased with the day, and she was glowing with happiness. And, amazingly, when Molly called her that night, she remembered it and was still so happy! It was great to hear!
Liz’s family lives out of state but they visit as often as they can, as does another old-time friend not connected with the university. But I am just about the only one of her many students and research assistants that ever visits her even if they live in Gainesville. Lots say, “Liz was like a mother to me.” Then why don’t you visit her? I am happy to call Liz my friend, not my mother, but I will continue to visit her as long as I can. What are friends for if not this?
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]