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One of Illinois’s Most Experienced Biologists Has Lessons for the Future

From urban coyotes to raccoon latrines, Chris Anchor has spent three decades studying wildlife for the Cook County Forest Preserve, gaining a breadth of knowledge few in his field can match. Now he’s trying to pass it on.

Chris Anchor (center) teaches his trade to Purdue students at the Cook County Forest Preserve District.   Photo: Susan Cosier

On a metal operating table lies an immobilized coyote, its eyes shielded from the light by a lime-green washcloth. Students from Purdue University surround the wild animal and look on while wildlife technician Andy Burmesch draws blood from its hind leg. Overseeing the operation in this Cook County Forest Preserve District building in Hoffman Estates is wildlife biologist Chris Anchor, a three-decade veteran with the forest preserve.

Anchor and Burmesch caught the coyote as part of a tutorial on how to handle and collect samples from an animal: blood for genetics, whiskers for isotopes, poop for parasites, hair for stress. Two more coyotes sit in cages on the floor. The information they collect will be added to the Urban Coyote Research Project, an 18-year study of the canids in the Chicagoland region—notable for the density of its coyote population—started by Anchor and Stan Gehrt, a professor and wildlife extension specialist at Ohio State University. The night before, the students caught a white tailed deer, took measurements and samples, and then attached a radio collar. If they’re lucky, Anchor will perform a necropsy on another deer killed on the road.

Teaching hands-on experience is critical to the field, says Anchor. “I’m very fearful of people gaining everything they know in the world from this,” he says as he points to a smartphone. “It really bothers me.”

Teaching students is just one aspect of Anchor’s job. Since he started with the district in 1981 and then came on full time in 1985, he has seen rivers recover and native animals return—otters, whose survival in the Chicago River surprised even Anchor, and badgers, which he’s only seen four times in 30 years. He collected blood and tissue from the region’s various wildlife species. He has watched, learned, and analyzed the area’s fauna.

Within the next few years Anchor will retire, leaving a legacy that will be nearly impossible to replicate, in part because being a wildlife biologist now means becoming more of a specialist. “I’m not sure you’ll see someone like a Chris Anchor again,” says Gehrt, who is also the research chair for the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation. The good news is that future researchers can build on Anchor’s unique contributions.

When Anchor started at the forest preserve, he ran the deer management program and addressed nuisance issues. The county hadn’t had a biologist since 1945. But there was a lot more to study than just deer. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is 69,000 acres, so Anchor pursued his many other interests, too. He put tracking devices on the turtles in every pond, banded birds, and partnered with other researchers to study parasites. Many people put their exotic pets in the rivers when they no longer want them, so he studied fish from around the world to figure out what he found in the nearby waterways. He searched for beaver dams clogging drainage ditches. “He’s curious about everything,” says Gehrt.

Now Anchor works with universities and Brookfield Zoo to implant transmitters in animals he wants to track, like otters, badgers, beavers, and various snakes (including rattlesnakes), and he handles roadkill and animals that make their way across the county line. The blood, fur, and feces he’s collected now comprise a vast tissue library that fills a room of freezers. Bit by bit, he’s barcoding his samples and in the future, others may be able to use them for their research projects.

Anchor is always thinking how the specimens could inform future disease outbreaks. “The amount of info he collects and has available, and how he collaborates with people, shows that he’s very forward thinking,” says Kristen Page, a biologist at Wheaton College who does work with Anchor. A few years ago they studied raccoon roundworm together, researching the risk of the potentially fatal parasites jumping to humans via raccoon latrines, communal sites where the animals defecate. The CDC published the results in their Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.

Because of his unique position as a wildlife biologist at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, a group not associated with a university or state department of natural resources, Anchor can also continue long-term research projects like the one he started with Gehrt on urban coyotes, one that’s grown into “one of the largest analyses of urban carnivores in the world.” (Most graduate studies last one to three years.) Using his and Gehrt’s model, wildlife managers in Long Island, Los Angeles, and Madison, Wisconsin established their own long-term coyote studies. And Anchor hopes to use the prototype to research river otters that swim in Cook County’s waters.

These days, wildlife programs barely teach the sort of field experience mastered by Anchor through these efforts. It’s important that he pass on his knowledge, he says. That’s why this group from Purdue is here learning how to handle live animals. What they learn has helped past participants land wildlife management jobs.

“As I get older, the things that become more important to me are number one, the benefit to the public—so the disease part of it. I’m fascinated by that. And after that,” he says, “it’s the kids.”

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