Written by Jillian Drury
My story may be a little different than many of the other stories I have read on this blog simply because for a while, I gave up my dream of being a conservationist. My childhood was very similar to a lot of my fellow Lonely Conservationists, it was full of love and curiosity for animals and the natural world. I would watch Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest on repeat and try to emulate Bob Ross every Saturday afternoon in the summer on my homemade easel outside painting happy little trees. I had a subscription to Ranger Rick, watched Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures and Steve Irwin’s The Crocodile Hunter and dreamed of going to school to become a wildlife biologist. I wanted to wear the tan outfit and tell people how fascinating these creatures were and most importantly to care about them. I wanted to be a protector of animals and their habitats. To speak for those who could not. I would get emotional and start crying (this definitely hasn’t changed) in my early teens when I saw IFAW images of horrible humans clubbing baby seals or killing tigers for medicine or rugs. I could not understand why anyone would be able to hurt or destroy all this beauty and wonder around us. My heart, my mind and my body ached with pain for these creatures and the Earth as a whole. I knew early that my passion for these causes was what I should study.
So, I went to study what was the closest major to what I grew up dreaming about, Wildlife and Fisheries Conservation and Management. Looking back, I had so many unique and interesting experiences because of my course of study. I mean, who wouldn’t take a course on African Elephant and Human Conflict and then head over to Botswana camping for half a month with the Okavango River Delta as your classroom? And what better place to study geology and the Earth’s history then a semester in Hawaii with all her glorious volcanoes! I loved it all, from my labs outside memorising all the tree species found on campus to waking up at 2:00 am to assist a graduate student who was radio collaring Virginia Opossums and returning home later that morning covered in excrement. The major itself offered so many opportunities that others did not and for that I will always be grateful.
Right after college, I started the usual job and volunteer hunting. I took a number of jobs that paid very low but offered amazing experiences and skills in mitigation, species and habitat identification, telemetry, observational data collection and administration. But life happened. You fall in and out of love, you move to different states, family issues occur, personal and school debt pile up and sometimes you land in the place you never intended or was wrong from the start, but it was where life was taking you. And maybe I did things wrong, maybe my path was all my own doing. I feel what I can only describe as “career guilt” every day. I wasn’t experienced enough or confident enough at the time to think creatively about the career path. I have also never felt smart enough (a big one for me) to go on to graduate school because how does someone make the decision to study one thing or become a master of one species? I could never decide on one thing because I cared and was interested in all of the things! Not to mention, I didn’t have the money for it. The only thing I thought I would be able to do with this major down the road and make a living wage was to become a researcher. To this day, I love all the adventure that this field brings, but I was clueless that there was a whole other set of skills and careers that would benefit the natural world I loved. And so, life happened, I gave up and pursued other job opportunities. I won’t go into too much detail about those other job opportunities, as we nature lovers are more fascinated by what climate change is doing to our bird populations and not so much which fabric looks best on that sofa. Let’s just say I felt like the developer in the bulldozer in Fern Gully; the total opposite of my career goals. I know, I cringe too.
Fast forward 12 years and I am currently working in the development field which consists of fundraising, events and donor relations at a hospital. I am happy to say I am getting closer to a feel-good profession. I have had to revisit this “career guilt” over and over again and what I came to realise (through therapy and lots of reflection) is that guilt I was feeling so strongly was actually my passion. So, there is something to be said about having a passion, because from my experience, it will haunt you until you listen and follow it. I have spent hours of my life being upset that my day job isn’t in the field I thought it would be. I have cried so many tears for all that I was NOT doing for wildlife, the causes I care about and the environment. I recently even reached out to an old professor that was a mentor to me during my undergraduate days and opened up to him about what I was feeling. I was thinking about going back to school and we chatted about that but he also brought up a point that actually wasn’t new to my ears.
YOU ARE DOING ENOUGH. YOU SHOULD BE PROUD OF THE PERSON YOU ARE BECAUSE YOU CARE SO MUCH. WHAT CAN YOU DO NOW INSTEAD OF FOCUSING ON WHAT YOU HAVEN’T DONE YET? GO OUT THERE AND BE THE BEST YOU CAN BE AT WHATEVER CAUSE YOU CARE ABOUT.
Simple words, right?
And I had heard it before from family, friends, and even employers. Maybe hearing it from another conservationist, an experienced and wise one at that, who knew the field helped hit it home? I don’t know, but it was what I needed to hear.
So, how do you follow your passion if you can’t break into the conservation field professionally? This is where wisdom, creativity and a little desperation come in to play. You get involved where ever and however you can.
Because of my current location, there are only so many conservation jobs that pay a living wage and over the years I have applied, staying hopeful that even with new skills that I may be of service to these organisations. Unfortunately, the job search continues. Because of my age and current life goals, I would like to buy a home and am currently studying and training to become wildlife a rehabber. I would love to create a home rehab clinic in the future. So again, I have taken jobs that are not the field of conservation but have helped me be in a more stable financial situation and are helping me reach other conservation goals. It has taken me a while to realise this is nothing to be ashamed of!
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? As I mentioned above, I am currently involved in a number of volunteer opportunities including our local marine mammal stranding organisation; donating to causes I care deeply about; studying and learning how to care for and rehabilitate wildlife; attending wildlife conferences; helping with local scientific data collection and being conscious of my footprint on this planet. I even have hope that my current position will give me the necessary experience needed to land a job at a wildlife welfare non-profit someday. THAT would be the cherry on top of everything for me!
The Lonely Conservationist posted a slide recently from a presentation she attended that sums everything up perfectly
“Know your values, live them. Find your people. Give your best and don’t give up”.
I hope my story helps others who might be struggling, second guessing themselves, or just feeling like a failure because things didn’t go as planned. Just because we are not all dressed in khaki’s and a master of something, doesn’t make us less valuable to the cause. Regardless of whether I ever have an official career in conservation, I am still a conservationist and an environmentalist. These are not just job titles; they are personality traits and values. They embody who we are and its our job to share that with the world.
For more of Jillian, follow @jmaedrury on Instagram
Nice essay. I feel the same.