13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Park Rangers

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Getty Images

The National Park Service is over 100 years old, and while we could wax poetic for days about the splendor of the parks themselves, we decided instead to find out more about the people who help preserve them on a daily basis—not to mention keep us from getting lost. Here are a few insights about what life is like as a park ranger for the NPS and other agencies, from their biggest perils to some of their most special moments.

1. THEY DO (A LOT) MORE THAN ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS. 

The job of a ranger is more multifaceted than it may seem. “As seasonal employees we essentially have to get a year of work done in three months or so,” said Alex Miller, a Lead Park Ranger for the US Forest Service at the National Grasslands Visitor Center in South Dakota. Ranger duties may include giving tours, staffing the visitor center, collecting fees, fielding questions, patrolling the park, enforcing park regulations, doing demonstrations, coordinating education programs, tidying up park areas, conducting interviews for oral history projects, running outreach programs, serving as a first responder, fighting wildfires, and even manning social media accounts (phew).

Steve Gifford, who has worked as a ranger at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, as well as other NPS sites, told us: “People think that it is an easy job, that all you do is answer some questions and offer a few tours. But it is much more than that; you do the general things people see, but also the behind-the-scenes work is varied and intense.”

Despite all that hard work, many rangers told us that the hands-on, unpredictable nature of the job was all part of its appeal. The life of a ranger never looks the same from one day to the next—in part because the tasks are so varied, and in part because the rangers never know what sort of things might come their way. 

2. THEY'RE NOT NECESSARILY NATURE PEOPLE.

An NPS uniform doesn’t automatically mean your park ranger is a wildlife expert or skilled mountaineer. After all, not all locations under the National Park Service are nature preserves. There are also historic sites, national monuments, battlefields, and other conservation sites [PDF]—which could mean your ranger is more of a history buff.

Perhaps surprisingly, not all rangers are technically "rangers" either. There are also Park Guides, who are typically on a lower tier within the specialization of interpretation and education and have less potential for promotion. Still, even these guides sometimes go by "ranger" informally or wear a badge that reads "National Park Ranger." Other ranger specializations include law enforcement, emergency response, maintenance, administration, and more. Additionally, while every agency is different, there are distinctions that come with rank—like District Ranger and Supervisory Park Ranger.

3. THERE’S SOME SECRET LINGO.

Since the NPS is a government organization, acronyms are everywhere. Miller told mental_floss: “We do the GARS and GOHP projects as the USFS under the USDA in partnership with the BHPFA, VBJ and NPS, but for UNL have to be CITI certified with IRBs. All perfectly clear, right?” 

Aside from the ubiquitous acronyms, other slang terms includes "clustering," which occurs when there are too many rangers and/or volunteers at the front desk at one time, and which can give the impression that the park service employees have nothing to do. A "Furniture Tour" is when a ranger does a historic house tour but talks about the furniture or architecture of the house without talking about the people who lived there. While those tours are sometimes intentional, they’re also sometimes a byproduct of visitors who steer a tour through their persistent questions (you know the type).

Yellowstone in particular has its own set of lingo, where the rangers and other seasonal employees refer to themselves as “Savages," the exact origin of which is unknown. Then there's a "Code W" tourist—a wimpy hiker who requests emergency help when they don't really need it.

4. IT CAN BE A SCARY GIG ...

Rangers are incredibly well-prepared, skilled, and knowledgeable—both in their background and the education they receive on the job—but you can’t prepare for everything. The parks employees we talked to mentioned everything from bison to rattlesnakes to mountain lions, though nearly all of them also talked about how easy it was to avoid getting into trouble with wildlife if you take the right precautions. Basic rules, like not getting too close or moving too quickly, will generally keep you out of harm's way: "They give plenty of indicators when their territory is being encroached," Miller told us. It's also a good idea to properly stow your food items and trash, as those will attract all kinds of creatures. 

The elements can become an issue too; severe storms, tornados, and other surprise weather events all come into play from time to time. As does the paranormal, in some cases. Nick Sacco, a ranger at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri, joked, “Some visitors talk about seeing ghosts in the basement of White Haven [another name for the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site] but I haven't seen any yet!”

5. … BUT THERE’S PLENTY OF ADORABLE TOO.

Yellowstone National Park via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The laws of nature state: Where there are big scary animals, there are little, enchanting ones too. You’ll probably be happy to know that multiple rangers mentioned cuddly creatures; perhaps surprisingly, porcupines got a few shout-outs (not necessarily first critter that comes to mind when conjuring “cute”), in addition to other furry, park-dwelling friends who’ve crossed paths with rangers and visitors over the years. It's just one of the perks of the job.

6. MOST OF THEIR EXPERIENCES WITH PEOPLE ARE GREAT.

When we set out to discover what the life of a park ranger was like, we expected to hear a lot of horror stories about ridiculous tourists. While those do exist, the rangers we spoke with were overwhelmingly positive about visitors. They love talking to people, and not just about the parks. They like finding out what brings people out and what experiences they’ve had, which sometimes even leads to lasting connections. Sacco recounted this story:

I'll never forget this family of three that visited the site—a grandfather, a father, and a boy with autism. It was just the three of them during the tour and I tried to give them a personalized experience showing them around the house. The grandfather bought three pocket watches from our gift shop, but he came back another month later and showed me a plaque he had bought with one of the watches glued on top and a personalized engraving stating the date in which they had visited the park. He told me that the boy absolutely loved the site and couldn't stop talking about it for days with his family, friends, and classmates, and that the experience had brought the three of them together. That was really special to hear.

Rangers also told us that visitors are generally pretty well-prepared on a practical level—camping etiquette is on-point!—and said that occasionally visitors will even have teach park employees things about the great outdoors.

7. BUT PEOPLE STILL DO STUPID THINGS SOMETIMES.

From dangerous selfies to not reading signs to starting fires when they shouldn’t (there’s a reason Smokey Bear is still around), park visitors do occasionally do things that put themselves and the land in danger. Other common issues include people who want to argue about historical facts or who want to interact with places or things that are off-limits. Rangers also told us that they’re commonly mistaken for law enforcement—so let this be a reminder that not all uniforms are created equal.

8. IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK TO BECOME A RANGER.

Anyone who dreams of being a park ranger should know it doesn’t just happen overnight. But the good news is, there are a lot of roads that lead there, most of which involve a relevant degree and volunteer work (usually a lot of volunteer work). 

One of the rangers we spoke to volunteered through a Forest Service program called Passport in Time before becoming a ranger, while another went through a program now known as Pathways, which allows undergraduate and graduate students to work for the NPS while also working on their degrees. Sacco got his start at the park as an undergrad through an internship with a predecessor to Pathways called the STEP program. “The plan all along had been for me to become a high school social studies teacher," he says, "but when I started working at the Park Service it was real revelation for me. Learning about and teaching history became something that went far beyond the confines of the classroom and history textbook, and I loved how people of all ages relished the chance to interact with NPS staff and see historical homes and artifacts in person,” he told us. 

9. THE FIELD IS HIGHLY COMPETITIVE.

Even those who put in the hard work to become a ranger might not get a job or get placed where they want to be. According to Gifford, “There is so much competition for every single position within the agency. One of my coworkers applied to 90 different jobs before getting on with us.”

As far as compensation goes, it varies quite a bit based on the location and scope of the park, the position itself, and the employee's education history. Most NPS jobs—like other government jobs—have their pay based on the General Schedule pay scale [PDF]. But while most on the GS pay scale are full-time workers, many parks employees are seasonal, meaning they have to find work in other areas during the off-season. For a few specific examples of jobs (and their pay brackets) check out the USAJOBS site; some positions are hourly while others are salaried.

10. A PARK RANGER DOESN’T NECESSARILY WORK FOR THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE.

Of course, not every park with a ranger falls under the umbrella of the NPS. There’s also the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and other state agencies that employ the term “park ranger.” It might seem like a small distinction, but the agencies have different approaches and missions, which means their rangers can have different roles and responsibilities. For example, while national parks emphasize preservation and work under the Department of Interior, the US Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture and is focused on both preservation and uses—such as lumber, cattle grazing, and mining.

11. THEY ADVOCATE R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Since every park is so different, it’s tricky to come up with a hard-and-fast rule of behavior to encompass them all, but one thing a few rangers mentioned was plain old respect. If visitors all went in to the parks with a spirit of respect—for nature, wildlife, history, and other people—a lot of park problems, like trash and fires, could be avoided.

12. THEY WANT TO HELP YOU.

Another thing rangers strongly advised was planning ahead—and asking them for help when you arrive. Many parks offer varied experiences, from hikes to horseback riding, and knowing what you want to do ahead of time is useful for both you and parks officials, who are trying to serve the needs of a lot of people (over 10 million annually at the most popular location, Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Many of the parks have extensive online resources to help you plan your park experience.

The whole asking questions thing isn’t just about planning, though—rangers also want you to talk to them if you have concerns or need help. It’s what they’re there for, and many say that people don’t do it enough. 

13. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SPILL ALL THEIR SECRETS.

As active government employees, many rangers aren’t allowed to speak about the job—we talked to mostly former rangers, or current rangers who were given approval from above, and they couldn't share all the details of their work. (We should also note that the views expressed here are personal opinions that don't necessarily reflect the views of the National Park Service). Many rangers have great stories—there was some off-the-record talk of finding visitor underwear and other misadventures—but for the most part, the rangers had to be tight-lipped. Yet another good reason to take one out for a drink, and ask to be regaled with some anonymous tall tales.

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

All photos provided by iStock unless otherwise noted.

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

iStock
iStock

As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. Many of them don't work at airports.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from an airport.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he told the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. Age is a major factor.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. They have their own lingo.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. Pilots with heavy accents can frustrate them.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he wrote on Reddit.

5. They alternate between stress and boredom.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. They're probably overworked.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO sightings definitely happen.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. RObots won't be replacing them.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

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