Sunday, August 31, 2014

When Two Worlds Collide: Animal Lovers versus The Rest of the Planet

Us animal lovers are a different brand of people, aren't we?  I mean, no matter how we specifically define ourselves as an Animal Lover, we are definitely cut from the same cloth.  And we tend to stick together.  In fact, we become so wrapped up in our Animal Lover World that we often forget there are a lot of people out there who think we are crazy.

Are we really THAT crazy? 

Animal caretakers, especially ones in a setting where they are caring for the same individual animals on a daily basis, really become immersed in the Animal Lover Lifestyle.  Speaking for myself, I am surrounded with people who dedicate their lives to caring for, understanding, and sharing information about our non-human friends.  When I step out of that sphere, it's always at least a little disorienting.

Now, I realize there are far more Animal Lovers than animal trainers/caretakers.  As I've said, I feel there are many sub-categories (and you can belong to more than one of them): 

  • Veterinarians
  • Vet techs/assistants
  • Animal rescue staff and volunteers
  • Animal trainers of all taxa
  • Zookeepers
  • Pet owners
  • Wildlife rehabbers
  • Biologists/ethologists/ecologists
  • Conservationalists
  • Wildlife lovers
  • Etc. etc. etc.!
You said it best, Yule Brenner!

While all of those people are True Animal Lovers, they all experience this world in a slightly different way (although the main points are the same).  So this blog is from the perspective of my branch of this greater concept, which is of course the marine mammal training field.

When you first realize that you want to work with marine mammals, there is an initial acceptance of this idea, even from people who do not define themselves as Animal Lovers.  I think this is because marine mammals are pretty popular critters.  Also, most of us are like 7 years old when we decide we want to be trainers.  At this age, you can basically say you want to be anything and receive full support from adult influence because you Showed Early Career Initiative So You Are Probably A Child Genius.

Me, a clear example of prodigy.

At some point though, once your adult influences realize that you're actually serious about working for $8.00 an hour after spending tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, the naysaying commences.  And that is when you really feel the difference between You and Them.  I won't go into this struggle too much (since that's another blog topic for another time), but I'm sure many of you zoo animal trainers can relate.  You've known since you were a little kid that you wanted to do something to help animals.  Many of you see something beyond just an organism who poops, breeds, and eats; you see an individual.  You see a reason to conserve and care.  And I'm willing to bet that for many of you, your opinion was not the prevailing one among your social circles when you were growing up*.

The moment you start your internship, it's like you've entered another universe.  Yeah yeah, internships are scary and intimidating.  But the fact that you're completely surrounded by Like Minded People, people who regularly dedicate their lives to animals, who (seemingly) effortlessly live this lifestyle you've wanted since you were a little's intoxicating.  You don't have to defend something that is so core to who you are as a person.  You see and experience firsthand the type of job that makes a positive difference in animals' lives.  It's validating and overwhelmingly wonderful.

So fast forward to being a marine mammal trainer for several years.  You know a number of animals very well.  You've established strong relationships with them; some of them know you better than others.  You've seen some really wonderful moments, and you've probably experienced some hard ones.  The nature of the job (including its low pay) basically guarantees that you spend more time with your human and non-human coworkers than it does with family members and outside-of-work friends.  It isn't easy to go out, or take trips back home.  You are now fully engaged in your Animal Lover lifestyle.

I don't mind living alongside this amazing dolphin, that's for sure!

When an animal you know and love passes away, it's a horrible time.  No true Animal Lover, no matter how you define it, can deny that.  In fact, for Animal Lovers, death is death: it doesn't necessarily feel "less" or "more" painful depending on the species.  True Animal Lovers know that each life is sacred and unique.  The loss is always profound.

But Animal Lovers, you know what I'm about to say next don't you?  How many people in your life who are NOT into animals understand how you deal with loss when it isn't a human being?  Not a whole lot.  That's a challenge, isn't it?  Because not only do you grieve for the animal's death, you have to defend WHY you're grieving.

"Oh.  Sorry to hear about that. Was the rest of your day good?"

"Why are you so upset?  It was just a cat/penguin/marmoset."

"You can always get another dog."

"It's not like your [insert relative here] died.  Get over it!"

Exactly, Kevin.

Those are things people have actually said to me or my friends and coworkers who have lost an animal (including pets).   I understand that some people just don't understand that non-human animals are not mindless machines, but they do care about how their friends and family members feel and may be sympathetic to them when a pet or an animal they care for passes away.  So this is not a criticism of people who are not Animal Lovers; it's just illustrating the point that well, there are a lot of people out there who don't care all that much or at all about animal welfare.

Animal trainers get so wrapped up in their Animal Lover world that it typically goes beyond that of someone who is a mom or dad to a companion animal.  Your best friends, coworkers, your bosses, subordinates, and in many cases your significant other are all just as passionate about animal welfare as you are.   It's such an amazing feeling to have network of people who understand and live your ethical principles and deep interests....especially considering the amount of flak we all took for wanting to get into this field.  It's like, "Finally!!! People who understand!"

One question: Why can't striped pants be part of my uniform?

And that is why it is extremely jarring once you enter the non-animal lover realm.  And let me tell you, there are a lot of people out there who don't care about (or...don't even LIKE) animals**!!!

Sometimes I find it hard to relate to people who aren't into animals.  I get along better with people who are totally against having animals in human care than I do with people who just don't really like animals.   Does anyone else have this issue?  I mean, I'm not a total jerk or anything to the Non Animal Lovers, I just sometimes don't know what to talk about sometimes because my whole life is animals.  At some point, I want to talk about something Animaly. 

Like, I don't even know socially how to handle myself in some of the more Intensely Non Animal conversations.  I can talk about world events, music, funny stories.  But I'm talking about those times when it's inevitable that something about your job or your life with animals comes up and it's met with a: blank stare, a confused question, or even a hostile and/or passive aggressive remark.

Here are a couple of examples of my ineptitude:

Example 1

Person A: So, want to hang out tomorrow night?
Me: I'd love to, but I'm busy tomorrow.
Person A: Oh yeah? What are you doing?
Me: Uh, a penguin transport.
Person A: Why would you transport a penguin?
Me: *Goes into explanation*
Person A: So...
Me: Yeah.
Person A: Have you seen Blackfish?


Example 2

Person B: You're so lucky you don't have a real job.
Me: Oh, ha ha! Yeah, it's a great job. 
Person B: No seriously, you don't actually impact anyone in a positive way.
Me: Uh, should we change the topic?
Person B: Sure, I mean, no offense or whatever, but it's not a real job.


Example 3

Person C: I think animals are here for our use.
Me: Um.  I think I have diarrhea. Bye.

Bring up poop, conversation OVER.  (This is sea lion poop by the way, not mine)

Most of the time, and maybe this is just one of my character flaws, I have a hard time being rude to people even though I think sometimes that's the correct response.  If I'm standing up for someone, or speaking up for an animal in need, that's different.  But to have someone tell me about why they think animals are "here" for "our" use, and what I want to say (involves lots of these kinds of symbols: *#%&(*#&%Q@) is not what I end up saying (usually something diplomatic and/or change-the-subjectish).

Non Animal Lovers abound, and it's not like they are bad people, they just don't understand.  It's weird interfacing with them at this point in my life, especially because so many of them seem to have a weird and dissenting opinion about animals in general.  I'm not talking about people who aren't for animals in zoos, because those people are Animal Lovers too.  I'm talking about people who think zoos are about as exciting as lima beans, or who are disgusted by animals.   I'm a complete social moron around those people!  

Surely I'm not alone in my problem, right?  What about you guys, do you have trouble dealing with the Non Animal Lovers?  Is it harder now than it was before you became a zookeeper/animal trainer/veterinarian?  

* If it was, lucky you! Go high-five and THANK your family and friends

** I know, right?!?!?!


  1. I have trouble getting non-animal lovers to understand that every animal is NOT like the big fluffy dogs they know who want to be petted and cuddled. They all think people can just go in and pet the tigers.
    I also have to them that the animals are not bitter and mad that they're in a zoo. I come across a lot of people who spend five seconds a year thinking about animals that are adamantly convinced that zoos are prisons and we should just let them go.
    Animal keeping for some reason is the only science that housewives from middle America think is common sense.

  2. I found this really disappointing. Not a lot of people really understand animals or the animal industry if try haven't been educated on such subjects. That's what you are there for, to teach people. The only way we can change things is through education, not ridicule and belittling. You should be educating people when they question your job, the industry, establishments and the animals who are in them.

    I found this post in bad taste to be honest, we hours be working together to show the world how important animals are and what work needs to be done to protect them, not just scoffing at people whom we believe to e below us because they don't realise the importance of protecting wildlife.

    1. Anonymous, I appreciate and respect your perspective. The belittling and scoffing theme was certainly not my intention beyond a sarcastic representation of how awkward I am with people who are sometimes offensively opinionated. I have a difficult time figuring out how to reach those people without being disrespectful or...effective. A friend of mine (who is a police officer and a huge animal lover) had to arrest a homeless man. She could not convince her boss to let her go back to retrieve his dog, who was left tied to a tree on a very hot day without water. Her boss told her that "it's just a dog. He can get another one." My friend's actions and words did influence her boss to see why that was a horribly cruel thing to do. Some people (and that includes me on certain topics) are not going to be convinced. Those are the people I'm talking about.

      I spend my life trying to show the world how important animals are and why they merit protection. I meet people on a daily basis who know very little about these topics and am able to help them understand or care. I think your perspective about reaching out to misinformed people and to be introspective about the zoo industry are admirable and totally correct. Thanks for your comment! :)

  3. I understnd what you said, I have been in some of the situations you gave us as an example. One of my big issues is... i want to socialise with more people out of my work, I love to speak about my job, and the animals i work with but sometimes i really want to rest and have something diferent in the day. But is so hard. Or i dont have the time cause is work, sleep, work, sleep. or everytime i meet somebody.. or they are against my job and i just get some troubles, or they looooooooooove these animals and they are sooo cute, and lovely ohhh i want to swimmmmm with them aaaa how cute they areee!! ... -_- i feel like apart from the world and i am in the group of people that know when an animal is cute or is being agressive.

    Thanks middle flippers, for all your work on this blogs, some of your ideas really motivated me. i just needed to tell somebody how i feel. thanks!

  4. I remember the first day I walked into the vet tech program as a brand new student. I thought to myself I have finally arrived! I was finally surrounded by people who loved animals just as much as I did. My first year in the program I got to attend the North American Veterinary Conferance and again I was met by thousands (yes thousands) of people who felt the same way as I did. Who had the same goals as I did. To better the lives of animals. I remember walking into my first presentation with a sense of awe and exhiliration. Since then I have rescued endangered sea turtles, trained stingrays, worked with dolphins both as an aide and a vet tech, I’ve been enveloped in a culture made up of people who love animals. Who believe that they are worth it, they’re worth the long hours, they’re worth the tears, they’re worth the funny smells we come home with, they’re worth it all and how blessed we are to be driven with such a passion as this.
    But sometimes I do venture out of my confort zone. I do talk to people who maybe aren’t as crazy about animals as I am and it’s hard. I remember the day a friend told me that she agreed with a neighbor who had been putting poisoned meat balls outside for loose dogs to eat. Needless to say I was livid. It’s hard to hear stuff like that, it’s hard to have my tiny understanding of the world shook by someone who may not understand what they are doing. Lukcy for me I like to talk and I love to be heard, so that’s what I do. I talk and I hope. I hope that when I speak of the animals I love that people see my passion and even if I speak to a thousand people and only one walks away thinking “damn that woman really loves sea turtles, I wonder what’s so special about them?” then I have made a difference. For someone to go from not knowing the difference between a tortoise and a turtle to being one of those amazing rehab specialist that jumps in the water to rescue a 300lb loggerhead sea turtle is amazing. I don’t have to change the mind of everyone I meet, but if I can change one out of a thousand then I’m happy.
    Cat, your blog is amazing. You really understand what so many of us are thinking and what a relief it is to not be the only one! I admire the way you open up and share what you’re feeling. In my opinion it takes guts to do something like that, so bravo for you!! And lady whenever you want to talk for hours about the animals you love I’m here for you
    Mary G.

  5. I know exactly what you're saying. I feel awkward with almost everyone around me (including my family) except a select few I work with that are also animal people. Thankfully my partner is also an animal nut so when I talk about my day he understands where I'm coming from.
    My animals and my job are my life. There's really so little outside if that which I have to contribute to a conversation.
    "What do you do for work? " "care for animals. Basically an underwater zookeeper" "what do you do for fun? " "well after my pets i don't get alot of time but i do like to go out and look for wild animals to photograph" "where is your favorite place to holiday? ""Camping anywhere i can find animals. .." "you love animals alot don't you? " "you have no idea. .."
    Non-animal people certainly perplex me. I feel isolated by it sometimes, but I can't imagine being any other way.

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