The government shutdown didn’t just affect government employees. It also affected squirrels.
These particular squirrels belong to Hannah Carey, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin.
Carey, who focuses on comparative biosciences, studies squirrels to uncover insights about how mammals work. In theory, her work could allow humans to achieve things we so far have only seen in movies.
She examines the hibernation of ground squirrels and how their biological mechanisms could be mimicked in ways therapeutic for humans. Specifically, Carey looks at the gastrointestinal tracts of squirrel for hibernation patterns that can help humans survive severe states such as trauma and extreme hypothermia.
Like a lot of research at UW, Carey’s is funded in part by the federal government. Twenty-nine percent of the UW’s annual funding comes from federal financial aid and federal grants.
“Most of this [federal funding] is competitively awarded to UW for specific research projects and supports salaries for faculty, staff and students, and funds research facilities,” UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote in the annual budget report.
Carey’s grant from the National Science Foundation — which comes early in the calendar year — allows her and her team to study these squirrels in the winter months.
For Carey and many other scientists, who rely on federal agencies and grant money to carry out their experiments, the government shutdown meant years worth of research was jeopardized.
THE ‘PERFECT STORM’
The government shut down Dec. 22 after President Donald Trump failed to reach an agreement with Congress over an appropriations bill that did not include $5 billion for his proposed wall along the southern border.
Not every aspect of the government was shut down, as Congress failed in passing legislative measures to fund just nine government agencies. What ensued was the longest government shutdown in history, resulting in some 800,000 federal employees on furlough or working without pay.
More than a month later, Trump signed an appropriations bill to fund the government until Feb. 15.
Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district, home to Madison and the surrounding area, has about 6,000 federal employees — “more than any other Congressional district in Wisconsin,” Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said.
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Around 3,600 Wisconsin workers, he added, were directly impacted by the federal government shutdown.
For some, like Transport Security Administration workers, it meant having to go to work without pay during the shutdown. For others, this meant not being able to work at all.
For new businesses, it meant they wouldn’t be able to file taxes with the Internal Revenue Service.
For researchers like Carey, the shutdown came at the worst possible time, which she described as a “perfect storm.”
For those studying hibernation, the winter months are the most vital because it’s when the animals are metabolically shut down. At the same time, Carey was expecting her next installment of grants from the NSF to arrive around the first week of January, just as the government was shutting its doors.
“We work very hard to plan these experiments out ahead of time,” Carey said. “If we don’t stick closely to the biological rhythm of these animals, we are going to be doing experiments that aren’t relevant to the biology that we are trying to understand.”
As of Feb. 6, Carey still hasn’t received her federal funding. To mitigate potential funding problems, UW will pay for the research needs of faculty who have ongoing, federally-funded projects in the event of emergencies like a government shutdown.
This emergency funding from the university and state treasury paid for Carey’s expenses and allowed her research to continue in the interim.
This means her trainees and lab workers, as well as other researchers, will also be paid even if the federal agencies that fund their programs are closed. Carey realizes, however, that others might not have been as fortunate.
“I’m just one person who’s in this situation, and so … it’s likely others across our campus and across the system … [experienced] interference with what they’re doing,” Carey said. “You just don’t expect that political maneuvering is such that it would just shut things down. And if we weren’t supported by being at a university like [UW] it would be a travesty, it would be a shame … we just can’t do these experiments in other parts of the year.”
Others in the Madison community weren’t as lucky.
Pocan said federal employees who were impacted by the shutdown weren’t legally allowed to check their work emails. And if they did, they could be fined. This meant those who wished to work without pay weren’t even legally able to do so.
But for some, like TSA workers, it meant they had to show up to work without pay.
“Median salary is around $37,000 for TSA workers — many of them have second jobs just to get by,” Pocan said. “An air traffic controller told me he knows people who had to sell cars for equity so they would have money for bills. A person I talked to myself canceled their cable because he had to get rid of expenses that weren’t absolutely necessary during the shutdown.”
Pocan said he was impressed and surprised by how positive the workers he talked to were, considering they were approaching their second missed paycheck.
For others in Madison, the government shutdown was an opportunity to give back. As the shutdown affected Wisconsin and Madison families and individuals, the community sprung into action. Numerous organizations, businesses and individuals all opened their arms to give back throughout the month-long impasse.
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Christy McKenzie, owner of Pasture and Plenty, a locally-sourced restaurant on Madison’s near west side, saw the shutdown as an opportunity to contribute to the community and to look after others.
“I think as a civil society we have a duty to think about how we take care of others and use the gifts and resources we have in order to support a healthier community,” McKenzie said.
During the last week of the shutdown, Pasture and Plenty announced they would be offering free meals to any furloughed workers and contractors. In that week alone, Pasture and Plenty served 16 impacted families or individuals.
“[We know] the challenges of not having paychecks come in means food [in]security,” McKenzie said. “It was a place we could provide the message that we don’t agree with what’s happening … it’s something we can do to support people who are being put in that position.”
When the government re-opened Jan. 25, Pasture and Plenty kept the meals coming for another week.
“We had a lot of our regular customers reach out to us to say, ‘We are so grateful that you’re doing this, how can we help?’” McKenzie said. “It was really interesting to see how others in the community who weren’t directly impacted were [affected] by what we had decided to share.”
For others in the community, giving back meant helping people where the shutdown hurts the most — their bank accounts.
Masood Akhtar is the founder of We Are Many – United Against Hate, an organization founded in 2016 that focuses on education and non-partisan policies to help unite people against bigotry.
To Akhtar, the shutdown was a way to help workers out when times were tough. With help from the Madison Muslim community, Akhtar helped raise more than $80,000 to give as interest-free loans to people in need — ideally targeting people who are paying between 18 and 20 percent interest on their credit cards.
By eliminating the bank from the equation, Akhtar believed he could facilitate growth within the community. Those who were interested could set up flexible payback opportunities by email, providing affected members of the community with more options to get back on their feet.
For Akhtar, organizing the effort was an easy decision.
“These people are just like our people,” Akhtar said. “Some of them are even protecting our lives, like the TSA at the airport. They are saving our lives and yet these people are not paid.”
Akhtar said that providing interest-free loans gives him the opportunity to travel and talk to people. Engaging with the community, he added, will help make Madison more inclusive, which he hopes cities nationwide will look to as an example.
“We, as Muslims, believe that all Wisconsinites are like one body,” Akhtar said. “If one part of the body aches, the rest of the body feels pain. We just want to make sure that these employees know that we are feeling their pain as well, and we will help them out as much as possible in these tough times.”
While financial obligations are a concern for many, so is unwinding from the stress of daily life.
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Ahead of their Jan. 25 concert, the Madison Chamber Orchestra announced they would be offering free tickets to any furloughed government worker. About 20 people called in to claim the tickets, Sue Ellen Maguire, chief operating officer at the Orchestra, said.
“We are not just here to put on concerts,” Maguire said. “We are really here to build community and make Madison a better place. We saw people going through a tough time and wanted to spark a little joy in their lives.”
While the tough times are tentatively over for government employees, the approved interim funding is scheduled to run out Feb. 15.
Trump has already backtracked on his claim of needing funding for the wall and has nominally denounced his urge for building one at all. This is promising for the future of federal funding but falls short of ruling another government shutdown an absolute impossibility.
Pocan, however, is optimistic that Congress and Trump will be able to reach an agreement.
“I think it is unlikely we will have [another] shutdown,” Pocan said. “Even the president, for all his bravado, you have to look at the raw facts of what he did to the economy and that he didn’t get his wall. I think it would be hard for him to do something as irresponsible as shutting us down again.”
For people like McKenzie, another shutdown would mean a renewed opportunity to give back. She said Pasture and Plenty would give out free meals again if the government shuts down come Feb. 15.
As for Carey, another shutdown would mean a serious consideration of how long UW would be able to continue funding her research.
“The idea that [the government shutdown] would go longer than it did or even start up again is just frustrating, it is disheartening as a citizen and as a scientist,” Carey said.
While the immediate future of federal funding hangs in limbo, research will go on.
In the meantime, Carey will be in her lab studying her hibernating squirrels, using each day of funded research to get closer to unlocking their biological secrets.
Note: The print version of this article incorrectly identified Haidee Chu as the author of this piece. The Badger Herald regrets this error. The correct author is identified at the top of this story.