Wildlife biologist saves wildlife from San Antonio airports

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Wildlife biologist Marcus Machemehl was off duty when he received a strange call.

“Bring your net,” an American Airlines representative said. “A little monkey came out – you have to come up here!”

A rhesus macaque named Dawkins was on the loose in the non-public baggage claim area of ​​San Antonio International Airport. The primate was bound for its new home at the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary in La Salle County.

Machemehl called in the director of animal care services, Shannon Sims, for backup. A frightened Dawkins climbed through a tangle of conveyor belts and crevices after his transport crate opened up while being unloaded from a plane. Machemehl worked with peers from the San Antonio Zoo and the ACS to catch the 2-foot-tall monkey.

“He was in the corner, just sitting there,” Machemehl, 40, said. “I think he was more shocked that he came out of his cage.”

An hour later, Sims was able to put the escapee to sleep with a tranquilizer dart.

Machemehl’s job is to keep airport employees and passengers safe and to keep animals and wildlife away from San Antonio airports. A member of the security and wildlife team, he is one of four wildlife biologists in the country employed at an airport – other airports use contractors to remove animals.

Marcus Machemehl's job is unique, he is responsible for keeping animals and wildlife away from airports in San Antonio.  Here he is baiting a trap on the south side of the airport.

Marcus Machemehl’s job is unique, he is responsible for keeping animals and wildlife away from airports in San Antonio. Here he is baiting a trap on the south side of the airport.

Robin Jerstad

“We work with Marcus on a regular basis, and he’s very good at what he does,” ACS spokeswoman Lisa Norwood said. “He is professional, knowledgeable and compassionate. This is important when it comes to addressing animal concerns.

Machemehl received calls for wildlife such as coyotes, geese, raccoons, ring-tailed cats, white-tailed deer and snakes.

“You never know what you’re going to get involved in,” he said. “Every day is a new day.”

In 2006, Machemehl graduated from Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science in Range, Wildlife, and Fisheries Management.

Marcus Machemehl is responsible for keeping animals and wildlife away from airports in San Antonio.  Here he checks a bird trap on the northern perimeter of the airport.

Marcus Machemehl is responsible for keeping animals and wildlife away from airports in San Antonio. Here he checks a bird trap on the northern perimeter of the airport.

Robin Jerstad, San Antonio Express-News

Thirteen years ago, he saw a post at the airport shortly after Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed on US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of geese. Aircraft bird strikes, as with the “Miracle on the Hudson”, would figure prominently in its future.

Machemehl was hired as an ecologist. He was promoted after taking bird classes and qualifying as a wildlife biologist at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2014. He gets to work early, reads the day’s reports at next day and records bird strikes. In daylight, he drives his Dodge truck around the airfield, looking for moving animals.

“My job is to make the airport as unattractive as possible for animals,” Machemehl said. “Wildlife means food, water, shelter and space. If you take one out, they’ll go somewhere else to find it.

Marcus Machemehl's job is unique, he is responsible for keeping animals and wildlife away from airports in San Antonio.  Here he loads a capture pigeon which will be released offsite.

Marcus Machemehl’s job is unique, he is responsible for keeping animals and wildlife away from airports in San Antonio. Here he loads a capture pigeon which will be released offsite.

Robin Jerstad

At the heart of his life are the lessons learned growing up on a farm in Bellville, where he had a vision to become a ranch manager. He was a member of the 4-H club and worked long hours raising chickens, cattle and rabbits. Sometimes he relies on the insight of former farmers and ranchers whose sage advice is not yet wrong.

Twice a month, morning and evening, he does wildlife surveys. Machemehl stops at 13 points on the airfield and two off the property, sitting at each spot for five minutes to count birds in the area. Operations and maintenance crews often alert him to activity in the area. He builds his own traps for large birds, like great horned owls and Swainson’s hawks. He uses a bucket truck to check the pigeon traps in the hangars around the airfield.

Marcus Machemehl's job is unique, he is responsible for keeping animals and wildlife away from airports in San Antonio.  Here he loads a captured raccoon to be released away from the airport.

Marcus Machemehl’s job is unique, he is responsible for keeping animals and wildlife away from airports in San Antonio. Here he loads a captured raccoon to be released away from the airport.

Robin Jerstad, San Antonio Express-News

He’s seen his share of migratory birds en route to Mexico around the airport. He said two banded peregrine falcons from Canada were hit by a plane, and because they are endangered he had to report the data to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In October, he keeps an eye out for a winged sign of seasonal weather – scissor-tailed flycatchers on the north side of Runway 4.

“People talk about ‘When they’re gone, the cold comes,'” Machemehl said. “When they reappear in the spring, you know winter is over.”

His job is not always to encounter winged and clawed wild animals. Sometimes his role requires a more nuanced approach with small, stray pets. Recently, Machemehl answered a call for several puppies wandering around property around Stinson Municipal Airport. When he parked his truck near the airport tower, the puppies rushed towards him. Machemehl said after picking up four of the dogs, three more ran away. He picked up two and returned the next day to pick up the last straggler.

After work, animals are still part of his life. He lives with his family in the countryside, where they have several dogs, barn cats, chickens and a few cows.

When people ask Machemehl what he does for a living and he answers them, some say, “Really, is it a job? He knows they are unaware of what is going on behind the scenes, out of sight of passengers walking through the airport terminals.

That’s why Machemehl emphasizes the importance of keeping San Antonio airfields safe and free of hazards, animals, and wildlife.

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A 22-year Air Force veteran, Vincent T. Davis embarked on a second career as a journalist and found his calling. By observing and listening to San Antonio, he finds intriguing stories to tell about ordinary people. He shares his stories with Express-News subscribers every Monday morning.


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