Written by Connie Baker-Arney

‘You are not clever enough to be a vet…’

‘You need to work harder.’

‘Are you sure you do not have un-diagnosed dyscalculia?’

‘I do not understand how you plan to achieve all of these dreams and plans’

‘You need to get your head out of the clouds.’

These are some of the words I grew up with, these are the words that inspired me to prove everyone wrong.

I am a Kentish girl from England, I grew up in a home that was not particularly wealthy. We did not have holidays abroad or explore the outdoors at every opportunity. In fact, I spent a lot of time in the house as a child using my imagination to guide me. My entire life has been dictated by my want, if not need, to work with animals. It’s like this uncontrollable drive in me; to protect and to save.

I, like so many others, had dreams of being a vet and dedicating my life to animals. I worked on farms, in vets, in zoos, and boarding kennels. I took on part time employment as soon as I could to fund these volunteer placements. I will never forget the feeling the first time I was accepted on a zoo placement. Finally feeling like I was a step closer to achieving.

Veterinary school is difficult to get in to, and I was always aware of this. Always aware I may not be good enough but also unsure that veterinary care was really going to be my passion in life. Alongside this, I was surrounded by people who did not believe in me as much as they should have done. One teacher in fact had no belief in me whatsoever. In A level Chemistry; already anxious and concerned that I was not good enough – my teacher who seemed enraged by my weaknesses blew up at me one drizzly Friday morning. She stood in front of me shouting in my face about how I must be lazy, that I must have special educational needs, and that I would never get to uni with my work ethic. My usual confidence dissipated, my resolve crumbled, it was immediate numbness. I will never be good enough and she confirmed that for me. But you know what? She was wrong.

That pinnacle moment in my life has shaped me. It pushed me to quit sixth form and it set me on a new path; I went to college and studied Animal Management. There was a sense of freedom, a weight lifted. And why? Because I was another step closer to the goal, I was fighting against the disbelief against the odds. This led me onto my degree in Animal Behaviour.

I loved my degree, it fed my passions, it gave me confidence and it made me believe in myself. I was even lucky enough to get a job working on the animal unit there, it did mean sacrificing all my weekends for two years, but I didn’t care. I had made it. There was a moment in my car on that first week of work. I just sat there, glassy eyed staring out of my window. Covered in goose bumps and wanting to pinch myself. How had I done this? I had finally got into the industry, all those years of longing, wanting and working and I had done it. Minimum pay, 0-hour contract, but to me this was making it.

I sacrificed a great deal during my undergrad to be successful and that meant my relationships and friendships were strained under the pressure of my constant working day and night. Some of those people did not understand why I was so committed, and I am not sure they ever will. I was one of the lucky ones that had a job waiting for me at the end of my degree. Full time work as a Technical Instructor managing animal sections and teaching students. An amazing job to cruise into after a degree.

And yet… I wasn’t happy or fulfilled? 2 years prior I felt like I had made it with my 0-hour contract and now here I was staring glassy eyed at my computer screen feeling like a bit of a cop out.

One bad day later I quit my job and booked a one-way ticket to Australia. Some time to level my head, decide what I want to do with my life. I could travel, I could learn Australia’s fauna and flora and maybe pick up some new skills along the way. I stayed in Australia for a year, travelled through every state, logged my wildlife spotting and learnt the behaviour of marsupials. Alongside this I entered the racehorse industry. I believe in objectivity and I wanted to view this controversial industry from the inside. Plus, I was absolutely terrified of horses- what better way to combat a fear? I did combat that fear, in fact I smashed it. I now love horses, I could write and write about how they changed my life, how they make my heart feel full – but maybe I’ll save that for another time. Australia gave me that feeling of making it, above and beyond. I had taken another step closer to that goal of animal saviour.

This meant that leaving Australia and returning to England was incredibly difficult. I had spent a year moving forward, travelling, learning and discovering new things. Standing on boats and watching whales and dolphins, conversing with researchers, students and other tourists. Exploring islands meeting and seeing animals that you can only dream of. Then suddenly you are back in reality, you are static, you are going through the motions. My mental health utterly plummeted at this point. This was somewhat balanced out by meeting the love of my life and now fiancé, who showed me that there was more to the U.K than grey squirrels. I applied for over 50 jobs, I had 4 job interviews and 3 offers. I accepted a job in Animal Science lecturing, I thought this was going to be the right move for me. I’m still not sure now whether it was.

Teaching students had some reward, I cannot deny. However, there was no earth-shattering moments, goose bumps, excitement or pride that I had made it, to be truthful I felt like a failure. I spent 6 months of my time working here going in complete circles about my static and miserable situation. I was put onto anti-depressants to manage my anxiety attacks. I felt as though I had come so far, only to plummet so dramatically. Were they right about me not being good enough?

Making a change

The only way out of this situation was to make change. I applied for a master’s degree in Northern Ireland and I made plans with my fiancé Nick to change how we viewed our lives whilst working static. We bought a van, converted it into a camper and decided to commit our spare moments to wildlife, to videos, to educating the young and the elderly. Sharing our passions day in and day out. Exploring in the van and searching for animals fills my heart with joy, it gives me that buzz. Every day and every time that I do this I am learning and growing. It makes me buzz for my future career prospects.

That leads me to today… I now live in Northern Ireland, I am a research assistant in a marine biology lab – looking at microplastics and invasive species, I am volunteering with the red squirrel groups here, I start my master’s in a month and I am planning to apply for my PhD, focusing on red squirrel ecology. Now when you really reflect on these things you realise that all the rubbish sacrificial moments where you are convinced you are not enough or that you have failed, where you are told “no” by others, told to stop trying or to give up. You realise all those moments were worth it and all of those people were wrong. I wanted a life with animals, I wanted to learn, to care and to protect them and I am. From animal care, to research, to saving an ant or a bee; all these things are positive contributions, and we have all made it in some way or another. We are not defined by the words spoken to us, we are defined only by our own actions.

For more of Connie, check out @wearevanimals on Instagram