Photography by Jennifer Silverberg
The carnival pony spooked, rearing up. Clutching the reins tighter, 4-year-old Cheryl Asa thought, Wow! This is the greatest thing in the world! Flooded with delight, she barely heard her mother screaming.
She found animals far more interesting than people.
She also found sexual reproduction interesting. “I was raised to be very uptight,” she’d say later. “In the ’50s? My God. Sex was clearly something really important, yet nobody wanted to talk about it.” By the ’70s, though—“the height of the hippie era”—love was free and discussion was frank. Finally she could explore whatever she was curious about, from the ovulatory cycle of the rhesus monkey to the embryology of the African clawed toad.
She earned a doctorate in endocrinology and reproductive physiology while living with a woodsy wildlife biologist on a rented farm. When they went canoeing, she discovered the only creature on earth that she loathed: the leech. “Get it off of me!” she shrieked, all girly, this woman who’d go on to crush baby cockroaches with her thumb in Manhattan and discover a rattlesnake inches from her face in the Nevada desert.
Her dissertation was on the reproductive behavior of horses, but she was also developing a deep respect for carnivores, especially canids (foxes, wolves, dogs). They were—had to be—cleverer than their prey. So she did postdoctoral work at the University of Minnesota with L. David Mech, who studied wolves in the wild.