By Jennie Miller
The Indian woman across the bamboo fence from me is crouched low, bent over her blue bucket as she washes clothes. Her arms push and pull methodically at the clothing, pausing briefly to lather the clothing with a Tide soap bar. Across the low fence, I too am bent over a plastic bucket, methodically pushing and pulling at its contents. But instead of laundry, my bucket contains tiger scat, which I rub against a mesh wheat sieve to separate fecal particulate from hair. When finished, she strings out the clothes to dry against the clay roof of her mud house, while I string the hair on newspapers to dry on the sunny grass in front of my mud house. She leaves her work feeling satisfied and clean; I leave nervous, praying for good data, and smelling like rotten eggs, soil and hand sanitizer.
A first-year PhD student’s romantic fantasies of researching carnivores typically fade around the time we realize what this research typically entails: diet studies. More specifically, poop. And as I quickly discovered during my research in India on tiger and leopard predation on livestock, large carnivore poop is bigger, stickier and smellier than any feces I had ever seen in my entire life as an ecologist. Imagine a dinner plate heaping full of half-digested, bloody, chunky-runny black meat interspersed with hair worth the value of diamonds (in your mind), because that hair represents data for your PhD (which will one day bring you glory and fame). Hair that you need to painstakingly extract from its bloody surroundings by soaking, washing, sieving, drying and aggressively protecting from stray dogs so that you can then bag, label, box and store it in a cardboard box (which emits a strange musky smell) in your room for months until you can transport it (via train while feigning innocence as your perplexed seatmates search for that strange smell) to your research institute to analyze under a microscope. All so you can identify what deer species that tiger munched on for lunch.
Months ago, sitting in my cold Connecticut office writing the diet study into my PhD proposal, I never imagined that those few sentences would mean spending today rinsing tiger scat in the front yard of a rented mud hut under the hot winter sun in rural central India. Today is market day, and while most of my village neighbors stroll leisurely to town in their fresh clothing, gossiping and buying vegetables for the week, I hunch over my bucket and fish for sambar deer hair. I sift out hooves and teeth and hair of all colors – black with a curl, white and straight, brown and coarse. I find grass and small rocks, greased slick with digestive excretion. After four hours, I am soaked in sweat mixed with watered-down scat and am dizzy from breathing through my mouth.
But I’m not alone; I find time to entertain visitors. The hotel staff wander about, taking care to awkwardly avoid me and my mysterious but clearly unsanitary task. A group of young Indian tourists meander down the lane looking for a room to rent and pause, silent at the sight of me, their travelling eyes trying to piece together my story: sweaty white woman surrounded by large smelly piles of poop, crouching over a laundry/bathing/toilet bucket with her sleeves rolled up. Ironically, my laundry man arrives on his motorbike with his uncle to ask me for an advance for the mountain of field clothes I gave him last week. Though his eyes never leave my face he too must be wondering what his foreign client does for a living and why her front yard always smells so bad. He tries to shake my hand and giggles when I gesture that they’re too dirty.
When I finish, I rinse the bucket, dump the unneeded scat remains in the neighborhood trash pile and tidy up the scat bags to dry, before I turn to cleaning myself. I wash my hands, feet and arms vigorously with soap behind my house and am then ready to move indoors for a proper bath. Alas, go figure, the electricity has gone out so I can’t warm my heating rod for my bucket bath (a different bucket), and it won’t return for another hour when the sun sets and the tourists – whose dollars dictate the operations of this village on the edge of a national park – return from their tiger safaris. An hour to go and I can smell myself. I imagine the sticky black scat sticking to my skin between my sandled toes. I resign to work on better timing in the future.
Jennie Miller is a Postdoctoral Researcher at UC Berkeley. For her PhD from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, she studied tiger and leopard hunting patterns on livestock and the resulting human-carnivore conflict. She washed 183 tiger and leopard scats and very likely as a result, now studies Asian and African carnivores from a computer screen in her California office as a spatial ecologist.