Face Of This Place

Growing Up Laguna—Jena Thompson Meredith

Growing up as kids with a dad in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service meant my sister, Maya, and I had seen it all.  Our writer and reporter mom had wrangled us into Ranger Rick very early, and we were comfortable with most snakes, bugs and rodents—some of which were fed to recovering birds of prey in our garage.  We cut our teeth on Christmas Bird Counts and trash patrols across national wildlife refuges in the West. 

Still, not much prepared us for living at Laguna Atascosa, where my father was the refuge manager.  Located in deep South Texas, straddling the Rio Grande and Mexico, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is a place like no other.  We had an endless backyard that was wild, mysterious and hot.  The landscape was covered with thick, thorny brush. Mesquite trees dropped beans that could be made into jelly. Nearly everything was sharp until it rolled into sandy flats and eventually the muddy lagoon called Laguna Madre near South Padre Island. The vibrant colors of Mexico were everywhere. Each winter and spring, yucca and prickly pear blooms would cover the landscape, and the wetlands would fill with thousands of fat ducks and roseate spoonbill.  Acacia trees sprang to life with sweet, syrupy flowers that blanketed trails. Green jays and cardinals spent their mornings pecking bugs off our back fence—which was a four-foot tall concrete wall to keep out the 14-foot alligators.  It didn’t, however, keep out the coral snakes, nor did it have much impact on tarantulas.

As 13 and 10-year-old kids equipped with not much more than bikes and water bottles, my little sister and I explored every inch of our wonderful backyard.  We spent our time primarily on two things: convincing Linda Laack, “The Ocelot Lady,” to allow us to horn in on her research trapping and monitoring the threatened cats; and showing off the proof of said research to our friends. We lived a long way from the tiny town where we went to school. It was about 18 miles to Los Fresnos and an hour and a half bus ride each way with no air conditioning. Yet, somehow, our friends still found a way to visit.  They helped lead late-night alligator surveys, conducted with spotlights in flat-bottomed boats.  We spotted bobcat, counted turkeys, banded birds and gasped as herds of javelina kicked up their heels with the first, crisp winter wind. 

Twenty-five years later, I am still in awe of this incredible place.  But now, I’m proud too.  I’m proud of my father, who served as refuge manager at Laguna when we were young, and of all of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who have worked so hard to protect and expand this land and shepherd the animals that live in it.  I’m proud of The Conservation Fund and its Texas office for protecting nearly 30,000 acres here for aplomado and peregrine falcon.  I’m proud of our Business Partnerships donors who have once again rallied and are aiming to plant 25,000 trees here to restore habitat for the endangered ocelot.  Perhaps I am most proud, however, when I see my old friends from Los Fresnos and the Rio Grande Valley share their love and passion for Laguna with their friends and families.  This wild and rugged wilderness has become a well-known and much loved asset.  And it needs our help more than ever.  With and without the big ‘piders. 

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Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
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