Today there are no storks in Denmark, but in 1922 there were many. That year, on January 14th , one of the storks dropped Vagn into the Danish city of Aalborg. The following year his family moved to Jamestown, New York, where his father got a job in a furniture factory. Western New York was a great place to grow up because here a boy could catch more snakes in a morning (none of which were poisonous) than any other place in the world. This combination of snakes and other critters that were so easily caught, plus very supportive parents and teachers, turned him into a nature nerd. He decided to become either a herpetologist or entomologist, and to prepare for this calling he attended Cornell University for two years. But when a fracas broke out in Hawaii in 1941 he enlisted in the army and got a free cruise and tour, with all expenses paid, to six European countries. The natives of one country were decidedly unfriendly so the men dug holes in the ground to hide in if the natives attacked. These holes were great traps for snakes, shrews, mice, hedgehogs, and other creatures that fell into them. He became distinguished among the 615 members of his Combat Engineer Battalion for saving men from a horror worse than death, contact with a snake. For this Vagn received the good conduct medal.
The army set him free in 1946, so he went on to finish at Cornell, got an MS degree at Penn State and an ScD degree at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Both his MS degree thesis and ScD dissertation dealt with gray squirrel ecology. Upon finishing school in 1955 he immediately got a job at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at Solomons, Maryland, and later with the University of Maryland, where he continued research with squirrels until he retired in 1987. In 1957, he was side-tracked into working with white-tailed deer. Over the next three years, using syringe guns and traps, he captured about 1500 deer at the Aberdeen Proving Ground and released them in those parts of Maryland, where few or no deer existed at that time. Currently few Maryland residents appreciate his efforts! At that time farmers in other parts of the state complained of deer eating their crops, so he thought about ways to help these farmers. By combining the marvelous experience in the Combat Engineers with the outstanding education from Penn State, he came up with an excellent idea. Why not lay out a mine field using M-80 firecrackers? This turned out to be a fantastic success! After a week of explosions no deer dared enter the fields for over six months, even when the mines were removed. There was one disadvantage -- careless people handling them had fingers blown off.
The experience of capturing deer with a syringe gun led him to spend two summers on a remote Arctic island with a group of Inuit to demonstrate that whales could be killed humanely by shooting them with a syringe full of succinylcholine chloride. As he sat on that cold wind-blown island he often thought, “How did I get myself into this?” He went off to the Arctic to tag the first polar bears in what became an international research program. He made three trips to the Arctic and wondered, “Why am I doing this? Maryland forests are warm, green, and cozy compared to the place where polar bears live.” Therefore, and for the following reasons, he confined his work to squirrels: (1) Squirrels do not bite hard. Compare squirrel bites to polar bear bites! (2) Nobody gets a hernia from lifting a squirrel. Try lifting a deer, or bear, or even a whale. (3) Squirrel research can be done in one’s backyard without going off to the ends of the world. (4) Squirrels taste good, don’t have nasty diseases and can be prepared with any chicken recipe. (5) Squirrels are plentiful and out only during daylight hours. It is not necessary to chase around in the woods at night, as with deer, to catch them. (6) Kind friends and students bring road-killed squirrels to his office when asked to do so. Asking them to bring bears, deer, or whales to his office would be unreasonable.
He was elected to membership in the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1975 and was a very popular member for over 30 years.
Vagn died at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, on January 9, 2006, and left instructions for his body to be donated to science.