img src="../images/blogs/kirstine-and-nhl-player/kirstine-grab-headshot.png" A Conversation with Kirstine Grab: Our Biologist Who Helped an NHL Hockey Player Cross the U.S. Border with His Pet Tortoises

A Conversation with Kirstine Grab: Our Biologist Who Helped an NHL Hockey Player Cross the U.S. Border with His Pet Tortoises

November 24, 2020

Kirstine Grab sits next to a statue of Rachel Carson.
Kirstine Grab with a statue of Rachel Carson in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Last week Braden Holtby, a National Hockey League (NHL) player, traveled with his family from the United States to Canada to join his new team. What was special about his family’s situation was that they have two pet leopard tortoises. Native to eastern and southern Africa, the leopard tortoise is a species that is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Holtby family was unaware that they needed to obtain an export permit to cross international borders with their tortoises, and so they needed to wait at the border with their pets until they obtained the permit. NewsMedia picked up on the unique story and closely tracked the family’s progress as they waited with their pets to cross the border.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs Program Biologist Kirstine Grab was among the primary staff who helped to process this particular permit. We asked her if she would answer some questions about this kind of scenario and also tell us more about her story and how she came to work for the Service.

A headshot of Kirstine Grab.Kirstine, thanks for agreeing to tell us more about your work. Can you first tell us how common it is for people to get to an international border and realize that they need a permit to travel with their pets?

Yes, it does happen from time to time. We do our best to help the pet owner out because it's their pets and their family. I don't personally have a CITES-listed pet, but I'd be devastated if I found out I couldn’t bring my cat with me. The thing that happens most often is that people find out just a few weeks before they travel that they need a permit and they are rushing to do that. We also try to help in these situations—you don’t want to still be waiting for a permit near the date of your travels. We do know that things happen, but we do ask that, in general, people submit their applications 60-90 days in advance to give us the standard time we need to process an application. We also recommend that pet owners talk to their veterinarians or get in contact with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our website has a lot of information about traveling with personal pets so that your travel can go smoothly.

What are some of the common pets that people need to apply for permits to cross international borders with?

Birds are definitely the most common. Then tortoises and snakes. We see the occasional serval cat hybrid, but it's mainly protected species of birds, snakes, and tortoises based on my experience and what I have found in our database.

What are some of the other kinds of permits you help to process for the Service? What does processing the permits involve?

Other permits that I process include live captive-born animal exports for commercial trade. It's a lot of reptile breeders. The occasional zoo will do an export of a live captive-bred animal. I also spend a lot of time working on sport-hunted trophy imports and exports for a variety of different species. Some are native to the U.S. and some are not.  

I also review permit applications for “pre-convention specimens.” These are things such as jewelry or antique trinkets that include parts of protected species, but were removed from the wild before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora went into effect in 1975. It’s interesting just to see what was going on in the early 1900s, and late 1800s. I review applications for biomedical samples too. These are mainly monkey samples going all over the world.

All of these permits have a handful of things in common outside of what is getting shipped and where. Applying for applications and using the permitting system helps conservation.

When we're reviewing applications, we look for two main things. The first is where did these specimens come from? How did you get them? We want to make sure that you got them legally within the parameters of the regulations, and so we look for evidence of that. You can provide receipts, transfer documents, and other documentation.

The second thing is we want to make sure that this trade will not negatively affect the survival of species in the wild. So that requires a review of not only the document documentation that you present, but also scientific research based on what they know about the species in the wild and other additional information, like how common it is for the animal to be bred in captivity.

The Service recently launched a new electronic permitting system. Do you think that it will make it easier for people to apply for the right kind of permits they need?

I think so. You can type in what you need in a search bar, and you're going to get a list of different application forms that you might need to fill out depending on your goals. There are a lot of helpful webpages that can also guide you and answer key questions. Our traveling with your pet bird guidance is frequently used.  
It will also be easier to apply because you no longer need to use traditional mail to get us an application, unless you would still prefer to do it that way. It is all is a lot more streamlined. I think the review process will probably be similar in length on our end, but the applicant experience will be better and faster.

How did you start to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

I started my current position in December of 2019. It happened because during college I was part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Directorate Fellows Program (DFP). As part of the program, I was in Nebraska and did a lot of data entry for some of the programs that the Service had started. For instance, their consultation program for Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, which basically is: If you want to build a house on a bit of land, you might need to consult with the Service in case there's an endangered or threatened species on that piece of land. The goal is to avoid, minimize, and mitigate harm. I was working in the data systems for that, and so that was my first taste of the Service and I enjoyed it.

At the end of the program, participants are awarded two years of non-competitive hiring eligibility by the Service. My name got put on the short list for positions that people are looking to hire for within the agency. The positions are usually DFP-specific where they're looking for DFP alumni. After my DFP and before I graduated from college, I kept myself involved with the agency. I volunteered at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, helping out with data analysis for an oak savanna restoration project.

After I graduated in 2018, I was doing field work and odd jobs until people at the Service told me about this position. It was interesting to me because I know how important policy is, especially so things in conservation get done, or for certain measures to get implemented. It's definitely been an amazing learning opportunity and has provided insight into something that I probably wouldn't have learned about otherwise.

How did you become interested in a wildlife or conservation career?

My mom's parents were very much into nature. I always associate them with birds. Now my grandma is in an apartment complex building, but she has all of these birdhouses and she checks them every summer and I get updates. So that's kind of where it started. There was also a summer camp that really kind of lit the fire, so to speak. That was Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center. There were ten summers in a row that I was there at least a week, and so that was really fun and that sort of got me interested in doing conservation work. I was inspired by how excited all of the naturalists were. And to get to run around outside with them and share that excitement with them was very special.

Are there people in the conservation field that are heroes of yours or people that inspired you?

There are so many people that inspire me. I'll listen to famous scientists, like Bill Nye or Dr. Jane Goodall, on podcasts doing interviews and I'll get extremely jazzed about whatever it is they’re talking about. It not only gets me excited about what they're doing, but also gets me excited about what I'm doing.
And then there are those people that I've interacted with. People including high school teachers or the naturalists at Warner Nature Center who were just so passionate about what they were doing and they would have birding competitions. My Advanced Placement biology teacher just loved raptors and that was so contagious. That was really inspiring.

There are researchers that I've just recently discovered like Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. Hearing her talk about her indigenous background and how that informs her research as a bryologist (a botanist who studies mosses, liverworts, and hornworts) is so fascinating and it's inspiring. The list could go on, but it’s a whole bunch of people.

Kirstine Grab holds a turtle on a road.

Kirstine helps a turtle cross the road.

Do you have any favorite animals?

Yes. I really like reptiles and amphibians, and I think my favorite would have to be salamanders. Though turtles come in at a very close second.

Why do you like salamanders so much?

I find salamanders to be objectively adorable. They’re just the cutest little things. Beyond their aesthetics, their ecology is just so unique. For instance, there are some lungless salamanders. Some of them are primarily terrestrial and some have an aquatic larval stage and then a terrestrial adult stage. But because they don’t have lungs, they have to breathe through their skin. So they're very sensitive to their environment.

Something else which I think is really neat and speaks to the stuff that's going on in our own backyard, is how North America is a hotspot for salamander diversity, which is super cool. But it is internationally connected because we are seeing amphibian declines due to the spreading of fungal pathogens that can severely impact populations. Salamanders are important in their habitats because they play a big role in nutrient cycling because of their status as predators for macroinvertebrates. So they're really important ecologically, they’re very unique ecologically, and internationally they are at risk because of disease transmission.

What would you tell other young people who want to work in this profession? What would you want them to know?

That's a fantastic question. A lot of people want to be outside and working with charismatic critters and doing field work and getting muddy. I think in order to have a well-rounded perspective you should be able to understand at least some of the policy that goes behind the research that you're able to do or how your research informs policies.

The second thing is there is value in both being able to look out and explore your own backyard and look across the Atlantic or the Pacific and see what's going on there. Animals like turtles are both impacted by the pet trade here in the southeastern United States and parts of Asia. Making comparisons and seeing those connections, I think is really valuable when you're looking at conservation as a whole instead of just a small microcosm of just one species.

Kirstine Grab is a Biologist for the International Affairs Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She earned a Bachelors of Science and Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior from the University of Minnesota.