Building a Better Mousetrap

Biologist Rob Ramey isn't afraid of taking risks -- but taking on environmentalists may be his riskiest move.

When you shoot an elephant in the ass, bad things can happen.

Rob Ramey learned this in Zimbabwe in 1990. Now the chair of zoology and curator of vertebrate zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Ramey is a gutsy, boots-on-the-ground researcher who mocks "armchair biologists." He has scaled 200-foot giant sequoia trees using ice-climbing tools to study California Condor nests, and he once organized a cavalry of severely hung-over Mongolian horsemen to chase Argali sheep into capture nets. He was in Zimbabwe with his wife and colleague, Laura Brown, to study the way in which elephant family groups are able to communicate over long distances using infrasound -- low bass rumblings similar to hip-hop thumping from a lowrider.

"We were trying to correlate the sounds with behaviors, basically trying to create the Rosetta Stone of elephant communication," he says.

Ramey's job was to collect genetic data from different elephants to establish their family relationships. He did this by modifying a drug-delivery dart so that instead of tranquilizing an elephant, it would punch out a piece of tissue that he could then analyze on a DNA sequencer.

His native guides "pretty much thought I was nuts," he recalls.

The herds that Ramey and his wife were studying had been hunted by poachers and culled by government rangers. The animals knew the meaning of a man with a rifle. "Elephants do remember," says Ramey. "Fortunately, they have terrible eyesight, so as long as you stay crouched down, they're not sure what you are. But you have to stay downwind, because if they smell you, they'll come and squash you into a pile of guava pulp."

Ramey carried a tobacco pouch full of ash so he could frequently shake a pinch out and test the prevailing breeze. The first time he fired the modified dart gun, he was thirty meters from a family of elephants on the open plains. He aimed for a huge bull's midsection. He fired and missed -- sort of. The dart stuck the bull right in its elephantine derriere. The bull turned, saw the man with a rifle and charged.

"I ran like hell and cut a sharp 90-degree turn to lose my scent trail," Ramey says. "It was good day to die, but I'm glad I didn't."

Last year, Ramey got a repeat lesson on the consequences of jabbing an elephant in a sensitive spot -- but in a more figurative sense.

This time, the offended parties were the environmental community across the West and professional environmentalists' long and tightly held belief that a tiny rodent known as the Preble's jumping mouse was a genetically distinct sub-species that deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act.

And this time, the dart Ramey fired was the cold, hard, pointed truth.


Although Robert Roy Ramey II was raised in the urban San Francisco Bay area, his family was outdoorsy, and he developed a passion for wilderness and wild things early in life. His father, a World War II combat veteran, owned a construction business; his mother was an accountant. But the family owned a ranch in northern California, and Ramey remembers one summer night in 1966, when he was nine years old, sitting with his mother in the family's old Ford station wagon, parked near the edge of a pond with the headlights off.

"We turned on the headlights to see what was drinking, and right there was a mountain lion," he says. "It looked up, and we saw its eye-shine, and it stared at us for a second and then ghosted away into the night. I was blown away. I was just, ŒWow.' That moment has always stayed with me."

When he was in junior high school, Ramey had a science teacher, Mr. Bergman, who was "the cool dude on campus," he remembers. "He drove a Volvo sports car, and he was just a wonderful individual and a progressive thinker." Mr. Bergman turned Ramey on to the burgeoning environmentalist movement. The year was 1970, "a time of hope that we could actually change the world. The first Earth Day was that year, and that was a turning point for me, a waking up, a realization."

A young Ramey read Silent Spring soon after and vowed to dedicate his professional life to studying and protecting endangered and threatened wildlife. He's kept that promise and has had a damn good time in the process.

Ramey has a spacious but windowless office inside the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, a place he abandons in favor of the outdoors whenever possible. The wildlife biologist has a climber's physique, compact and muscular, and a jovial moustache; he radiates positive vibes. There are smile lines around his eyes, which glimmer with the unhinged energy of a veteran adventurer who's good at getting himself out of tough spots -- and is maybe a little too good at getting himself into them, as well.

Bronzed from a recent field study on the Baja Peninsula, Ramey free-associates in spiraling conversational threads, pausing frequently and staring into space for a second, like he's waiting for his mouth to catch up with his brain.

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