Dorothy Johnson, or D.J. as she is known to most, always seems to have a rat on her shoulder, a bird on her wrist, or a snake in her hand. It has always been thus with her, and it no wonder. Her mother and father met on a Sierra Club hike and climbed a mountain in Colorado three months before she was born.
Local wild creatures can consider themselves lucky to have a friend and champion like D.J. who has progressed from collecting butterflies, tadpoles and lizards to raising deer in her backyard, handling an eagle at YSI in the mid ’80s, and nursing an injured bobcat back to life. h she believes are the native wild animals–or being a strident activist on their behalf if she thought it would do any good.
D.J. is soft-spoken, kind and gentle, but she can hold agroup of fifth graders spellbound without raising her voice, or laugh and joke with the most awkward or defiant teenager. Her face shows tension and even underlying anger when she talks about how seriously concerned she is about the problems we are creating for ourselves. She can imagine herself lashing out to support the under dog–which she believes are the native wild animals–or being a strident activist on their behalf if she thought it would do any good.
But it is not her nature to attack, even those whose values she does not share. She is a persuader, an educator, an example to those who will watch. And she is fascinating to watch and to listen to as she carefully climbs a ladder to take the Swainson’s hawk on her gloved hand. Slowly and carefully she glides down and walks outside with the bird where she places it on a perch where it can take the sun.
YSI’s birds have all been injured and could not survive if released into the wild. They, like D.J., have become a bridge to a world most of us are no longer part of–a world of soaring hawks and eagles, of snakes they feed on, of rats and birds that nourish snakes, of seeds and insects that feed rats and birds–a world where interdependency is key.
But D.J. is not just a naturalist and a teacher, she is a scientist with a healthy curiosity and a need to know. Animals that do not or have not survived that come into her world are used to learn more about it. She carefully dissects and preserves skeletons that show how a snake’s jaw works or a bird’s wing is constructed–specimens that are used to teach children.
D.J. is not a romantic idealist. This is not a placid world we have all come into. She knows better than most that it is not easy to survive in the animal kingdom we are part of–neither for man nor beast. And it never has been. But in spite of the obstacles we have, some of which we create for ourselves, D.J. continues by both her actions and her words to help reconcile for us the realities of a world that can be both harsh and beautiful.
D.J. has bee YSI’s animal curator since 1978. You can see her and some of the wildlife she know so well at YSI’s Fifteenth Annual Wildlife Festival at Alum Rock Park, Sunday, October 8 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For a schedule of events visit http://www.ysi-ca.org or call (408) 248-4322.