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An invitation to a dance changed Eric Dinerstein's life

Story by Doug McInnis

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Dinerstein first came to WWU to attend a dance with a friend. When he learned about Huxley College of the Environment, "I felt like I was home," he says. | Photo by Julie Woodford

Eric Dinerstein’s evolution as a wildlife scientist began in his second year at Northwestern University’s film school, when friends persuaded him to move to a farmhouse 25 miles from the university’s suburban Chicago campus. Suddenly, the bookish student from a New Jersey suburb found himself on 250 acres of swamp, woods, and abandoned pastureland. As time passed, life on the farm changed him. The allure of campus life and student parties faded. His reading list shifted from depressing modern novels to Thoreau’s “Walden” and Thomas Allen’s “The Marvels of Animal Behavior.”

He listened for owls, watched the aerial courtship of the woodcock, and delighted in the discovery of columbines and wild irises. Filmmaking lost its allure as well; it wasn’t lost on Dinerstein that some of the film school’s best recent graduates were about to start shooting a commercial for a light bulb factory. He realized he was in the wrong place.

Read about Dinerstein's work at the World Wildlife Fund: Before they're gone

He transferred to the University of Idaho, but “I felt like a fish out of water.” One day he got an SOS from an old friend at Western Washington University. She needed a date for her prom at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies. (Editor’s note: Yes, Fairhaven College really did have a prom. See proof.) He arrived at a school he knew nothing about, but he liked everyone he met. He also discovered the university’s groundbreaking Huxley College of the Environment. “I felt like I was home,” he recalls. “I enrolled on the spot.”

At Western, he studied plant taxonomy and botany with Ron Taylor and Rich Fonda. With the encouragement of his adviser Jim Newman, he surveyed nearby bird populations and studied the black bear in the Yosemite Valley. Then came the Peace Corps, graduate studies at the University of Washington, and in 1988, an offer from the World Wildlife Fund.

These days, he labors to save some of Earth’s most endangered creatures. He writes books and scientific papers, works on conservation plans, meets with government officials, and travels to remote sites accessible only by rudimentary roads or small planes. “Sometimes my wife complains that I’m working too much,” says Dinerstein. But he doesn’t see it quite that way. “Not many people have a job where their passions and their values are merged into one,” he says. “I have the best job in the world.”