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Layne Hamilton, project leader at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex

A female USFWS employee in uniform holding a small gator with its mouth tapped closed..
Layne Hamilton holds a gator. Photo courtesy of Layne Hamilton, USFWS.

“I was lucky and grew up with parents curious about the wild world,“ says Layne Hamilton, project leader of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Merritt Island National Wildlife Complex. When Layne was a child, her mother “would walk in with a garter snake in hand and say, ‘Look at this little tongue! Look, the little eyes are so cute’,” she remembers. Hamilton used to think everyone was like her mother, but one day she casually carried a garter snake into a friend’s house. “And,” she chuckles, “they started screaming!”

Hamilton knew in high school that she wanted to be a wildlife biologist. In addition to liking science classes, she loved the outdoors. “I was always at the beach or on our boat fishing or running crab traps,” she says. “Wildlife biologists did everything I liked, and once I decided that’s what I wanted – that was it.”

After graduating from the University of Florida in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology, she worked for four years for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (which was called the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission). She then returned to school and received her master’s degree in wildlife management from Louisiana State University. She began her career with the Service at Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi in 1986 as a student trainee.

Hamilton spent three and a half years in the early 1990s as the refuge manager and only Service employee at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, which she describs as “my personal island paradise.’” There was trouble in this South Carolina paradise one day: she heard gunshots and saw several individuals illegally hunting deer on one of the refuge’s smaller islands.

“As I hurried to get my boat, I called for assistance on the radio. Project Leader John Davis answered my call and told me, ‘Gal, I want their guns! I want their deer! I want everything but their drawers!” She smiles. “I followed his orders, and with assistance, apprehended four poachers. They lost their deer and forfeited their boat to the Service,” she says, “but kept their drawers!”

Hamilton also worked at the Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana and J. N. Ding Darling, Florida Panther and 10,000 Islands refuges in Florida. “You move from refuge to refuge and the only thing that stays the same is your uniform,” she says. “I love the diversity that comes with every move, the different people, the different purposes.”

Looking back at her more than 30 years with the Service, Hamilton recalls, “I’ve watched leatherback turtle hatchlings toddle to the ocean, Florida scrub jays sit on the heads of refuge biologists, and children squeal in delight as they discover the wildness and wonders of our refuges.” Among her more memorable experiences was the time she held and fed three-week old panther kittens that had been left alone by their mother for several days. “Luckily she later returned and resumed her maternal duties,” Layne says, “but the thrill of handling such rare, and really cute, kittens was an amazing experience.”

A large sea turtle partially covered in sand on a beach.
Arya, a late nesting tagged leatherback encountered during a daily nest survey. Photo by Diana Gu, USFWS.

Who would’ve thought she would go from carrying garter snakes to handling panther kittens? Most likely, her mother. “Mom died a few weeks after I transferred to Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge,” Hamilton says. “I’m sure she was there in spirit when I was handling the kittens.”

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