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Beast master catalogs the biological diversity of Azeroth

Hunter catalogs the biological taxonomy of Azeroth
A fantasy game like World of Warcraft doesn't have to stick too closely (or even at all) to the laws of science -- but oh, when the two worlds collide, players who love both can discover a true thing of beauty. That's how it came to pass that a zookeeper from Florida has created a taxinomical website outlining the biology of the wildlife of Azeroth. WoW Biology 101 offers curious players a scientifically grounded look at the creatures of WoW, both fantastical and based on reality.

"I think when we see these connections, it brings these worlds a little closer together and, for me at least, increases my enjoyment of both," notes Banya, a beast master hunter (because you knew that's what she'd play, right?) on Drenden (US). "My site is truly just flavor and a potentially different way to look at the game. When you're running around and see one of the awesome animals in game, my site would let you know how closely it is based off of a real-life animal. "

Beast master catalogs the biological diversity of Azeroth
Main character Banya, night elf beast mastery hunter
Guild Bucket List
Realm Drenden (US)

WoW Insider: We love your humor when you're talking about your website: "There aren't any salamanders or newts. Apparently Macbeth's witches would be SOL." Sounds like you had a lot of fun with this project -- and it sounds like you must have a lifelong love of animals. At what point growing up did it hit you that animals were your thing?

Banya: I feel very fortunate that my parents were always active and encouraged me to play outside. They moved me from a large city to a small town in the middle of Florida when I was 5 and I literally grew up in a cypress swamp. Wildlife surrounded me and we only received 4 TV channels... So, I lived in the mud and the rain and it was glorious.

Well, the ringworm, stinging caterpillars, and dinner-plate-sized wolf spiders weren't awesome, but hawks, alligators, crawdads, lightning bugs, owls, armadillos, turtles, deer, butterflies, and snakes filled my world with life. It makes me smile to think back on it. I can't remember a time when animals didn't hold my fascination.

My parents also lovingly ushered me into the land of geekdom -- Star Wars, Legend, Logan's Run, Blade Runner, The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original), Forbidden Planet, Lord of the Rings, Dune, Star Trek ... The fantastical and the life just outside my door always mixed. My parents also bought me a used Nintendo and later a Sega Genesis.

Beast master catalogs the biological taxonomy of Azeroth
What about pets? And when did it occur to you to go into biology/zoology?

I started out life with a huge Alaskan malamute as my faithful companion, and since then have always had cats and dogs and occasionally other species of pets (fish, birds, reptiles). Then there were the animals that would just wander by outside -- box turtles, gorgeous indigo snakes, water moccasins (venomous -- I gave them plenty of space), alligators -- and I would sit and watch them go about their day. Even as an adult, living in my own house, I still see armadillos and opossums and black racer snakes journeying through my yard. Currently I have two dogs (Great Pyrenees mix and a Chihuahua,) two cats, and two red-foot tortoises.

Science and wildlife has always been a focus and a strong point for me. I was on the local 4-H forestry ecology team, and we dominated the regional competitions. I always knew I was going to work with animals in some capacity. I will admit the sea was my first true love -- I was going to be a marine biologist and study great white sharks. Then I hit college and decided I did not want to live the life of a researcher (props to you guys!) and went the route that would lead to health benefits, a steady paycheck, and possible retirement: zookeeper.

I started working as a summer camp counselor at an aquarium and then got a job at the Miami Metrozoo in the children's zoo. From there, I moved to the more exotic species and truly fell in love with the job. Each species is different, has varying attitudes and personalities, and then each individual within that species is unique with likes and dislikes. It continues to be a wondrous adventure as I get to know new animals and build relationships with my current ones.

Beast master catalogs the biological taxonomy of Azeroth
It sounds like one of those too-good-to-be-believed jobs. What do you actually do?

I've worked at several zoos in Florida and for me, I can hardly believe I get paid for what I do every day. Right now I specifically work with rhinos, but I've worked with some other awesome hoofed stock (okapi, bongo, tapirs), along with a variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. I feel very fortunate to have those experiences and to be able to get to know some awesome animals. (I've never worked with primates, elephants, big cats, or other large carnivores,but there's still time.)

I typically get up before 5 a.m. to meet a 6 a.m. start time. My partner and I check on all the rhinos and then work through each area. We set up their food for the morning and then shift the rhinos out to where guests can see them. Then we clean. Our rhinos eat anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds of hay and grain a day, and they poop about the same. So all in all, me and my team clean up about 1,000 pounds of poop and old hay a day. This takes up about 50% of our routine, which, in the summer, can be a little toasty.

The other part of my day consists of training sessions -- yes, rhinos can learn. They are somewhere near dog smart and will play you for extra treats (fruit and vegetables) if you're not careful. We also set up enrichment -- toys or browse or items that change up their day and provide extra interaction and mental stimulation. (Practical human example: WoW is enrichment for my life.) In the evening, we do the reverse of the morning, setting up night holding and then shifting them in for the evening. I also participate in medical treatments, draw blood, and help ultrasound pregnant females. We have a close relationship with the rhinos and can do all of that without sedation of any kind. Woot woot for positive reinforcement and strong animal husbandry!

Beast master catalogs the biological diversity of Azeroth
And so what sparked the idea of making a website about WoW's wildlife?

I adore being a hunter and the hunter community is a large, welcoming, supportive, amazing group of players. I frequented websites like Petopia and Warcraft Hunters Union and wanted to add to the WoW community without rehashing or copying what already existed. I've purposefully stayed away from theorycrafting (because there any many who are magnitudes better at it than me). And there were already awesome, comprehensive sources for hunter pets (Petopia), companion pets (Warcraft Pets) and just general/item/game information on Wowhead.

Have you really literally cataloged the entire wildlife of Azeroth? Both combat and non-combat?

Crap, I just realized I don't have chimeras or hydras, I could have sworn I was going to add them and I have screenshots ready. Add that to the list ...

So, no, I do not have all of them, not yet. I'm pretty good on combat animals (either pets or something you fight/kill for quest rewards or drops), but I have not covered all of the non-combat ones. And pet battling has brought in so many new animals. It's awesome but also daunting to cover them all.

Beast master catalogs the biological taxonomy of Azeroth
I focused first on animals for which Blizzard took the time to create unique skins/designs or was a "big name" animal, like a tiger or bear or wolf. My goal was making sure to cover the full variety of different animals in game (to fill in the mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and invertebrates with representatives of the different scientific orders). On some of the smaller companion or critter animals, I haven't yet dedicated a section to each species; for example, if there are four or five differently named snakes but they all share the same body shape, i.e. moccasins, rattlesnakes, and king snakes, I may not have focused on comparing each one exactly to the named counterpart species. Not that I won't ever, but I chose broader strokes.

Occasionally something would catch my eye or catch my fancy and I included some animals that aren't even named and are not able to be interacted with -- some of the fish in Vashj'ir, for example, some birds and insects in Pandaria. Where I could identify a species based on look, I did, or made a best guess. I will admit to a little bit of favoritism in that some animals like the civet-mongoose-otter all had the same skin, but I find those species so interesting I felt compelled to include them. Same with the pangolin. It may be the same skin as the armadillo, but I cheered that the real life animal was acknowledged at all.

I still have room to expand, especially with elemental, magic, and mythical creatures.

Beast master catalogs the biological taxonomy of Azeroth
Tell us about the process of actually discovering and researching creatures.

I had been playing WoW for three years before I started the site. As a hunter, I already had a close relationship with the animals in WoW and was keyed in to new skins and types. Like in real life, I am fascinated and distracted by animals all the time. I'll be mid-conversation and stop to point out a hawk or cardinal. In the game, I also noticed and celebrated new and interesting animals. You have no idea how excited I was when I heard that Wrath was going to have rhinos.

Also, as I leveled a new toon and worked my way through a new zone, I enjoyed interacting with the animals and seeing how Blizzard fit them into the ecology of the local environment.
I have a degree in biology (also English: creative writing). My job requires a certain level of observation and deduction about the animals in my care and their management. I applied that to WoW partly as a challenge to see just how much research and how much effort Blizzard was going to put into recreating behavioral and biological principles in the game.

It is by no means a mark of any kind against Blizzard when they deviate from known animals. The game is populated with the wondrous and fantastical, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Where I saw differences I pointed them out as a point of mere interest. When they recreated a real-life animal in game in great detail, I celebrated that as well.

What was the most challenging part of collecting the information?

Finding and making the time to put it all together -- physically putting all of the pieces in place on the site. I was not expecting the time requirement needed to organize all of the animals into their scientific orders and gather screenshots as well as gather pictures of the real animals. Add on choosing which animal facts to include and days seemed to pass without notice.

I always had Petopia and Warcraftpets and Wowhead open on my computer as I figured out where I needed to go in game for a screenshot. Also, I enjoy just playing the game so much I'd get distracted with a set of dailies or more recently with pet battling. The whole process garnered new-found respect for anyone who runs a website.

Beast master catalogs the biological taxonomy of Azeroth
Did you take all original screenshots for the project, tracking down all these creatures on your own?

Yes. All screenshots of WoW on the site are from my toons. Now, there may have been one or two deaths involved when I may have been zoomed all the way in to get a certain angle of picture and either walked off a cliff or into the aggro range of something bigger and angrier than me. I'm an amateur photographer and am always keeping an eye to the aesthetics of the game.

I have folders dedicated to artsy WoW screenshots or ones taken during raid or ones while taming. If I hit a cool lore moment or character progression, I like to get a screenshot. It helps with my blog and just keeps alive good memories. So before even starting the site, I had a library of images at my disposal. Then I trekked out into Azeroth and practically wore out my [prt scr] key. I learned a lot about pathing patterns, aggro radii and lighting based on time of day in the game or by zone.

What were the most difficult taxonomical decisions you made during the project? Any creatures that simply defied classification?

The mythological or magical creatures were the hardest. The chimera by their very nature (and the mythology they're based off of), they are a mix. Hippogryphs and gryphons are a mix of bird and mammal, but I kept them as birds. (Wait, crap, I missed gryphons. Add it to the list ...)

Oddly enough, the talbuk was a bit of a challenge. Most of the in-game animals have a clear, real-life animal base Blizzard seemed to work from. Talbuk, on the other hand, while obviously a hoofed mammal, are an odd conglomeration of different species.

In Pandaria, the mushan is a large herbivore so I want to call them mammals, but they are actually reptiles. Fortunately either behavior, location, or physiology gave enough indicators to be able to put the majority of the animals into reasonable categories.

And by far the hardest to classify, because it is the most awesome, is the SPOREBAT. It is the best hunter pet and, really, most superior life form in game. They defy description and classification, so they received their very own section. All hunters have a special place in their hearts for their sporebats.

Beast master catalogs the biological taxonomy of Azeroth
Your in-game pursuits sound rather typical of what we might imagine for a zookeeper. You're a hunter who loves pet battles, right? What else do you enjoy most in game?

The lore and the story. Questing in Cata and even more in MoP has had a wonderful personalization that made me feel like I was a part of the story. I've cheered or raised my fists in defiance at different characters and events. (I want to punch Garrosh in the throat.)

I have raided on occasion, but unless I have the time to devote to gearing, studying tactics, and practicing technique, I get too frustrated at myself and don't want to let my guildmates down. I'm a sucker for gaining faction reputation, especially if it yields a mount or Miss Fifi on my farm. I have a few alts of different classes, so I go back and level them every now and again. I've an 85 worgen druid, an 80 orc warrior, and a 70 draenei shaman. I enjoy the It Came From the Blog events and had been participating in the WHU (Warcraft Hunters Union) events until I changed realms and factions, and what once was a dwarven hunter is now a troll hunter. (Shh... Don't tell Frostheim.)

WoW is a joy in my life and I thank Blizzard for that. There are so many little hidden places, moments and events that if I actually stop and look around when I'm questing, I always find something new.

Taz'dingo!

Visit WoW Biology 101 to learn more about the wild, wonderful wildlife of World of Warcraft.

[Thanks for the tip, Peter!]

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) ... a blind ex-serviceman and the guildmates who keep him raiding as a regular ... and a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to lisa@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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