Sunday, February 22, 2009


More Than Can Be Seen

Skellum. A couple of years ago there was a dog living in Bozeman, Montana named “Skellum.” It’s not an English word, but one of Zimbabwean that has no direct English translation. In one way it means “foolishness,” or “nonsense” in an endearing way. It can also be seen on warning signs with skull and crossbones around high-tension power lines. In that way it means, “beware of things you can’t see.”

The owner of “Skellum” is Mark Atkinson, a veterinarian from Zimbabwe who was hired as Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' first wildlife veterinarian. During his first two months with the Department he assisted in trapping over 100 bighorns and 100 mule deer. (For stories on Sheep capture go here.)

From a distance, Atkinson’s close-cropped—almost shaved—head, muscular build, British-like accent and intense focus bring images of a sergeant major from Her Majesty’s commandos. But up close, he is a compassionate veterinarian who shows a love of animals and people.

Although people don’t need to “beware,” the contrast between an exterior tough guy and an interior loving person does illustrate a person who has qualities that can’t be seen. Some department staff expressed that Atkinson had an iceberg quality—more substance than is visible.

During a break in trapping sheep near Augusta, the trapping crew came on a deer that appeared to have an injured eye, was wandering in circles, and seemed a likely victim of chronic wasting disease. CWD is the elk/deer variant of mad cow disease.

Atkinson suggested that the deer had some kind of liver infection. FWP biologist Quentin Kujala said he wondered, “Who is this guy and can’t he see that the deer has an eye or head injury?” Game warden Larry Davis shot the deer and Atkinson and Wildlife Laboratory Supervisor Neil Anderson performed a necropsy. Brain tissue was removed and later found negative for Chronic Wasting Disease. The necropsy revealed that the deer had a liver puncture, which may have been caused by a rutting deer’s horn. It was apparent to department personnel that Atkinson saw something in the deer’s behavior that no one else did.

Anderson, Atkinson’s boss, said the Atkinson was very qualified, had a good attitude and was unpretentious. “If Mark was arrogant or too bold, he wouldn’t have fit in with the field crews,” Anderson said.

Atkinson attended college in Europe, received his veterinary degree in Zimbabwe in 1989, and became Zimbabwe’s first veterinarian for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. Rhinoceros and elephant were his main focus, although he worked with many African animals. His experience capturing elephants and rhinoceros took him to Nepal where he assisted that country's rhinoceros management program.

In 1996, Atkinson was encouraged to leave Zimbabwe. He said, “I didn’t want to be a martyr. Some of my friends stayed and were jailed on trumped-up charges.”

He moved to Ohio where he worked at “The Wilds,” a 10,000-acre international wildlife conservation facility. Atkinson said that he and his wife Shirley Atkinson 37, never felt like they “fit in” in Ohio. Shirley Atkinson is a wildlife ecologist, also from Zimbabwe, and did contract work on endangered bird species for FWP.

Born and raised on his parent's farm 62 miles north of Harare, the nation's capital, Atkinson said that he would like to retire to Zimbabwe, but for many reasons that may not happen.

Atkinson has since moved to Nevada working in Nevada’s Department of Wildlife. Like Montana’s wildlife officials, Nevada’s must have seen something beneath the surface. In November 2008, NDOW selected Atkinson to head their newly created Wildlife Game Division. (press release here)

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