Story written by Amanda Gabryszak
Sometimes it’s hard for me to identify just where my journey started. Was it when I was a Lion King obsessed toddler? Or the strange wolf dreams I had as a teenager? Did it start with my going vegetarian, or adopting dogs? My best answer is that my journey has always been part of me, but it hasn’t always been a straight line.
But I guess – one event may have truly planted the first seeds. I was a senior in high school. The BP Oil Spill happened literally the day after my 18th birthday. As a self-proclaimed teenage hippy, I had always been environmentally minded. But seeing the oil flood the sea shifted something inside of me. I remember coming downstairs and seeing it on my parent’s TV. I just stared for a long time, wondering what I could do about it all. I was upset about the animals getting covered in oil; about the damage to the ecosystem.
At the time, I thought I was bad at science. In fact, I wasn’t even enrolled in a science class during my senior year – New York State only required three years of high school science education at the time. I was a novice guitarist, an ice hockey player, and a theatre kid. I sort of thought my life would follow one of those paths. Though I always wanted an adventurous life – in my own words, I wanted to be “the female Indiana Jones” – it never occurred to me that science could be an option.
I spent the early 2010s bouncing between academic majors during undergrad. As a freshman, I took music, technical theatre and acting, anthropology, international relations, Swahili, and several English courses. Thankfully, my English professor noticed a trend in my essays: I wrote solely about environmental concepts. During one assignment, I tracked National Geographic coverage of the Oil Spill – which was still leaching into the Gulf at the time.
“Did you ever think about going into environmental science or ecology?” she asked.
My life turned upside down. My school didn’t have an environmental science program I was interested in, so I transferred back to my hometown – Buffalo, NY – to take up animal behaviour, ecology, and conservation science. I took a trip out west to Yellowstone with the Canisius Zoological Society that December – which was just magical.
We studied wolf pack dynamics, spent a blissful early morning swimming through hot springs, tracked all kinds of wildlife, and set camera traps. I noticed a disconnect between locals and wolf restoration efforts. Some loved it. Some hated it. I tuned into it and wondered if maybe, I could help change minds. As a teenager, I’d frequently had wolf dreams – just sort of out of nowhere. And in my dreams, they were always helping me. Part of me felt like since they protected me in my dreams, I had a responsibility to try and protect them.
I was still a teenager, though – so I shrugged off that feeling. I became more wrapped up in local social movements and distracted myself with my then-boyfriend. I slacked hard. Even though I enjoyed my field trip, I thought maybe I’d be happy enough studying things that came more naturally to me.
I switched to journalism and environmental studies. Maybe, I reasoned, if I tell the stories I care about, that will be enough.
At 20, I started volunteering at a local wildlife rehab centre. One of the first things I helped with was pressing a re-breather bag to help keep a mallard alive under anaesthesia. I was surprised: am I qualified to do this? I wondered. The mallard died. I was ensured by volunteers and staff that I had nothing to do with it, and we all went about our day. I stayed at that wildlife rehab centre for a long time, interspersed for my travels. I liked wildlife rehab well enough that I studied and passed a licensing exam when I was 21. It was challenging but came more easily to me than big-picture sort of stuff.
I hopped around after that. After undergrad, I got a temporary paid internship as a naturalist at a wildlife centre in a Yellowstone National Park gateway town. I took a train out West and marvelled at the landscapes. I worked with captive wolves and grizzly bears and birds of prey. I mostly interpreted their behaviour and designed and led educational programs for the guests. And while I’d occasionally help with animal enrichment or care, I really didn’t get to do too much of it. I missed the hands-on interactions I had with wildlife. Plus, life was pretty tough out there. The town had limited housing. The tiny studio apartment I shared with my coworker had paper-thin walls. On top of that, our landlords didn’t believe in bear resistant garbage cans and would accidentally shut off the water on their weekend excursions to Idaho. Groceries were expensive. Old men were creepy. It was a reality check for sure.
When I returned home, I thought maybe I’d start along the veterinary technology path. But when I submitted my application, it was too late – the seats for the cheapest local vet tech program were entirely filled. So, what was I supposed to do?
Puzzled, I accepted a wildlife rehab internship in Maine for a change of pace.
This was the right choice. I worked hard, found that I didn’t really mind early mornings if I had enough coffee. Since my internship was unpaid, I worked under the table at a local coffee shop to make ends meet. I spent what little spare time I had learning how to surf. I took to surfing naturally – and I loved every minute of it. My teachers were cool, too. One kid told me about how he dreamed of going to school to build boats and learning to navigate based on the stars. Another just loved his way of life and couldn’t imagine doing anything different.
For the first time, I felt the quiet echo in my heart: neither can I. Wildlife rehab offered me a freedom where journalism and detached environmental studies constrained me.
The internship ended. I returned home, took up volunteering at the local wildlife rehab centre again, interned with the Jane Goodall Institute from a distance, and returned to work at the coffee shop.
It was nearly 2016 and I was immediately restless. Even though I was still very young, I was feeling an itch: I wanted to make something of my life – while still enjoying the ride and pursuing my passions. Many of my peers were beginning to trade their food service jobs for desk jobs. I couldn’t see myself there. I couldn’t relent. I found out that one of my supervisors at the local wildlife centre could utilise some of my skills and she signed me on as an intern. I was eventually hired as a part-time assistant. In the meanwhile, I tried to scrap together something of a plan. I kept my old supervisor’s words in the back of my head and began applying to grad schools.
I connected with a professor at SUNY ESF who accepted me into the Environmental Studies program. I wanted to help wolves, but all my research ideas either required funding – which we didn’t have – or just simply wouldn’t work. I spoke with my adviser about this and she pointed out that wolves aside – my interests clearly lied within wildlife rehabilitation and veterinary science, and that though I had social science interests, they were inextricably linked to the biological sciences. She told me about the One Health initiatives. She switched me into the interdisciplinary environmental science program and we examined what I needed to do.
It was a quick, sharp change. I began taking coursework to fulfil a wildlife biology certificate. On top of that, she suggested I take veterinary school prerequisites. It was the first time anyone had suggested something like that. But to my surprise, I liked the idea. I spent a good chunk of my mid-20’s trying (maybe a little too hard) to make something of my life. I looked at both wildlife diseases and how newspapers communicated them. I took classes like genetics and physiology and they fascinated me.
In 2018, I took a job as a disease ecology project assistant in the Hudson Valley. I worked with chipmunks and mice. I particularly liked camera trapping – but I found that working in hot temperatures took a toll on me. I ended up sick by the end of the season. On top of that, half of my thesis data disappeared midway through my season. I don’t think anyone really understood how stressful that was. I was stunned and worried I would end up spending over three years in a Master’s program with money I didn’t have. I was already in an inordinate amount of debt because my degree program wasn’t funded. I panicked.
All I can suggest you do in those situations, I guess, is to be kind and listen to yourself, and to power through. The backdrop of my life during those times was complicated. At one point, I was working four part-time jobs while attending grad school full time. I had to cut back, and I did. I made time to take up photography and guitar again. I spent time with my dog. I learned how to live in the moment again.
I defended my thesis this past November and my life has improved infinitely since then! I currently work as a freelance writer/illustrator for a wildlife website, and have been working on building opportunities.
As for the veterinary track, I’m starting with veterinary technology like I always planned to. Vet school applications themselves cost a lot of money and I still have remaining pre-requisites. As a freelancer, I never really know how much money I’m going to make at any given time. Working as a tech for a bit will help me save up, develop skills and experience, and finish pre-reqs before I apply for vet school. Not to mention the questions that accompany that: will I apply in the US and Canada? Or Poland? Or the Caribbean? How will I be able to survive? But I think it’s right for me. I can’t untangle myself from the field.
And pacing myself is right, too. Don’t ever let anyone try to push you into something you’re not quite ready for. By trying to do too much at once, I severely limited my opportunities to be my free-spirited self and engage in the world around me. I won’t make that mistake again. Luckily, I’ve got friends and mentors who point out my life isn’t wrong, it’s just different. And that always helps.
I know I’ll get to where I want to be. It’s been a long and winding road, but ultimately, I think I’m exactly where I ought to be. I think I’ll write a book about it one day.
A Fellow Lonely Conservationist,
Follow Amanda on Instagram @truthaliar