Written by Connie James
I have wanted to work in wildlife conservation for as long as I can remember. It’s all I’ve been working towards for years. When I was finishing up my degree I remember thinking to myself ‘no matter how much I am struggling right now, everything will be worth it when I get out there and start working.’ Honestly, I always thought that once I got the kind of job I wanted that my life would feel complete and that nothing else could ever really matter. I was so prepared to give up anything to pursue this career.
This is why when I ended up getting a 6-month internship at a primate sanctuary in South Africa I applied for a year-long visa hoping to stay as long as possible. After a few months of my internship a temporary staff position opened up and I jumped at the opportunity to become an official primate carer. Then, after I had been at the site for 7 months COVID hit. We all know what that means and how much it affected conservation organisations. It also meant that due to the international travel bans and visas being revoked the person scheduled to come and take over my job could no longer get to the site. And I, of course, could not get a flight home without paying a lot of money for a repatriation flight. This really should have been an opportunity for me to stay working as long as possible. But the reality ended up being a lot more complicated than that.
To set the scene: to get to this stage in conservation it took me 3 months of an unpaid internship, 3 separate volunteer trips where I paid to work, 1 college qualification, 6 years getting 2 degrees, 1 year of an unpaid independent research project with a large organisation, and 5 years working in customer service to fund said volunteer trips and degrees. All of this took place from the ages of 17-23 so as you can imagine, I was pretty busy fitting it all in.
When I started working at this primate sanctuary I couldn’t be happier and I fell in love with every animal that came through. I knew at this point that the reality was that I would probably only stay at this site for 6 months or a year so decided I wanted to get everything possible out of that time and I could rest when I was done. I asked to be trained on every single job on site, always offered to do lunch and late shifts, and when baby season came around I started offering to do the night shifts too. Even if I was exhausted when February came around, I learnt more than I ever could have imagined and gained skills in a variety of areas – something I had promised myself I would do to make myself as employable as possible. The result? Everything I had done to make sure I was in a position to take on a full-time job with all the relevant skills had left me so burnt out that when the opportunity came I was too exhausted to do it. When I found out there was the possibility of me staying on until the pandemic subsided I didn’t feel excited as I thought I should. Instead, I just felt tired.
I felt demotivated and like every day was becoming harder and harder. I couldn’t remember a time since I was 17 that I had a proper break or took any prolonged time to myself. And above all, I felt overwhelming guilt. After all, I had decided a long time ago that I was dedicating my life to animal welfare and in my head, that meant I should be able to work through anything personal that I might be feeling to act for the benefit of the animals in my care. So I continued to push and decided to stay until international flights started up again.
But the months went on, I had been on site for a year, the restrictions didn’t lift, and I felt more and more drained every single day. As time went on I became more and more guilty for wanting to return home and take some time out. I didn’t think that putting myself first was really an option in this career path, and certainly not during a national pandemic. I kept these feelings to myself as long as possible, scared people would judge me if I shared how desperately I wanted to leave a place that I truly loved. Eventually, I started talking to some friends who had been at the site with me and had already returned home. As it turns out, feeling this way was normal. Reaching a point where your mind and body need rest was normal. And knowing that you have learnt all you can from a certain experience and time is also normal. What isn’t normal or healthy is continuing to push at the same thing over and over again when your own body is screaming at you to stop. Everyone was telling me; no matter how vital you think you are to an operation, things will continue with or without you and you need to look after yourself.
I began considering paying for a repatriation flight to go home and spend some time sorting my head out and regaining the energy I needed to return to work. Eventually, after weeks of tormenting myself with guilt and shame, that is exactly what I did. Now I am back in the UK, and I can say without a doubt that I made the right decision. The site is still functioning without me and I am working a bit from home to raise funds and awareness for them. I even have the potential to return in a year when things are better for me! And I have so many options open to me for my future that won’t simply go away because I take a few months to rest. I was worried that when I came home I would realise how big a mistake I had made or that I would never be able to shake the guilt. Instead, I just felt relieved.
It’s only been a few weeks and honestly, I am itching to get back to animal work. But I know now the importance of really making sure I am ready. I have the luxury to spend this time working on my other sources of income and allowing my mind and body to rest after years of constant pressure. So I am forcing myself to make the most of it and not jump in too far too fast.
It turns out, a burnt-out conservationist is no use to anyone. The field was so competitive and everyone always told me I needed to put my all into it if I was ever going to get anywhere. So I did, my life became about the animals and I believed burn out was something I would just have to work through. And somewhere along the way, I lost myself. I neglected the vital parts of self-care and mental awareness necessary to stay motivated and strong. And really, by not taking small amounts of time to myself throughout the process I ended up in a position where I couldn’t work even when the job was handed to me. So I suppose my advice to any conservationists out there is this; don’t lose track of yourself. Being as employable as possible is not the only thing you need for a lasting and successful career in conservation. And don’t rush to get to the finish line as soon as possible. You’ll only end up shooting yourself in the foot.
For more of Connie, visit @connie.needham on Instagram