Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, R. J. “Rocky” Gutiérrez Ph.D. ’77 endured stinging rebukes from nuns in his school that made him doubt his abilities. With his independent streak and outspoken mind, Rocky often ran afoul of strict teachers — and was told he’d never succeed in college. Not only did he eventually receive a Ph.D. from Berkeley, he found an instant academic home in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) that shaped his career and inspired a recent gift.
Following high school, Rocky headed to the military, where his high IQ scores landed him a four-year stint in Army Intelligence units in the Middle East and Japan. Motivated to dispel those early uncertainties when he got home in 1967, he began pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in wildlife biology and biology, respectively.
One day, while finishing his master’s work at the University of New Mexico, Rocky dropped by a recruitment talk where a Cal student was encouraging minority students to consider graduate studies in zoology. While Rocky had not set his sights on either Berkeley or a Ph.D., the prospect of studying at the famed MVZ launched a decades-long relationship that will extend for years to come.
Rocky arrived at the MVZ in 1973. With a world-class collection of 700,000 animal species, the century-old museum is dedicated to research on evolution and conservation. Rocky loved its openness and the free flow of ideas and theoretical approaches that marked its culture.
“The general atmosphere, intellectual dynamism, and collegiality all shaped me and allowed me to go in the direction I wanted,” says Rocky, who became a noted wildlife ecologist and professor. “I haven’t seen that type of interaction anywhere else I’ve been.”
For the first time in his academic career, Rocky felt he was treated fairly at the MVZ. Integrative biology professor Howard A. Bern, a caring mentor and staunch advocate for equity and inclusion in the sciences, regularly took Rocky out to lunch — a practice that Rocky carried on with his own graduate students. “When people give you a helping hand, it can make a huge difference in your life,” he says.
To demonstrate gratitude for his MVZ experience, Rocky and KT, his wife, have made a generous planned gift to Berkeley. Their charitable gift annuity, which pays them income for life, will eventually create a fellowship supporting future graduate students who are traditionally underrepresented minorities and preferably share Rocky’s engagement with the MVZ and ornithology-related fields.
Rocky credits the MVZ with another major positive in his life: a 36-year association with the spotted owl.
Harnessing theories about evolutionary biology he got from the MVZ, Rocky began studying the shy, brown-eyed owl in 1980 as a new professor at Humboldt State University. Today he is considered a leading expert on the creature that became a national environmental symbol over the effects of logging in the Pacific Northwest. “It was, at the time, the biggest conservation controversy in North America,” he says.
Rocky and his students contributed to the designation in 1990 of the northern spotted owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and helped preserve millions of acres of old-growth forest.
“My students and I didn’t have nearly the resources available that other people did in terms of grant money and support,” he says. “But we made a hell of an impact on ecology and science.”
Rocky observed spotted owls in dense forests throughout the West. His discoveries — including the finding that the owls’ survival depends on the structure of forests, rather than simply the age of the trees — influenced logging methods designed to help owl populations and the timber industry alike.
The recipient of many accolades, Rocky retired in January as the Gordon Gullion Endowed Chair in Forest Wildlife Research at the University of Minnesota. “I’ve still got lots of science left in me,” he quips.
He and KT, a former medical lab director, now live in the pint-sized town of Fieldbrook on California’s north coast. Rocky keeps busy with research and consulting projects from his home office. Sadly, the northern spotted owl’s future remains precarious — a rival owl that has invaded its territory is threatening its survival.
That development underscores the need to prepare young scientists for the next wave of conservation challenges. And that’s where Rocky and KT’s gift comes in. “It’s an opportunity for people to get their Ph.D. and do bigger and better things for science and, hopefully, conservation,” says Rocky. “There’s a lot of talent that’s yet unrealized among disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.”