Ever since second grade, Sarah Boyer knew she would return to Disney World one day. “I told everyone as soon as I declared a major in Zoology my dream job would be to work at Disney’s Animal Kingdom,” she tells me over a Zoom call from her Orlando apartment. Sarah is an Animal Behavior Professional Intern at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, as well as a friend from college who for the longest time dreamt of pursuing her passion at a Disney park. “I felt like that was such a big goal and a big dream to have and something fun to strive toward, but I never thought I would actually get in. But here I am.”
Anyone who knows Sarah will tell you that she loves Disney. Hakuna Mata adorns her college graduation cap, she named her pet gecko Pascal after the chameleon from Tangled, and her Facebook page is populated with pictures of her posing with Cast Members from her Disney College Program-the program which got her foot in the door for an internship. But if there is one thing that may rival her love for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, it is her love for the actual animal kingdom.
“Any opportunity I had to interact with animals I became excited.” Sarah grew up without pets and never knew of any relatives who worked with animals. Yet, she felt herself drawn to them, nonetheless. “I think that’s kind of why I became super passionate about it because I wasn’t surrounded by animals. So anytime I had an opportunity I definitely jumped on it. From cat-sitting and dog-sitting for friends, to eventually volunteering at the Humane Society. I just always felt so comforted by being surrounded by animals.”
Sarah is not alone. Over half of Americans identify as animal lovers, but as few as 434,700 working adults have managed to make them the center of their career as zoologists, veterinarians, or animal care providers according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Like Sarah, I too felt drawn to animals from an early age. The Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History was my second home, I have a shelf dedicated to all the animal encyclopedias hoarded from childhood, and when I went to the zoo I reentered that first world of Nature from which we have alienated ourselves. And although I did not go on to pursue animal care, I am still an occupant of the animal world through my research and writing.
But working with animals is not without risks. Whether working in research, care, conservation, or education, those who work with animals often operate in a world of uncertainty. Uncertain finances, uncertain job prospects, and uncertain animals. Science itself is fraught with uncertainty. Study subjects can die, experiments may produce negative results, and a field season can be thwarted by bad weather, war, or — currently — a pandemic.
Yet, when faced with grave uncertainty, the animal worker persists and pursues the call of the wild, nonetheless. Friends and family may question why one would continue down this uncertain path all just to work with animals, to which the animal worker may simply say it is what they were called to do.
The classical notion of a “calling” has its roots in the Protestant Reformation, originally referring to a call to the clergy but later expanding its application to secular fields. Yet, it still invokes a divine destiny, that the hand of God holding and shaping our futures.
A 2009 paper published in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly explores the role the concept of calling plays in modern society through studying the lives of zookeepers. Modern views of calling tend to be more individualistic than the Protestant Reformers. They emphasize duty to one’s self rather than society; a process of deciding, rather than discovering, one’s true calling. However, after interviewing over 900 zookeepers, researchers found that zookeepers tended to conceptualize their calling in a way that more closely resembled that of Protestant Reformers, often ascribing an element of inevitability to their chosen career. Zookeepers don’t choose their career; their career chose them.
“None of the zookeepers with whom we spoke attributed their occupational choice to guidance by a divine,” write the authors, Bunderson and Jeffery. “Nevertheless, they did look for and find the hand of fate, destiny, or simple inevitability in the events leading up to their choice of zookeeping as evidence that they had found their calling.”
Speaking to friends and colleagues about their calling, I too found frequent citations to the inevitability of their career trajectory.
“I seriously can’t see myself doing anything else,” says Jessica Roberts, a nature interpreter for the Lake Metroparks Farmpark and another friend from undergrad. “I mean I’ve had other jobs that didn’t involve taking care of animals and it was fine. Like I liked working at the library, but I just can’t seriously see myself doing anything else. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to study anything else in college. It’s just, I feel like it’s just what I was meant to do.”
Like Sarah, Jessica also expressed an early fascination with animals. “My Dad used to take me to the zoo every single Tuesday when I was growing up, and I’d always talk to the zookeepers that were walking around for presentations and stuff,” she says. “My mom just always knew I would work with animals because I’m always trying to save animals, even when I was a kid. I took in a feral cat one time.”
As Jessica tells me about how she accidentally lured a stray cat into her house with Cheerios, I remember similar stories from my childhood. Setting a cracker outside in the morning and rushing home after school to watch trails of ants carry it away piece by piece; begging my parents to buy birdseed so mourning doves could congregate in our backyard for me to watch from the window. So many scientists’ stories seem to begin with early experiences. For those working with animals, an interest in them almost always seems to emerge around childhood, later refined and hardened into a passion.
This passion pulls the animal-lover ever deeper into the wild throughout their life. But it also instills a sense of service, and obligation to use one’s gifts and talents to benefit society. This is at the heart of the classical concept of calling.
“Zookeepers, therefore, pursue their calling not because they enjoy cleaning cages,” Bunderson and Thompson write, “but, rather, because cleaning cages is part of their offering to society, and offering they feel obligated to make because of their particular gifts and society’s need.”
Animal work rarely pays well, and few are in it for the money. But what working with animals lacks in material gain it compensates with a spiritual gain — not necessarily a belief in any god, but, rather, an awareness of a larger system outside of oneself and that through their work they are contributing to a larger cause. This spiritual gain can even endow the most mundane tasks with meaning.
“Sometimes you’d just be entering stuff into Excel and some people find that very boring,” says Sarah. “But I think that ultimately even if you’re doing a simple task you realize you’re still contributing to the bigger picture. You’re part of a really important team that’s doing research that’s helping provide the best care possible for the animals and helping out these conservational projects that are helping contribute to save species from going extinct.”
To work with animals-whether research, care, conservation, or education-is to work toward something larger yourself. Mundane tasks done in an office or field station can have rippling effects. Cleaning cages may help sustain the last species of an endangered population from the other side of the world. Weeding a field could be the act that prevents an invasive species from establishing and wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem. Helping a child hold a boa constrictor may inspire the next wildlife warrior. No action is too small, and all help further a greater cause that no single individual could accomplish alone. This is what drives the animal worker to pursue their passion working in a world of uncertainty.
The uncertain world of animal work has become a lot more uncertain in recent months. Sarah’s time at Disney, unfortunately, was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But among the uncertainty, Sarah is certain, much like that first trip to Disney, that she will be back. “I know I’ll be back one day,” she writes in a farewell post on her Facebook wall, “but until then, I plan to continue to make as much magic as I possibly can wherever I go.”
Originally published at https://www.notazookeeper.com on May 23, 2020.