Wildlife Biology and Criminal Justice double-major Cooper Abernathy ’21 finds career that perfectly combines both programs

Wildlife Biology and Criminal Justice may not be the first combination that comes to mind for a double-major, but for Lees-McRae alum Cooper Abernathy ’21, this academic duo could not have been a more perfect pairing to prepare him for his new career as a North Carolina wildlife law enforcement officer.

After graduating from Lees-McRae, Abernathy took a job as a park ranger for Catawba County before learning that the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission had some new openings for wildlife law enforcement officers. With the encouragement of a man from his church who was already an officer and thought Abernathy would be a good fit for the position, he began the application process.

The extensive process involved interviewing, training, test-taking, and presentation-giving, after all of which the newly appointed officers enter a seven-month academy, “Basic School,” which provides the additional academic and field knowledge needed to succeed as a wildlife law enforcement officer.

Six months of field training follows graduation from the academy, where graduates are paired with a veteran officer who supervises and monitors their performance. After graduating in July, Abernathy is now in this final step of the training process before he becomes a fully-fledged wildlife law enforcement officer.

“I graduated and then I went to field training. You go anywhere in the state that they have a field training officer. I luckily ended up back in Watauga County,” Abernathy said. “He grades me and everything. I have to get weekly evaluations, monthly evaluations, and then at the end I’ll get an evaluation for the whole field training time. That lasts for six months, and after that I get a choice of anywhere I want to go in the state that has an opening.”

Abernathy said that his work as a wildlife law enforcement officer is a perfect intersection of two of his academic interests, and a crossover of skills that he discovered during his time at Lees-McRae. Starting out as a Wildlife Biology major, Abernathy decided to bring Criminal Justice into the mix after taking a couple of classes and building strong relationships with the professors in that program.

“When I decided to double major, I set myself up perfectly for this career. I knew I wanted a job outside, talking to people, and interacting with animals, so I would say I figured it out at Lees-McRae,” Abernathy said. “It got me outside experiencing the actual wildlife. In school we had a fly-fishing class, and that was one of the things I enjoyed doing, and now I actually work those waters where we fished for fly-fishing class.”

As he continues to work through his field training Abernathy is grateful for the academic and personal skills he developed at Lees-McRae, and for the familiarity with the environment he gained through experiential learning initiatives that got him outside of the classroom and immersed in the world around him.

“We regulate hunting, fishing, boating, and trapping, and we also provide education through boating and hunting safety courses. We just went to the State Fair, and we had a pellet range and told them about firearm safety and things like that,” Abernathy said. “I really enjoy it because we have these laws for a reason, and we make sure people don’t break them so they don’t use up the resources that we’re protecting. In our general statute book we’re called ‘wildlife protectors,’ and I like that name a whole lot too.”

By Maya JarrellNovember 01, 2022