When asked what he does for a living, Norris Dodd replies, “I have the most interesting job in town,” and he does. He is an elephant biologist.
Born in Colorado and raised in Phoenix, his father was an armchair naturalist and his influence led a young Dodd to Arizona State University to become a wildlife biologist. He got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at ASU in Wildlife Ecology and Environmental Resources and Range Ecology.
Though he did not set out to specifically be an elephant biologist, his career path led him to his current position with Asian Development Bank in 2014 as an international biodiversity and wildlife consultant on transportation projects in Bhutan where elephants are an endangered species.
Following graduation from ASU, Dodd went to work for the Arizona Game & Fish Department where he worked for 29 years, first in Phoenix and then in Pinetop-Lakeside where he was promoted to supervisor over the entire region from Safford to Winslow.
Later, following some political changes at the state level, Dodd said he had a visit from the director of AZGFD who got off the plane and told him he had done a great job, but. ...
Yes, there was a but following that comment and he was offered a lateral transfer that he declined. Instead he asked for the position of research biologist out of the Phoenix office and spent his last 15 years with AZGFD working in that position with a focus on wildlife-highway relationships and then retired in 2008.
Dodd was elected to the Pinetop-Lakeside Town Council for a four-year term in 2007, was treasurer of the White Mountain Land Trust, chair of the Pinetop-Lakeside Open Space Committee and a board member of the White Mountain Nature Center.
Using the word retired rather loosely, Dodd went to work for Aztec Engineering as a senior natural resource specialist in 2008. In 2013, he was recruited to work for the Arizona Department of Transportation to set up a wildlife program to do a study plan for wildlife highway safety on the Highway 260 Phase project in Payson. He certainly had the credentials from his experience with AZGFD. The project resulted in the elk accident rate going down 98%. Dodd said he loved the immediate gratification of that project because it made life good for all life — those driving on the highway and for the elk.
Dodd came across a job post that was in Bhutan in 2014 and after seeing it, felt it was written just for him. He talked to his wife, Rebecca, about it and she thought he should apply. He did and had an interview one week later. He learned that another applicant, known in many circles as the Father of Road Ecology, had also applied.
When two or three weeks passed and he had not heard anything, he thought the road guru had had likely gotten the job. He was just getting ready to go back to consulting when at 4 a.m. one day he heard a ding on his computer. It was the job offer from Asian Development. He responded and called his wife at 6.a.m. to tell her. Of course he took it.
He had never been out of the country and he was going to Bhutan, 7,968 miles from Pinetop and 16 hours and 32 minutes flying time from Phoenix to Bhutan, located in the eastern Himalayas between China and India.
“I was going somewhere where people so much value your experience and you can help them. I am not very religious,” said Dodd, “but spiritual. When one door closes, another opens. It totally changed my outlook on life. I do not think it is fate, but you control the destiny. We do have the ability to control our future. Though I have been beat up a lot, I do not harbor any anger over my transfer or the state of the world.”
Headed for Bhutan, Dodd had wondered if the road guru was offered the job first and perhaps turned it down and he was the second choice. He soon discovered that was not the case.
“They had a dinner for me,” said Dodd, the Department of Roads, with dignitaries. The supervisor of the supervisor I consulted for said, ‘We never thought we would find someone like you from the 25 (who applied) around the world. We did not think you existed.’ ”
They told him they needed his help with capacity building. He was to do six months of research that he said was like writing a book.
He discovered that he was in a country that supported animals and admired its culture.
He saw that all of his experience up to this point had prepared him for this project.
“It is like going back a 100 years,” said Dodd. “Their forests are intact. They have gross national happiness and balance. It is an ideal culture. They are so far ahead of us. It is all about compromise.”
Dodd had wondered why they wanted to build a road through an unspoiled sanctuary but said he changed his tune when he learned that a walk from a remote village would take the people over three days to get to a hospital. By the end of the study, he said they determined they could build the road to India right on the edge of the sanctuary by finding the middle path.
With terrorists nearby while on a study expedition, he said the military personnel had to spend the night in foxholes and then they walked by he and the study crew the next morning carrying their AK-47 assault rifles. He said he did as much of the study as he could at that time since they were required to leave. They were allowed to return at a later time. As a result of that experience, he said he had post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned to Pinetop.
Rebecca, his wife, went on a trip to Bhutan with him and was very welcomed. Through the minister of education she was able to share her education on early childhood development, which the ministry embraced.
He said they could live in Bhutan.
Retirement is still not in the cards for Dodd, yet. He is tied to the Bhutan project to do the monitoring after the project is done, and that will be in four years after the elephant overpass is complete. There will be three years post production and he will be responsible for reviewing a compliance for biodiversity.
“I am so fortunate; COVID threw me a curveball, but I am still working, but not able to travel right now due to the restrictions,” said Dodd.
Dodd’s career path, though not consciously, did lead him to Bhutan. One could say that he does have the most, or at least one of the most, interesting jobs in town. It is certainly a conversation starter.
Author Mitch Albom said, “... there are no random acts, that we are all connected. That you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind.” That being the case, here in the White Mountains there are people you need to meet and places you need to know about it. And, on the last Friday of each month, I will connect you with some of those as I go ‘Round the Mountain.