A rare bird

Nicolas Cèbe of the INRA Center of Toulouse is not your ordinary animal caretaker. He is as singular as the colony of European roe deer for which he cares. He feels a deep attachment to the wild species that he encounters and studies daily. He developed his unique skill set on the job, where he dedicates himself to furthering research. His career choice was one of passion.

Nicolas Cèbe. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe
By Julie Cheriguene, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 05/19/2017
Published on 05/09/2017

You will never find Nicolas Cèbe in his office. Instead, you will have to head to INRA’s experimental station in Gardouch—a 21-hectare site where European roe deer are reared. It is located about 30 km from the INRA center of Toulouse. This is where you can expect to see Cèbe, close to the wild animals he loves so much. He says, “Without them, life wouldn’t be as exciting.” Even as a child, he could not live without nature. He recalls, “I would follow my grandfather everywhere, as he fished and hunted. Sometimes, he would even sneak out of the house to avoid me. I have always wanted to work with wild animals.”

Passionate about wildlife

A career that is a calling

After graduating in 1994 with a vocational diploma in agriculture and wildlife management and amassing different professional experiences, Cèbe waited for the chance to apply at INRA. The opportunity came in 1998, and he immediately got to do what he loves: working with animals. “I was hired by the INRA center of Toulouse and became part of the Institute for Large Mammal Research (IRGM). My first tasks involved raising mouflon (a subspecies of wild sheep) and capturing red deer in the Cévennes mountain range.” In 2000, he took over responsibility for INRA’s European roe deer colony, the only one in Europe, which is kept at the Gardouch Experimental Station (1). “It is challenging to maintain roe deer in captivity. In contrast to what is seen in many wild animals, which tend to be wary of humans, male roe deer are dangerous and territorial even in captivity. Their antlers are deadly weapons. Three people are needed to handle a single male. We have to trim their antlers to keep both the animals and the staff safe.” A regular day is taken up by work related to animal rearing, such as moving animals in and out of their pens; transporting them; tranquilizer darting them to be able to take samples and cut their antlers; giving fawns their bottles; maintaining the facility and enclosures; and capturing and tagging wild animals. However, there is also much more happening at the experimental station. Its resources are being used in around 10 different research projects. Until 2007, research conducted there was focused on the damage wrought by roe deer on tree farms. Now, scientists are asking questions related to animal well-being and behavior and collecting ticks to understand their role as parasites (an issue of relevance for human health). They are also testing how roe deer affect animal biodiversity (e.g., of rodents, ticks, and birds).
With so much to do, Cèbe never has time to get bored. He is passionate about working with wild animals, regardless of the challenges. He also stays abreast of current events: “It is crucial to be aware of regulatory changes. In this line of work, you must renew your certification every five years, which means you must keep up to speed in your training.”

A taste for adventure

In 2003, he was certified by the French Museum of National History to band all species of birds. He is the only INRA employee with this qualification. Ten people take the certification course at a time, but few pass the final exam. Cèbe explains, “It is impossible to pass the course and become certified if you lack a solid foundation going in.” Before taking the test, he had spent a lot of time in the field with a colleague who is a certified bander; he had also participated in several workshops in France. The course with the Natural History Museum lasts a week and is a grueling experience. He earned his certification, banding around 3,500 birds in the process! He recalls, bemused, “We would capture birds at night, band them in the morning, and attend classes in the afternoon. And we spent the entire night before the final exam banding birds.”
His passion drives him to push his limits and cross borders. In September 2011, CNRS’s Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier (2) asked him to lead a three-week research trip to the Haida Gwaii Islands in British Colombia, Canada. The goal was to capture black-tailed deer and equip them with GPS collars. “This project was just being launched, so we had to put the first traps in place. However, we soon realized that the same deer was visiting all the traps! Luckily, thanks to the lessons we learned, capture numbers went up in subsequent years.” It was a wilderness experience that took his breath away: “Many of the islands are entirely wild, free from any human influence. We slept in tents. We had no running water, electricity, or phone reception. It was difficult but amazing!”

Cèbe loves sharing his experiences and his skills. He enthusiastically trains interns and students on a regular basis: “I adore learning and, in turn, making learning fun.” Today, he wants to parlay his 19 years of professional experience into a five-year university diploma, which would allow him to obtain the highest level of accreditation for working with living systems. This goal is motivated by his constant desire to expand his knowledge and skills, with a focus on the well-being of wild animals.

(1) Wildlife Behaviour and Ecology Research Unit, INRA Center of Occitanie-Toulouse
(2) The CNRS Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier is one of France’s major ecology-focused research centers. http://www.cefe.cnrs.fr/fr/

A day in the life of Nicolas Cèbe

Collecting ticks, capturing birds, trapping small rodents, and rearing roe deer: discover the daily routine of Nicolas Cèbe, who turned his passion for wild animals into a career.

For more information

Find out more about the rearing of European roe deer via the blog A Story of Roe Deer (in French). Watch a video of Nicolas Cèbe tranquilizer darting adult male deer, which he does to limit animal stress when obtaining samples and trimming antlers: https://chevreuils.wordpress.com/2017/04/06/teleanesthesie-des-males-adultes/

Mini-CV

  • 45 years old, married, with two children
  • 1990: Certificate of vocational proficiency in agriculture and livestock rearing
  • 1994: Vocational diploma in wildlife management
  • 1994: Certification in animal trapping
  • 1998: Animal caretaker at the INRA Center of Toulouse
  • 2007: Certification in bird banding from the French Museum of Natural History
  • Hobbies: Nature, hunting, fishing, scuba diving, wildlife photography

some relevant statistics

  • Male European roe deer weigh 25–30 kg
  • INRA has 17–40 roe deer in captivity, depending on the time of year
  • As many as 640 ticks have been found on a single roe deer
  • In 2014–2017, a total of 4,988 tick nymphs were collected, including 82 males and 36 females belonging to the species Ixodes recinus that were sampled as part of the ACCAF metaprogramme
  • In the week leading up to his final exam for the bird-banding certification course at the French Museum of Natural History, Cèbe banded 3,500 birds
  • Since May 2003, 4,027 birds have been captured and banded at the Gardouch Experimental Station. Of those, 613 were observed on subsequent occasions, including 10 from whom bands were recovered (the bird died due to predation, collisions, etc.).