When she started school at Arizona State University, Christina Akins studied nutrition. It would lead to a career, she figured, but not a dream job. What she really wanted was to play in the mud. So, she changed majors, and today she's protecting frogs as a wildlife specialist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
© Rick Giase
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By Kathy Ritchie
hristina Akins isn’t your typical 29-year-old. I learn this even before I shake her hand. Actually, I don’t shake her hand, because she’s holding a gopher snake that looks agitated. Instead, Akins, who is covered from head to toe in mud, greets me with a huge smile. With her long blond hair tied up in a ponytail, athletic physique, glittery nail polish and mud-caked leather and turquoise bracelets, she doesn’t exactly look like a wildlife specialist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Then again, I probably don’t look like someone who has been momentarily paralyzed with fear.
Akins later tells me that she was excited to show me the snake, which was why she brought it down.
“People make fun of me,” she says. “I see something, and I have this childlike excitement.”
The medium-sized snake, which from my vantage point looks more like a rattlesnake, is writhing, struggling to free itself from her muddy grip. I take a few more steps back. Finally, Akins hands the snake to Chip Young, a Game and Fish wildlife biologist, who hikes to a nearby garden and lets the snake go. If first impressions count for anything, Akins certainly takes the cake. This girl has cojones.
Born and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, along with her twin sister, Akins has always been somewhat of a tomboy. As a child, she spent time at her grandparents’ cabin north of Payson, where she would hunt for fossils, quartz crystals and tadpoles.
“I was the one who, if there was something to look for and find, I would go out and find it,” she says.
An uncle who owned a collection of lizards, geckos and snakes helped pique his niece’s interest in reptiles and amphibians, and eventually, Akins adopted her own pets: frogs, gecko varieties and even a bearded dragon. These days, Akins owns a kingsnake.
Akins says she never considered that working with reptiles and amphibians could be a real possibility when she entered college, so she initially studied nutrition. It wasn’t until she began looking at programs at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus, in Mesa, that she found a degree more in line with what she loved doing outside of school.
“At the time, it was called wildlife habitat management,” she says. “I read the description, and it was basically everything I did for fun. That’s when I started going to school to get a wildlife and restoration ecology degree.”
Because Akins was the only student in her class who expressed an interest in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, a professor encouraged her to apply for an internship with Game and Fish. Akins loved the program, and she reapplied to be an intern every chance she could.
In 2010, a graduated Akins landed her dream job: a full-time position as a wildlife technician in the non-game branch at Game and Fish, specializing in ranid frogs (she was recently promoted to specialist). Today, instead of assisting in the recovery efforts of endangered or threatened animal species, she’s leading them.
And that’s how she arrived at Beatty’s Guest Ranch in Hereford.
When a species is listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a recovery plan is implemented. Within the plan, there are action steps designed to prevent extinction. Akins’ job is to execute those actions.
“Some of the things we do include surveying and monitoring populations that are existing now,” she says. “We also do conservation work, captive rearing and habitat renovation, like this project.”
In 2011, the Monument Fire charred the hillsides surrounding the Beatty property. When the rains finally came, they unleashed ash and sediment, flooding the family’s homesite, as well as several ponds that contained threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs, ruining their habitat.
Last year, Akins organized the “first-annual work day” to remove the debris that had poured into the ponds and rehabilitate the habitat. The effort was a success, and when she asked the family whether they could use more help, they said yes.
It’s midmorning in early May, and Akins and her team of volunteers have almost finished digging out a pond that sits on a hill several hundred feet from any structures on the Beatty property. Everyone is covered in mud. Akins walks around the pond barefoot and uses her hands to scoop out the thick, black muck and pull any remaining root masses. Though the pond looks small, Akins has been working since the night before.
“At night, you can shine the light and see eye-shine in the frogs, similar to mammals on the road,” she explains. “It’s not as distinct, but when you put the light in the pond, you can reach in and grab them.”
Over a three-hour period, Akins, Young and a volunteer named Daniel pulled out nine adult frogs and some 200 tadpoles by hand. Akins says some tadpoles were only a centimeter long, while others had nearly completed their metamorphoses, meaning their front and back legs were formed and they were in the process of absorbing their tails.
“It was pretty cool to see the age classes within that one pond,” she says.
With the pond finally emptied, Akins is now playing a waiting game. There’s a spring up the mountain that fills a water storage tank, and it has to fill up completely — gravity pulls the water to the pond.
“Once we put the frogs back, the vegetation back and the tadpoles back, I’ll be on my way,” she says.
Akins’ enthusiasm for her work is contagious, and her attitude is inspiring. But this passion, not always seen in 29-year-olds, stems from the fact that she’s doing what so many people her age only dream about — something she genuinely loves.
“I like hard work,” she says. “I don’t care about getting dirty; it just makes it more fun. I would rather be doing something outside than sitting in an office.”
Like catching snakes.
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