Friends of the Flying Fox
UM Students find themselves the “go-to” people in
By Paddy MacDonald
The cozy, redwood Missoula home
where Tammy Mildenstein and Sam Stier now live bears little
resemblance to the abode they shared for four years in the
Philippines. Oh sure, a couple dozen wild turkeys lurch and
stumble around the yard, craning their wattled necks and casting
beady-eyed looks at approaching visitors. But as for monkeys,
flying foxes, and cobras—once Tammy and Sam’s
closer-than-skin neighbors—they exist only as memories and
images on Sam’s computer screen. Sam points and clicks,
bringing up photo after stunning, exotic photo, while he and his
wife reflect on their 1997-2001 Peace Corps experience.
Study in another country
Armed with degrees from Iowa colleges, Sam and Tammy made
their way to Montana in much the same way other young people do:
through their passion for the outdoors. Although their
undergraduate work—Sam’s in communications,
Tammy’s in electrical engineering—was unrelated to
the environment, they’d both developed an interest in
wildlife management. So when they looked at potential graduate
schools, UM’s College of Forestry and Conservation seemed a
And their sights were broader still.
“We wanted to work in another country, integrate with
another culture” says Sam. “We wanted to learn a new
language and live with new people.” So they decided to
apply to the college’s renowned International Resource
Management program, which enhances academic study with a variety
of international assignments, including a two-year stint in the
After spending a year and a half completing the required
coursework and specialized study—Sam’s in forestry,
Tammy’s in wildlife biology—they began their Peace
Corps service and soon found themselves on Subic Bay in the
For one hundred years, the United States used Subic Bay as its
largest overseas naval base. The base is surrounded by 25,000
acres of tropical forest, which the U.S. Navy used for jungle
training exercises and as a buffer between the base and the other
island residents. When the Navy’s lease ran out in 1992,
the land was turned back over to the Philippine government. By
that time, the rest of the island had been cleared for
agriculture, and the base’s forested acres suddenly had a
unique and increased value. The Filipinos, realizing their
opportunity, decided to turn the land into a national park.
Above, Tammy and Sam reassure a captured bat. Tammy was the first
person to catch one of the bats live. Their work has resulted in
the Philippine government agreeing to monitor the bats once a
year. Below, Tammy and Sam at home in Missoula.
“They’d heard about national parks,” says
Sam, “but they didn’t exactly know what one
was.” Sam and Tammy’s assignment was to help the
Filipinos conceptualize and build a park. “We had to convey
to the people the concept of managing areas,” Sam says.
“They thought of a park as having entertainment, like
rides,” Tammy adds. “They didn’t see the forest
itself as the entertainment.”
The Filipinos, who live in dirt-floored bamboo huts, decided
the Peace Corps workers deserved tonier digs, so they ensconced
Sam and Tammy in one of the former Navy barracks, a cavernous,
crumbling, termite-ridden Quonset hut that once held about forty
“We were in survival mode,” Sam says. Virtually
every item the couple had brought with them became encased in a
green fungus within twenty-four hours of their arrival. Spiders
the size of sewer grates stomped around the Quonset’s
interior, while troops of monkeys banged up and down the
hut’s tin roof.
But those critters paled in comparison to the cobra.
During their first week in country, Sam and Tammy noticed a
large snake writhing in a corner of their hut. Together they
approached the creature, which promptly coiled into a double
helix and expanded its neck skin into a hood. “We realized
it was a cobra,” Tammy says, “when it began to do its
The snake posed a dilemma.
“We didn’t know how to get rid of it,” says
Sam. “We knew we had to kill it, or it would pop up again
someplace else in the hut.” After dispatching the cobra
with a machete, Sam went next door to the World Wildlife office,
a local organization, to tell them what he’d done. The
workers were horrified.
“The people were superstitious and felt that I’d
put them in jeopardy,” Sam explains. The office workers
strongly suggested that Sam poke the cobra’s eyes out. Why?
Because if he didn’t, the workers insisted, the
cobra’s relatives would find Sam and extol revenge—on
him and the entire village. Sam, despite the menacing glances
directed his way, declined, having had more than enough
interaction with the cobra for one day.
Cultural differences between the two Peace Corps volunteers
and the Filipinos surfaced in other arenas. “The most
difficult thing for me,” Tammy says, “was that we
were alone on the idea of conservation. The people were used to
fighting the environment—including trees, animals,
weeds—getting rid of it. Their thinking is different. We
Westerners have the luxury of preserving land. The hardest part
was trying to sell the idea.”
Sam and Tammy quickly realized that the best way to change the
natives’ awareness was to engage them, get them personally
involved in the jungle, have them do hands-on projects.
Like, say, count bats.
A conservation ethic
In a ten-acre section of jungle, the couple had discovered a
20,000-strong roost of flying foxes—two-pound bats with
six-foot wingspans, called foxes because of their furry, vulpine
faces. When not feeding on plants, the bats hang from the trees,
looking to the untrained eye like overripe fruit or decayed
leaves. The bats are hunted for sport and also because they
supposedly taste good—“like
chicken”—although neither Tammy nor Sam personally
fried any up for themselves. A conspicuous roost, the site was
already pegged as one of several five-minute stops for the
island’s official tour buses.
But, due to forest clearing and excessive hunting, the bats
had become an endangered species. “Ninety percent of the
bats were gone,” says Sam. “We wanted to take all the
stakeholders—hunters, managers, students, wildlife
people—and show them that the bats are a limited resource.
We wanted to educate the local communities.”
The couple began a bat-monitoring project and spent much of
their time taking the Filipinos with them into the forest, where
they observed the bats’ feeding habits and gathered and
One afternoon, Tammy needed some help hanging nets in the
trees, so she enlisted a group of tiny, indigenous forest
dwellers—people she knew had assisted the Navy with several
projects. To facilitate the job’s physical demands, Tammy
scrounged up all her available equipment—ropes, pulleys,
machetes—and combined it into a heap. The forest dwellers
stared uncomprehendingly at the pile. After a few seconds, they
stripped down to their loincloths, grabbed the nets, and zipped,
unaided, into the treetops. “I couldn’t have done it
without them,” Tammy says, smiling at the memory.
Sam and Tammy found themselves a constant, conspicuous
presence in the area, and quickly became the island’s
“go-to” people. A Filipino once brought a dead parrot
to the couple’s doorstep, figuring they’d know what
to do with it. One morning, a fisherman brought an enormous sea
turtle to them, asking for help saving the turtle’s life.
The fisherman had already hauled the turtle to Manila and back,
and by now, the reptile was dried out and near death. Sam, Tammy,
and the fisherman hydrated the turtle, and found an appropriate
spot to release it.
Then, still in their “turtle-releasing clothes,”
Sam and Tammy were summoned to the Federal Express office, where
a conference table of FedEx “suits” asked their
advice on bat control. One of the flying foxes had recently flown
into a turbine, causing two million dollars worth of damage to
the airplane and endangering the pilots. Couldn’t Sam and
Tammy move the bats somewhere else?
After convincing the FedEx officers it was possible to work
with the animals and suggesting a few re-routing options, Tammy
and Sam, in their Tevas and muddy shorts, joined the neck-tied
officers for a business lunch.
The locals & the forest
The island’s inhabitants proved a continuing source of
wonder, humor, and joy. “The people were absolutely
guileless,” says Tammy. “They were fascinated that we
were white and assumed that because we were white, we had money.
They’d wonder why we came to the island, when all of them
were trying to get to America. Volunteerism is a totally foreign
concept to them.”
“They were convinced we were with the CIA,” adds
Sam. “Or that they were being paid millions of dollars to
be there.” Some, unaware that the two were a married
couple, were certain Sam and Tammy were on the hunt for eligible
Each completed their masters theses on the flying
foxes—Tammy focused on the bats’ habitat selection
and Sam on their dietary habits—and both opted to extend
their tours twice.
“It was hard not to be passionate about the
forest,” says Tammy. “The forest was what sustained
us,” adds Sam. “The tropical wildlife, the parrots,
the monkeys—it was so alive it would just hum with life.
The jungle was like a giant, complicated clock. It was magical
Their involvement continues. Tammy recently returned from a
six-week stay in Subic Bay, where she’s established an
ongoing bat-monitoring network. A few days ago, Sam received an
e-mail from a ranger who found hunters going at the flying foxes
with fish hooks and wanted Sam’s help.
Settled in their warm, book-strewn home, Tammy and Sam work on
doctoral degree professional papers—his on tropical
reforestation and hers on population biology—while awaiting
the birth of their first child. The Peace Corps days may be over,
but the work Sam and Tammy began goes on in their absence.
“For some Peace Corps volunteers, their experience is
just a moment in time,” says Tammy. “We got
Sam takes another look at a computer image of a bat-laden
tree, then clicks his machine off and gently folds the case.
“It was an honor to be there,” he says. “Such
Paddy MacDonald, M.A.
’81, is a writer and editor for the Montanan.
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