The girl with a pink shotgun and cocleburs in her hair

Guest Post
 Kassondra Hendricks

Kassondra Hendricks

By Kassondra Hendricks

If you would’ve told my nine-year old self that I would be toting around a pink camo shotgun in the future I wouldn’t have believed you. Pink has always been a ghastly color in my mind. And I wasn’t the girl that played with Barbie dolls. I was the girl that tramped barefoot around the horse barn chasing chickens, stalking deer in fields with mud smeared on my face, climbing trees, showing off burns on my legs from riding dirt bikes, smiling with satisfaction at the roughness of my calloused hands. I was the girl who to her mother’s dismay didn’t let anyone brush her hair until the fifth grade. I rocked the coclebur tangles, stained t-shirt, ripped jeans look. You would never guess that now, but that wild trouble making girl still comes out of me to this day. I just utilize that power in an entirely different way.

Inertly I think that wild nine-year old self recognized that there was a perceived weakness in being a girl at that age. My behavior and appearance were reflections of a young girl who wanted to be seen as an equal to her male comrades. I could take them on the soccer field, I could take them in the classroom, and I was desperate to be seen as one of them. Not a glittery pink pigtailed little girl. It seemed to me that society enabled them to be more real than us girls. And I didn’t like that.

As time passed and my tangled hair became brushed, I learned to wear makeup, and boys became an entirely different species in my mind, that wild fearless girl became absorbed into the past and long forgotten. My concentration was funneled into high school, college, and career choices. Somehow I ended up attending a University in the middle of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (perhaps that wild girl wasn’t entirely lost at that time) pursuing first a degree in zoology while satisfying my pre-veterinary requirements. As I began my education and spent my time outside of studying exploring the landscape surrounding campus, something began to slowly reawaken inside of me. The summer between my sophomore and my junior year I was given the opportunity to intern at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. There I met an amazing woman who by chance would shaken that missing me awake from her sleep, and shove me onto the path I was destined to follow. That summer changed my entire life and despite being late in the game I changed my major to Wildlife Management. That winter I was hired on as a student worker with the USFWS. I began to take classes required by my degree that opened my eyes to an entirely different wilderness than the one I had come to know. My duties at work and the materials covered in class caused me to become captivated by the management of our wildlife, infatuated with the North American Model of Wildlife Management, possessed by our history and relationship with wildlife and how it has evolved over the years. I was determined to become a biologist and to make a difference somehow in this field. Two and a half years later I graduated with my degree.

While in a wildlife management class we were given the opportunity to go hunting for extra credit. I had grown up fishing and had always been interested in hunting so I took the opportunity to go duck hunting with a classmate. We camped out on a river in the middle of November inside a duck blind. It was cold. I remember laying in my sleeping bag listening to the wind rustle the cattails, and I remember my heart beating rapidly every time I heard the loud quack of a mallard hen somewhere nearby, or the whistle of wings above. I remember loving how numb my cheeks and fingers were from the cold air on my face, I remember loving the smell of campfire on my clothes and in my hair the next day, and I remember loving how being covered in mud with dirt in my fingernails and wind tangled hair was perfectly acceptable if not warranted for the act of hunting. Although we didn’t see a single duck that morning, I was obsessed. And from that day on I was a woman on a mission and I took every opportunity offered to me to hunt.

Now, if you would’ve told my nine-year old or maybe even my 19 year-old self that I would be working in policy I would’ve laughed you off. Here I was freshly graduated with a degree, a brand new shotgun (Mossy Oak pink camo, more on that later), a 15 week old lab puppy that was to be my duck dog, and all my belongings loaded into the back of my 23 year old pick-up truck. Because of my infatuation with ducks and the love of the tradition of duck hunting, I decided to apply for a job with Ducks Unlimited. Although I was dead set on becoming a wildlife biologist I applied for a position with DU as a Conservation policy intern. To my delight I was accepted for the internship and moved seven hours south to Ann Arbor, Michigan. I began my internship and my new found relationship with policy, still the girl with a determination to make a difference in wildlife management, and the notion that the only real way to do this was as a biologist. Boy was I wrong. Here was the once rebellious nine-year old dirt cached girl wearing heels and business clothes walking into the office of legislators in Washington DC and Lansing, Michigan. Who would’ve thought?

At first I was taken aback by the response I got from the powerful legislators and government leaders when I walked into an office. They seemed astounded that this tiny blond girl would wield a shotgun or eagerly gut a deer without blinking an eye. “You hunt?!” they would ask with surprise. “You work for Ducks Unlimited?” My unsureness about their responses all changed one day when another DU policy intern and I attended a Sportsman’s caucus breakfast. Following the breakfast the other intern asked me during our drive back to the office if I always got stared at when I attended events such as these. I answered yes with the usual reply that people are usually surprised when a girl attends events related to hunting. It was then that I realized that maybe this is where I could make a difference in wildlife management. My nine-year old self would’ve slapped my present day self across the face for being uncomfortable in a room full of men who shared interests such as mine. My ambition and willingness to delve into the world of conservation, wildlife management, and hunting were equal to my male counterparts. It wasn’t them that was alienating myself, it was me! I decided that from that day forth I would take on every task with the same resiliency as the former nine-year old me. And although she would gladly have it that I would do such a thing with tangled hair and calloused hands, I continued to do so in heels and business attire. Just with the same perseverance she would have displayed in such situations.

As my time with DU continues on I have developed a new found appreciation for the world of policy. I absolutely love walking into an office and speaking with staff or members about why certain legislation is important. I love standing up in front of a room of duck hunters and telling them that they need to push for an increase in the price of the duck stamp. I had always assumed that the only way I could make an impact in wildlife management was by becoming a biologist. And although that is somewhat true, I have come to realize that a biologist is only limited in their ability to perform according to what the policy dictates they can do. Policy is at the roots of the tree of conservation. Although we can’t always see that it is there because it is covered with a layer of soil, we wouldn’t be able to perform our duties without it. And I love being a part of that.

Today I am so excited to see more and more amazing women coming out of the woodwork and becoming leaders in conservation, hunting, and fishing. Reading that the number of women hunters has surged by 25% between the years 2006 and 2011 is an absolutely marvelous thing. I am so thrilled to be a part of this new generation of hunters and fishers and excited to embark on my career in conservation with them alongside. For a time I questioned my purchase of a pink shotgun. It’s not practical in a hunting scenario (especially ducks) and I really do not find pink to be an attractive color. I realize now though that in a way it kind of represents who I am. I am a woman who loves to dress up and make a big bang in the world of conservation. But I am also a woman who will eagerly spend a day in a stream or in a duck blind, with tangled hair and a dirt smudged face, who if lucky might get the chance to harvest a few ducks from the sky.

2 comments to The girl with a pink shotgun and cocleburs in her hair

  • Jay Gore  says:

    Kassondra, I loved your story. Since you have a Lab, you might enjoy my book: #islifeworthlivingwithoutlabs? You can download an email reader version. Jay Gore, wI’ll life biologist retired. CWB.

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