Into the Wild
When Amy Toman was 5-years-old, she got a Christmas gift that sparked a lifetime passion for animals.
“My life has always been geared toward animals and encouraged,” said Toman, 25, formerly of Paden City. “When I was 5-years-old, Santa brought me a ball python. That’s all I wanted. The post master used to have a large albino Burmese Python that he sometimes brought to work. I saw that. When I saw that, I went home to ask my parents to get me one what do you tell a 5-year-old when all she wants for Christmas is a snake.”
Fast forward 20 years when Toman studied giraffes in the bush country of Africa last spring. Her research was funded by a grant funded by the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama to assist the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Toman joined two other noted scientists to chart the decline of giraffes living in a Namibian desert. She said a few years ago, there were more 120,000 giraffes worldwide, but less than 80,0000 survive today.
“Giraffes are the forgotten iconic species,” she said. “We don’t understand enough about them yet. There needs to be more research or we could potentially lose a great species, a great animal. The world is a better place with giraffes. I don’t want to imagine a world without giraffes.”
Toman’s parents, John and Marcia, who live in Paden City, encouraged their daughter’s love for animals. MarciaToman remembers that when the family when on nature hikes, the little girl would bring back a few creatures.
“Her pockets were filled with worms and bugs she found,” she said. “She was always into animals. When she was four or five years old, she picked up a snake and showed it to me. Nothing intimidated here when it came to animals.”
Most people have a dog or cat, but not Amy Toman.
“She had a pet tarantula and pet rats it just snowballed from there,” Marcia Toman said. “Let’s just say there were always a lot of cages to clean at our house.”
Toman played basketball, volleyball and ran track before she graduated in 2009 from Paden City High School. She was awarded a degree in animal and nutritional sciences in 2014 from West Virginia University. Toman’s sister, Alison, is an art teacher at New Martinsville Elementary. When Toman was in middle school or high school, she volunteered her time at the Oglebay Zoo in Wheeling.
“Those experiences inspired a lot of what I wanted to do with my life,” said Toman, 25, who now cares for giraffes at the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama.
Marcia Toman added, “Amy always had a passion for animals. Some people go to the beach, but our family would go to zoos in places Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus just to name a few. Every time we were in Wheeling, we’d have to stop at Oglebay.”
Toman took a 16 hour plane trip from Atlanta to Africa during the spring She said from Windhoek, Namibia to her final destination was another two and half days of travel to where she would spend nearly three weeks deep in African bush country.
“From Windhoek to the field where we set up camp was about two days worth of driving on unpaved roads, sandy and dirt roads,” she said. “The pathways weren’t necessarily there or there was one tire tread to follow. We were really out in the bush.”
Toman said she grew up hunting, fishing and camping in West Virginia, so she was a little more prepared for the trip in the Kunene region of Namibia. She said it was winter then in Africa, so the high temperatures soared around 70 degrees during the day, but dipped into the low 30s at night. Scientists and their guides stayed in tents, not a hotel with all the amenities common to civilization.
“We had no access to water, facilities, anything like that,” she said. “We were really roughing it, camping.”
And Africa being Africa, wildlife is not isolated to zoos or postcards. Toman said it was common to see oryx and kudu, which are species of antelope, along with zebras and more.
“One night we had elephants walking by our camp,” Toman said. “We were relaxing by our fire when the elephants came walking through. There was about five of them. It kind of startled everyone in camp, but the elephants went there own way.”
Toman said she was never any danger though she was aware that she was not alone.
“I wouldn’t say we were in any danger, but we occasionally came across tracks where there had been lions, leopards. We went to sleep at night to the sounds of hyenas,” she said.
Toman’s group counted the gentle giraffes, which she described as weighing on average about 2,500 pounds and being at least 20 feet tall.
“Generally, giraffes are gentle, but they are very leery of other animals,” she said.. “As a prey animal, they constantly have to stay on the defense, on the go. Typically though, they are very gentle, calm and sweet natured. The roam around in loose herds and come as go as they pleased.”
DNA samples were gathered by shooting the animal with modified .22 caliber rifle that fired a special dart that collected a tissue sample. She showed a photo of a giraffe who had been hit with one of the darts.
“That giraffe in the background had just been shot, but it didn’t bother him too much,” she said. “It was like a bee sting to them no harm done,” Toman said.
Toman’s African experience left her with a lasting impression, so she hopes to return someday.
“I hope to team back up with Giraffe Conservation Foundation to assist more with their important research,” she said. “I can’t wait to return. Africa was a great experience and so different from West Virginia. To me, just because I grew up in a small town does not mean I was limited as to where I could go, what I could dream.”