I am writing this blog from the jungle paradise of Tangkahan, with the rainforest scenery as a back drop. I have spent the last year living and travelling in Indonesia, working with the Sumatran Dog Health Program, volunteering with amazing organisations that are doing the hard slog of protecting animals and the environment; from the continuous onslaught of human greed and ignorance. The people I have met and the opportunities I have been presented with far exceeded the expectations I had when I first sold everything and moved to Indonesia just over a year ago.
By no stretch of the imagination has my journey to follow my dreams been easy. In fact, there have been countless occasions that have tested my determination, my courage and beliefs. There were times I wanted to give up; not only on my dreams, but on everything. There were so many times during my career that I fantasised about working at a supermarket just to have an uncomplicated life. But every time I went through hell, pushed through it, took a deep breath and jumped, in spite of intense fear, I was rewarded with new doors opening that I hadn’t even imagined possible. Throughout my life, I have learned that you only need to take small steps towards the life you want, and the universe will meet you the rest of the way.
My first hurdle to success happened when I was a teenager. I excelled at school and had big ideas of working in the science field as a forensic pathologist or similar. All this ground to a halt when I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or M.E. in my early teens. After struggling through school for a few years, it eventually became too much and I had to leave before even completing my senior year. My life was well and truly on pause for the next four to five years - I missed out on going to university, moving out of home at the same time as my friends, and the usual fun, social environment that most people have from 18 through their early 20s.
Now here’s the important part. I am SO grateful for that illness now. It was the first piece of the puzzle that led me to my career working with animals. I became a foster carer for cats at the SPCA, to give me some company and focus for those endless boring days stuck at home sick. This then led me to a distance learning course in animal care, and when I was finally well enough to consider working a few years later, I was able to find part time work as a vet nurse. If I hadn’t gotten ill, I would probably have continued on a different career path and not rediscovered my passion and love for helping animals.
In 2004, I was accepted into the Captive Wild Animal Management course, with a work placement at Auckland Zoo. At the time, I had no confidence that I could handle even one day work experience per week on top of my part time work, but my determination and desire to work with animals made me give it a try anyway. My love and gratitude for the opportunities in front of me helped overcome my fear and anxiety about my illness and my severe social anxiety and shyness after years of illness and not being out in the world.
At the end of 2004 I was employed as a part time zookeeper and continued to work part time as a vet nurse and study - I was working six and a half days a week, and studying on top of that; something I never would have thought I had the energy or health for when I started.
All my dreams came true in 2005 when I got a full-time job at the zoo. From there, there was no looking back. I adored my job, I adored the animals, I adored the people I worked with and the things we were achieving for conservation. “This is it,” I thought, “I will work here until retirement; this is all I need.”
As anyone in the industry knows, being a zookeeper is not merely a job. It is all-engulfing. You get up early to check on animals or get a head-start on work, work through breaks, stay late, get home and do paperwork/research. Your days off are spent either visiting the zoo or doing research and work for the zoo. There is very little room for anything else. But at the time you don’t mind, because you love the work and want desperately to give the animals in your care the best possible life.
For most zookeepers, there is always a niggling moral dilemma in the back of our minds. We adore the animals, but we would rather they not be in captivity! Working with primates, this was particularly strong for me. I would leave the Orangutans at the end of the day feeling so guilty that I got to leave the zoo for the evening and do whatever I chose, while they didn’t have that privilege. However, for 10 of the 12 years that I worked there, I felt I could justify their presence in the zoo: we were educating people, raising a lot of money for conservation of orangutans and other species in the wild, protecting habitat, and providing them with a safe, enriching and healthy environment.
There is such a safety and security in knowing your place in the world and what your future holds. I had a great job, had risen to Lead Senior Keeper of Primates, had great opportunities to travel and have positive impact on in situ and ex situ conservation.
So, you can imagine that when I started having doubts about my career and becoming unhappy with my work and my life in general, I naturally buried that feeling deep down and soldiered on. I was so attached to being a zookeeper that it had become part of my identity. It was the main focus when people met me, we talked about my job and it made me interesting and “special.” If I wasn’t a zookeeper anymore, who would I be? Would I still be likeable and interesting? What even would come next when I felt that zoo keeping was the absolute pinnacle of my career?
The last few years of my zoo keeping job were not particularly happy ones. I became disillusioned with the job, was burned out from pouring so much of myself into my work over the last decade, and had nothing else in my life and very true genuine friendships. It’s hard to pinpoint how and why I started feeling this way, but I can connect it to traveling regularly to Sumatra to work with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program at release sites and the quarantine centre in Medan.
Seeing primates in their natural habitats in the jungle really made me realise how impossible it is to provide anything even close to that. Yes, we did our best with positive free-thought management and a great enrichment program, but nothing we did would really come close to what a true wild life could provide. Seeing the number of orphaned orangutans and adults that lost their homes opened my eyes even more. Zoos may have their place (something I’m still not sure about now that I’m outside the industry), but the really important work is happening at ground zero, in the struggle between big industry and local communities.
I wish it had been as simple as me realising this, having immense courage and packing up and leaving, but many things that are worthwhile rarely are that simple. I didn’t think I had the strength or capability to live and work in Sumatra (having suffered from crippling agoraphobia and anxiety for many years). I read somewhere that when something is wrong for you but you don’t have the courage to leave, the Universe will make it so uncomfortable for you to stay that you have no choice but to leave. This was my experience. I toyed with the idea of leaving to live in Sumatra, had many holidays there, but hadn’t the guts to make the leap. I became extremely miserable through not following my heart; I started to dislike my job, didn’t want to go to work anymore, my personal life was impacted and I suffered from severe depression. The universe eventually gave me no choice. I had to leave New Zealand for my own survival. It sounds dramatic, but I truly believe that now.
I had no idea what I would do in Sumatra, I no longer even wanted to work with animals as I was so drained, stressed and exhausted to breaking point. I just knew I had to get away and just let it all go. So, I took my savings and did just that. I travelled around a bit, saw new things, met new people and slowly and painfully got to know myself again. It took a long time, but gradually I began to dream again.
I was extremely lucky to meet up with Jess McKelson, who I had known for many years through the zoo industry but had never met in person. Jess gave me a place to live and settle in Medan, Sumatra, and took me under her wing. She understood exactly what I was going through, having been through similar challenges in her own career. I came over at the right time to help with the newly set up Sumatran Dog Health Program, which gave me new focus and the simple satisfaction of helping save one dog at a time renewed my hope for making a difference in the world.
Working with animals and environmental protection is challenging. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by all the problems in the world that feel too big to have an impact on. The Dog Program and the work that Jess and RAW wildlife is doing reminded me that one person CAN have an impact. I started thinking simple again. No, I can’t help all the dogs, but even giving one animal a good, healthy and happy life is enough.
Jess was my mentor and guardian angel. She introduced me to so many amazing and inspirational people working over here and the connections led to further opportunities. I was able to volunteer with the amazing SCORPION, who are fighting the illegal wildlife trade and working to improve the zoo industry in Indonesia. I worked and trained at cat and dog rescue programs, honed my vet nursing skills, and supplemented my savings by doing writing work on the side.
One year ago, I felt I had no passion or energy left for this work and had no idea what I could do or wanted to do. Now, as I sit here and write this, I have so many opportunities ahead of me. I feel I could do anything I put my mind to and there are so many worthwhile projects to get stuck into. I am happy to stay open to whatever comes my way and start saying yes to life again.
This last year has truly taught me that your passion can and SHOULD be your career. Everything I am passionate about has resulted in a career opportunity of some sort. I have always loved writing and been great at English, and that has turned into a side income and is a skill I can use to assist NGOs here. I love cats and dogs and have used that, along with my previous experience, to work with domestic animal rescue and welfare programs. I love the jungle and all its inhabitants, which led to opportunities as a tour leader and writer with RAW. I am passionate about animal welfare, which is leading to opportunities to work directly with organisations that are going to change the zoo industry in Indonesia.
I guess what I want to get across to anyone who is feeling lost, overwhelmed or disillusioned with your career is that it’s OK! It’s normal. It’s not the end. Keep doing what makes you feel alive, follow the path your heart leads you on, and trust that the right thing will come to you at the right time. Step by step, work towards what calls you, and have faith that your dream job/life is out there waiting for you to be ready.
At times when you feel trapped, overwhelmed and don’t know HOW to take the next steps, let alone where they lead, just do ONE small thing every day in the direction of your goals, even if it’s as simple as make a list, send one email to someone in the field, read a book or an article about where you want to be. Continuously advance and work towards where you want to be.