Showler researches ectoparasites, like ticks and biting flies

Research Entomologist Dr. Allan Showler says he conducts studies on the cattle fever tick and the southern cattle fever tick for the Agricultural Research Service, at the Knipling-Bushland U.S. Livestock Insects Research Laboratory in Kerrville. He's looking for alternatives to conventional pesticides, to develop organic, plant-based compounds, like essential oils and extracts.

Research Entomologist Dr. Allan Showler says he conducts research on ectoparasites for the Agricultural Research Service, which is the principal in-house research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture. Ectoparasites are those which live outside of the animals they affect, on their skin.

Showler says he studies two kinds of arthropod pests, insects and arachnids. Arachnids include ticks, scorpions, and spiders. Currently much of his focus is on the cattle fever tick and the southern cattle fever tick, and their effect on livestock, mainly cows.

He says, "The ticks were eradicated in 1943, but lately we've seen a new incursion along the South Texas Coastal Plains and the wildlife corridor. They transmit cattle fever to livestock, and to wildlife like whitetail deer. There's potential for great economic damage to the livestock industry. What we are doing is looking for alternatives to conventional pesticides, which have their own side-effects, to develop organic, plant-based compounds, like essential oils and extracts."

He says he's also looking into using desiccants, like diatomaceous earth, which break down the tick's waxy coating and dehydrate them.

Showler says his role in the research is to design the protocols that can test the products, then oversee the research projects in his laboratory at the Knipling-Bushland U.S. Livestock Insects Research Laboratory in Kerrville. He supervises the technicians and Schreiner University interns who conduct the tests, then he takes the data they produce, "crunches the numbers," and writes articles publishing the results. His studies are then rigorously peer-reviewed, and used to provide techniques that can help the industry fight the pests.

He says he also works on the other side of the research process, since he's the editor of the "Journal of Economic Entomology."

"I was born in Sacramento," Showler says. "My family settled the Showler Terrace there, and donated a large gun collection to Sutter's Fort, of the gold rush fame. I graduated from La Sierra High School in 1975. I attended American River College for two years, then finished my BS in entomology and my MS in crop protection at University of California Davis."

He says after graduating he joined the Peace Corps, as an agriculture extension agent in Tunisia. That's where he learned to speak Arabic. In 1983 he returned to the U.S. and worked at Abbott Laboratories in Fresno until he was accepted in the Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University, to study sugar cane entomology.

"I drove to LSU, across I-10," he says. "I got into the swamp, near Ramah, and it was my kind of country. I had to pull off and go down a side road, until I could find a place to fish."

After four years in Louisiana, Showden says he went to work for the U.S. at OFOR and USAID doing research and development. "I was assigned to a locust project, traveling between countries in Africa, Rome, and the Middle East. We were based in Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea in the horn of Africa. My first day they picked me up at the airport and took me to the USAID Mission. When the door opened there was Yodit Yohannes-Menghistu, and I thought, 'I want her to be my wife and mother of my children.' I didn't tell her that, though. We met for lunch, but I had to take a flight early the next day. I traveled a lot, but whenever I got back to Asmara I would see her. Two years later, in 1994, we were married in her Coptic Christian Church in Asmara, and I was the only American there. The priest preached the sermon in English, for my benefit."

He adds, "For a while I was the 'desert locust guy' pretty much for the world."

He also worked on a screwworm problem in the area. "I was working for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and we found a screwworm fly infestation in Libya. At the time Gaddafi was ruling it, so we weren't friends. My job was to get people who didn't like each other to cooperate. The fly lays eggs in any wound it can find, on livestock, wildlife, or humans, which hatch into the worms, but in some of the meetings they were just joking about the fly's name. I told them stories about little boys who got cut, and ended up infested; and if they didn't stop the fly in Libya it would spread across Africa and the adjoining continents. We finally got everyone to agree, and arranged to have sterile male flies flown from the U.S. and air-dropped, and we got control of the situation. The U.N. awarded me a Medal of Honor for the effort."

Showler says he was bitten by a lion one day. "I was in Niger, and my colleague and I wandered out to the outskirts of town. I was sitting on a low stone wall when a bunch of kids ran by and climbed into trees. We looked up, and there were two lions. I knew better than to run, so I sat still while one came over and sniffed my sweat-soaked long sleeve. Then he licked it, and I guess he liked the salt because he clamped down on my shoulder. Feeling the power in his jaws, I knew he could do anything he wanted to me. He decided to let go, and wandered off. My skin wasn't broken, but I got a big bruise."

He says he and Yodit stayed in Africa until 1999. "Asmara is at 7,300 feet, and it's the toughest neighborhood in the world. Eight of the nine countries I was working in were in conflict. One day, before our first evacuation, we watched jets fly over our house, low enough to see the pilots’ helmets, on their bombing runs targeting the airport. The second time we were evacuated, troops were advancing on the city. They put us in a Russian airplane and flew us to Yemen. The man from the embassy said, 'I don't know why they sent you here, it's just as bad.' He told me to stay off the street, but since I spoke Arabic, and I look like the local people, nobody ever 'mistook' me for an American."

Showler says, "While we were in Yemen, Yodit went into labor. My wife's delivery room was next door to the gunshot ward. In Yemen, when a boy turns 15 he gets his driver's license and an AK-47. They would fire their rifles into the air to celebrate anything, and they staged street-corner shootouts with rivals. Everybody in the ward was laughing and sharing stories about how they got hit. I decided I shouldn't be Peter Pan any more, now that we had a son. In December of 1999, I found a job in Weslaco working to protect rice crops."

He says, "In 2013 I sort of reinvented myself, switching from protecting crops to livestock, and I found my present job at Knipling-Bushland in Kerrville. I still love to fish, and I'm writing an autobiography. I have about 80 chapters so far. In the summers I take road trips with my son, Elais. He graduated as valedictorian from Tivy High School, and is now, at 21, starting a doctoral program in physical therapy."

Showler says while he had a lot of support from his family growing up, there were also people who thought his ambition to be a world-class entomologist was foolish. "I say, success is your best revenge."

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