Louisa Watson exploring the Ecuadorian rainforest.

In conversation with Louisa Watson


An early passion for animals

When were you first aware you had a passion for animals?
I have always had an interest in animals ever since I could remember. I guess you could say that I knew what my purpose in life was since I was very young. Even before I am physically able to remember, I have been told that I was instantly drawn to animals – especially the exotic kind. 

How did this sense of purpose develop as you grew up?
I kept this passion alive by volunteering with the National Trust young ranger programme when I lived in the Lake District. I always watched David Attenborough and other wildlife documentaries and spent every moment I could surrounding myself with animals and learning everything about them.
Have you always wanted to be a zoologist?
Obviously, when I was younger I didn’t know a zoologist was a role to aspire to. As I have grown up, my career preference has become more specialised as I've been able to understand the terminology. 
My first memory is when I was 4 years old and I would tell people I wanted to be a ‘safari vet’ when I was older. This progressed to zookeeper when I was 8 and zoologist when I was 12. 
Since then I have realised I have an avid interest in primates, so would love to branch off into primatology within the world of zoology. This is an ambition I am starting to realise thanks to my placement in the Amazon and my upcoming dissertation research trip to the Calakmul Reserve in Mexico.
Louisa Watson in the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Louisa Watson in Kenya.
Louisa Watson and camera.
Louisa Watson in the Ecuadorian rainforest.

Studying zoology at Plymouth

How did your career aspirations lead you to Plymouth?
I visited Plymouth when I was around 13 on a family holiday and saw the University. As soon as I saw it I told my mum that the University of Plymouth would be where I will be going – bearing in mind the zoology degree didn’t exist at that point and in fact, my cohort was the first of the course.
And now look where I am, a student at the University doing a degree in zoology, currently on my placement year and preparing to go and do my first proper piece of in situ primate research.

How has your course helped develop your interest in zoology?
The course has definitely helped by giving me insight into the research world, which has enabled me to think about a career focus I would like to work towards. 
Before the course, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the research aspect but I've found that it's an important part of being a zoologist and it has grown on me. 
The field course to Mpala in Kenya also developed my interest in research as we were exposed to the sort of conditions that we could face as future zoologists. It was especially nice being able to experience the species in their natural habitat – a valuable learning experience. 
I have also found that our lecturers are actively engaged with us and provide more opportunities for networking and insight into the industry.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I would say my biggest challenge has been overcoming self-doubt and imposter syndrome; something many in the profession can relate to. However, I try not to let it affect me and rather use it as motivation to do better and achieve the things that I want to. 
I have recently been actively challenging this by pushing myself out of my comfort zone and putting myself out there. I am currently building a platform on social media to show what I get up to as I progress in my career and have been receiving contact from other organisations and universities helping to expand my network. 

I was contacted by a university in Puerto Rico to participate in a seminar and talk about my journey into zoology, something I would never have had the confidence to do before I pushed myself out of my comfort zone.

It did take some encouragement from my degree lead Dr Alexander Wilson and a few others for me to agree to do it, as I've never been a public speaker – however, if I want a career in research I have to get used to talking to crowds.
The wild tamarins of Merazonia.
The wild tamarins of Merazonia
A two-toed sloth.
A two-toed sloth
Shimi, baby woolly monkey Louisa helped to rehabilitate.
Baby woolly monkey Shimi
Louisa Watson's cabin solely lit up using candles in the Amazon.
Cabin by candelight

A placement in the Amazon

How did you hear about your placement opportunity to the Amazon?
I knew I wanted to go to the tropics as it would be a valuable experience. I discovered Merazonia – a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre situated on 250 acres of rainforest in Ecuador – on Volunteer World while searching for placements. 
What drew me to Merazonia is that they have a strict hands-off policy with their rehabilitation (obviously there are some exceptions to this policy) meaning that they are an ethical organisation and put the welfare of the animals in their care as their top priority. 
The Amazon stood out to me because going there had been on my bucket list ever since I did a school project on it back when I was 8 years old. I managed to make that happen with the help of the Turing Scheme funding.

What was working in the Amazon like?
Working in the Amazon was amazing! So much so I am planning on returning next year and maybe long term once I have done a masters.
Was it what you expected?
I have done voluntary work in the rainforest of Costa Rica before and so I had an idea of what to expect. However, the experience I had definitely exceeded my expectations by far. I really liked living in a wood cabin with only mesh windows and no electricity.

It was so refreshing not being surrounded by technology 24/7, living life in the moment, surrounded by an amazing ecosystem. 

Can you tell us about any memorable highlights?
There were many interesting and memorable moments when working. On one occasion myself and another volunteer got lost in the jungle (which may I add is a land of jaguars, pumas and Andean bears – just to name a few!) for a few hours while collecting foliage for the baby woolly monkeys and ended up 10km away from the centre – on the whole other side of the local town.
Federico, the baby tamandua (Anteater) cared for by Louisa.
Federico – the baby tamandua
Federico, the baby tamandua (Anteater) cared for by Louisa.
Goliath, the baby giant Louisa helped to rehabilitate.
Goliath – the baby giant anteater
Goliath, the baby giant Louisa helped to rehabilitate.

Lessons learnt in the jungle

What did you learn while you were there?
Where do I begin? I learnt so much at Merazonia to do with rehabilitation, especially for young animals. I was lucky enough to be trusted with and actively involved in the one-to-one rehabilitation of three young animals throughout my time there – Shimi, a baby woolly monkey, a baby giant anteater called Goliath and a young tamandua named Federico. I witnessed the tamandua successfully be released and thrive out in the wild on his own. He taught me a lot about how dedicated you need to be when providing one-to-one rehabilitation.
As I want to go into primatology, being trusted to take a very young and vulnerable woolly monkey out into the jungle to teach her what her mother would be showing her was a highlight. It taught me a lot about how they communicate and behave. 
Plus, I witnessed her doing behaviours and trying to communicate with me in ways that I had seen the other baby woolly monkeys had done with the adult woolly monkeys that they were with.

Did you pick up any new skills?
I became a plant expert (although not in the technical sort of way) because due to the diets of the primates, they often have a particular palate to leaves that they will eat. I had to be able to quickly identify leaves that a woolly monkey would eat compared to more sparse leaves that the red howlers would eat. 
When working with these primates, most of the day consisted of being out in the jungle finding these particular leaves. This was crucial to learn because some leaves could have adverse effects on their health. 
Before learning all the different leaves, I would just look at the jungle and see green. Now I can spot certain ones from afar and strangely, even though I’m no longer in the jungle, I am still unconsciously thinking about if the primates would like the leaves I see in my everyday life.
What was the main lesson that you learnt working in wildlife rehabilitation in the Amazon?
I quickly learnt that wildlife rehabilitation isn’t for the faint-hearted and requires a lot of hard work and patience. 
In South America especially, rehabilitation centres are receiving animals that have been seized by the ministry out of the illegal pet trade and so it can be hard witnessing animals in such distress and poor condition as a result. 

It is incredibly rewarding to see animals going from being on the brink of death to thriving and living the life they should be – which is what I witnessed with the young tamandua I cared for.

Has the experience changed your ideas of your career path?
My experience at Merazonia has enhanced my career path. Before going out my focus was in situ primate research. However, the experience I gained in wildlife rehabilitation, especially with a variety of primate species, showed me that I would also like to go into primate rehabilitation. This works hand-in-hand with the research part of my career path and means I could do both at the same time.

Would you recommend similar placement opportunities to other students?
1000%, the rainforest is a life-changing place! It not only teaches you a lot about the natural world but it also allows you to discover things about yourself that you may not have realised. It is an invaluable experience to have on your CV. If there are any students looking to go to the rainforest, I really do recommend Merazonia, they were truly amazing there.
Develop an understanding of all aspects of animal biology in terrestrial, marine and freshwater environments. Gain in-depth knowledge of animal ecology and evolution, and develop the key lab skills in animal behaviour, molecular biology, physiology, and cellular biology that are sought after by employers and are necessary for postgraduate education.
You will gain key practical experience in diverse laboratory and field practicals across your studies and have the opportunity to participate in residential field courses in years one and two, giving you first-hand experience of a range of ecosystems. Recent field course locations include Slapton in Devon and Kenya.

Study BSc (Hons) Zoology

The pink feather colour of Flamingos is due to carotenoids they obtain through crustaceans and Cyanobacteria in their diet. The pigments in the diet are protein bound and blue/green but turn pink when dissolved in lipid. The same effect occurs between raw and cooked lobsters and shrimps.