Steph (There are many ways to skin a cat)

Written by Steph Robertson

Hello fellow Lonely Conservationists! My name is Steph, I’m a 25-year old zoology graduate who has just finished up having the literal year-of-my-life! My road to where I am has been a rocky one and as it turns out, it still is! But I have hope, and as my mum always says: ‘there’s many ways to skin a cat (figuratively speaking)’ So I thought I would share my story with you all.

As seems to be the case with most other LCs, I grew up loving the natural world. At any opportunity, I would be running barefoot outside to go and collect woodlice to put in my homemade terrarium (I reused the plastic boxes from my old Easter eggs). I would grab moss and wood and any substrate I could think of and would sit and watch them all day long. When dusk came, I would release them back into ‘the wild’. I would pick up ants and throw them into spider webs just so I could watch the magic of the spiders spinning silk around their prey. My hands would rummage around in bodies of water, eager to find a frog. As I got older, I would beg to go to our friend’s farms and help with lambing or caring for their horses. I decided I wanted to be a vet.

However, in school, I struggled with the system. Practical assessments were my forte, I lived for the lessons where I would be assessed on dissecting a heart and labelling it. But these only accounted for 10% of my grade. The rest was exam-based. If your school was anything like mine, you were sat in that musty gym hall that had suddenly been crammed full with single tables and chairs, a strong smell of sweat leaching from the gym equipment into the air; you look down at that exam paper as the invigilators read out the rules and time and suddenly, your heart beats faster and as you open that first page, no amount of revision can prepare you for a total full-blown mind blank.

I would answer questions, somewhat correctly, but due to not remembering ‘key words’ I wouldn’t get the marks. My school didn’t help. After struggling with my A-Levels, realising a veterinary career wasn’t for me (based on the fact that I was emotional as hell and couldn’t cope with certain situations during work experience) and being told by teachers that I ‘wouldn’t get very far with those grades’ and ‘I wouldn’t amount to much’, I was told to re-sit.

So, in September 2013, whilst all my friends went to university, I took a gap year. I was gutted, what do I do with this year other than work and revise? I would be so bored. I spoke to relatives and investigated how I could still study something wildlife related. That was where I discovered the world of zoology, a broad subject covering every topic that I had ever found interesting. I applied to universities and booked my exam resits.

Then, my first field opportunity arose. My aunt knew the owner of a luxury safari lodge in a South African game reserve and after a few emails, I had booked a flight out in March 2014. Revising for exams went straight out the window. Here I was, in one of the most incredible places, full of this fascinating wildlife that I had only ever seen at the zoo, of course I wasn’t going to shut myself away inside to revise! My job was to shadow the rangers, I learnt how to track and ID; my days were filled with wildlife encounters I had never dreamt would happen; my photographs were used for facial recognition of individuals. I was in my element. But good things come to an end and in May I flew back home, after previously extending my stay. I sat my resits unprepared, but full of knowledge of African wildlife. If only I had an exam on that, I would have smashed it!

Results came, and I had minimal improvement. My grades weren’t high enough and all my university applications were rejected. A slap in the face. I was gutted. But then, I got a phone call from one university saying that they wanted to accept me onto a 4-year Zoology course with a foundation year to ‘top up’. I was shocked and accepted the offer.
Fast forward 4 years to 2018. I had the most incredible time at university. I undertook some incredible field courses, researched and learnt so many amazing new things, met the most incredible bunch of wildlife nerds and graduated with a high first. Screw you secondary school; turns out when I was in the right environment and studying something I loved, I nailed it! After graduating, I was fortunate enough to land a job with the National Trust; however, it was only covering a 3-month secondment.

So, whilst I was developing interpretation on our rare breed farm for the public, I was also figuring out what I to do next. I had always known I would complete a year travelling after completing university. I sat and googled various working holiday visas. I had always wanted to explore New Zealand, ever since I first watched Walking with Dinosaurs and found out that those forests were REAL! I was also offered my job full-time as the person I was covering wasn’t coming back. I was torn but had already made the decision to travel. So, in March 2019, I quit my job, packed my rucksack and took myself on a 36-hour flight to the other side of the world.

Oh boy, there are no words to describe how incredible a country New Zealand is. The people, the landscape, the wildlife; all of it is extraordinary. Whilst I was out there, I was incredibly fortunate to spend some time working on a population study of native long-tailed bats alongside the Department of Conservation. I was in my element, spending every day exploring the native bush, tracking these adorable looking bats and recording data. I also decided to travel to South East Asia where I trekked through the Sumatran jungle, finding wild orangutans; I sailed to Komodo National Park, coming face to face with dragons; I managed to see the world’s largest coral reef system in Australia, swimming amongst the most colourful fish my eyes had ever seen.

Then coronavirus hit. In March of this year, I returned to the UK and all my job prospects were put on hold. All my volunteering with local mammal, bat and other groups were postponed. I was planning to train to become a cruise ship conservationist, travelling the world, gathering data and communicating with guests. It would’ve been the dream. Alas, this has also been delayed. My applications for assistant ecologist and ranger jobs were sent back with an apology that the position was no longer open due to coronavirus restrictions.

Now what? I have sent countless emails to a multitude of organisations, to receive either a ‘no’ or no response at all. How can I have gone from spending the last year on cloud 9 to now hitting rock bottom with no in between?

If I’m being brutally honest, I’m not someone who has ever really suffered from mental health, but for those first few weeks of my return to the UK, anxiety reared its head for the first time. I didn’t know how to deal with these emotions. I wanted to do nothing and everything at the same time. What WOULD I do with this time? There were so many online courses available that I was overwhelmed with what to choose. What will I say to future employers at interviews if they ask what I did during the time of corona? I can’t tell them I had done nothing, and yet, days went by and I had only done the bare minimum, let alone anything else.

But, somehow – and I’m still not entirely sure what triggered me – after a couple of weeks, I managed to push past those negative, uneasy thoughts that many people have experienced in this currently new and strange world. I have hope. I am fortunate to live in the countryside; I have a garden I can explore; I am only a short walk away from a network of public footpaths. I am outside every day, rekindling my love for British wildlife, to the point that I can identify between the individuals of roe deer that traverse the fields nearby. I have found a new hobby in woodburning, something I hadn’t heard of until 6 months ago. I am connecting with more and more people in the conservation community online; I love the daily conversations I am having with all these incredible, inspiring people from around the world that I have never met. Who knows where I would be right now without this group? I don’t know what is next in store for me, but I have hope that things will look up soon, for all of us. After all, there are many ways to skin a cat!

For more of Steph, visit @ramblingzoology on Instagram

Jessie Panazzolo

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Hi! I am the founder of Lonely Conservationists and I am a proud conservationist conservationist- someone who works to save those who are saving the world 🌍

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