Lonely Conservationists

Jamie (Finding your identity in a crowded sector )

Written by Jamie Sneddon

My Name is Jamie and I’m a zoologist/conservationist/field biologist/ecologist/scientist/clueless graduate with a sense of identity crisis. The issue of who/what I am is something that I’ve been struggling with for much of my life and definitely my entire career. People don’t like being pigeonholed but there’s a sense of security to be found in knowing your place in a chaotic world. Being able to define yourself with a solid, irrefutable job title is something that people in other industries maybe take for granted. One of the first things people ask you is “what do you do for a living?”. For most people this question is simple, “I’m a teacher”, “I’m a personal trainer”, “I’m a lion tamer”. For me my answer changes depending on my audience or even my mood. For most of us this identity crisis didn’t simply start once we entered the world of work.

I’ve always felt like I needed to try harder than others when it came to education. At primary school it was a constant battle to get me to focus. Windows were my downfall; I mean why would I listen to the teacher when I could watch crows outside? If I was sat away from the windows, I would just collect insects in my pencil case at break and take them into class with me, problem solved. My lack of focus was amplified when it came to maths. If I was in school now, I’m almost certain that I would be diagnosed with some kind of dyscalculia. Put simply, numbers just didn’t make sense to me. I distinctly remember thinking of numbers as male and female. 1,3,6,9,11 etc were female and 2,4,5,7,8 etc were male. It was odd and didn’t help me with my maths at all, but I think it was maybe my mind trying to rationalise something I couldn’t understand. As time went on, I fell more and more behind. When I couldn’t recite my times tables I would be held in at break and lunch and made to recite them in front of all the teachers in the staff room. A pretty cruel thing to do to a struggling child. I would always manage it, even if it was very strained, and immediately forget again once I left the room. This didn’t help me with maths, it did quite the opposite. It gave me painful insecurities and anxiety when it comes to anything number related. This still impacts me today and is a real hurdle in my battle to be taken seriously in the conservation sector.

I made it through secondary school with the same issues but managed to get the grades I needed to study zoology at university. Bring on practical education and the freedom to learn about topics that interest me. Wrong! Welcome to the world of academia. The problems started early on. I dropped higher chemistry in secondary school because I found it too challenging. You can imagine my horror when advanced chemistry was a mandatory course in my first year of uni. It’s okay though because I could finally get stuck into fieldwork, right? Wrong! I hope you enjoy windowless lecture theatres and labs under harsh artificial lights. Maybe I was naïve, okay I was definitely naïve, to expect that you had to spend time in the natural world to learn about the natural world. After living in the Scottish Highlands, I felt trapped in a city. Concrete everywhere, no forests, no escaping to the mountains. I volunteered with red squirrel monitoring projects in parks and captured footage of urban foxes on a cheap camera trap. It was those optional outdoor activities that kept me sane. I would have expected others in my course to feel the same way, but many complained about the few fieldwork sessions that we did have. Apparently searching for rabbit poo in the snow seems ‘pointless’ to some zoology students! Snow is great and poo is great, fact.

For the most part I managed to do quite well at university. Again, I felt that I had to work far harder than my classmates but overall, I didn’t struggle too much. That was until statistics came along. If it wasn’t for my friends, I would have never passed this element of my degree. It made me feel stupid and like a complete fraud. If I couldn’t do statistics or even simple mathematics how could I be a conservationist? This feeling was amplified when a lab assistant shamed me in front of my lab partners. I didn’t understand part of an equation and she proceeded to patronise me by saying, very slowly so my simple brain could keep up, “If you have x number of apples and I take away x number of apples, how many apples are you left with?”. Humiliating. As a third-year science student I didn’t think people would make me feel like dirt and certainly wouldn’t publicly humiliate me. That took a while to bounce back from.

Amazingly, despite my fight or flight reaction to basic math, I graduated with a 2:1 Bsc in Zoology. Now time to face the world of work! After attending a career day in fourth year, I think most of my year felt deflated. It was full of people who had volunteered for 5 years and had just secured a placement or had managed national parks in the middle east but moved to the UK and had to volunteer before securing paid work. Very inspiring stuff… While everyone else felt demoralised, it made me determined to break the mold. Surely these people just weren’t trying hard enough or thinking outside the box. It was this logic that led me to become a falconer.

“Guys do you know there are companies that fly birds of prey as a form of non-lethal pest control? Mental right?!”

It wasn’t conventional conservation, but it involved monitoring wild birds, working with animals and most importantly it was paid work. The problem was that after applying 3 times I still hadn’t even secured an interview. Obviously, my lack of experience flying birds of prey was going to be an issue. To overcome the usual application chain, which clearly wasn’t working, I found an employee, got them to give me the number of the big boss and got in touch with him. Straight to source thinking. I met this man, flying a peregrine falcon from the top of a multi-storey carpark, and convinced him to give me a chance. Whatever I said clearly worked because the next thing I knew I was the proud owner of a harris hawk, Maggie, and running around Scotland keeping schools, nuclear power plants and construction sites clear of seagulls. Now a word of warning, this was not a dream job. Firstly, birds of prey are hard to work with. They don’t really like people all that much and can be very temperamental. Having to pull Maggie’s talons out of my girlfriend’s face taught me that. Despite some rocky moments I found the birds great company. I was alone 95% of the time, isolated by the strange nature of my job and feeling a bit lost. I enjoyed watching gull colonies and learning about seabird ecology, but I also had to do my fair share of unpleasant work. For example, I had to fly Maggie on highstreets to keep seagulls away at lunchtime. A completely pointless job. A good sales pitch covered up the fact that non-lethal pest control doesn’t work for gulls, they’re too intelligent for that. The result was Maggie being mobbed by gulls and me being spat at by drug addicts because I wouldn’t let them hold her. It was a fun time. Having to check rat boxes at waste treatment centres was another less than glamorous element of my job. However, it wasn’t being spat on or having rats run up my arm that broke me, it was the day I was forced to remove three seagull chicks from a roof that broke me.

Now when you have birds of prey you have to kill animals at some point. It’s not something I took pleasure in, unlike most people I really admire seagulls, but if your hawk catches a gull and can’t finish the job then you need to humanely dispatch it before your hawk ends up with a broken wing. Gulls fight back and are built like tanks. I could deal with this unsavoury element of the job because it happened rarely. The day that pushed me over the edge involved some gull chicks, maybe a week from fledging, sat on the remaining sections of roof left during a demolition project. I had argued for weeks that the chicks were about to fledge so we should leave them alone. Unfortunately, the business pushed for removal and I was told to remove the chicks or lose my job. I removed the chicks. Each one had a different personality, one ran, one fought back, and one just sat there and accepted its fate. I went home, grey faced, sat in the shower on the verge of tears and quit my job a few weeks later. It was needless killing, I was young, naïve and scared to lose my income. It’s something that I feel a deep shame about to this day and if I could go back, I would have left the chicks alone and quit on the spot. It’s easier to have morals when you don’t have to fear being homeless if you lose your job. From zoology graduate to this, not exactly the David Attenborough future I imagined.

Following this job and a slight detour into retail, thanks to my swift exit from flying birds, I decided that I needed to get back to actual conservation. This meant volunteering. I’ve volunteered with squirrels, wildcats and even some birds and fish short term. The overall theme seems to be learning to do very skilled work, doing that work for a long time and getting no money for your trouble. Volunteering short term seems to spiral into years and it’s not long before your sense of self worth is whittled away. What you’re left with is a very skilled, hardworking individual without an ounce of self-respect. This was perfectly summed up when I was hit with norovirus during a particularly intense volunteering post. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I thought the virus was going to kill me. Despite this I only took a few days off because I had so much ‘work’ to do. What happens when you stumble around the woods for hours on end when you haven’t eaten in days and are still reeling from an aggressive virus? You collapse multiple times, wake up very confused, stumble to your feet and keep going. People who haven’t tried to break into the conservation sector don’t understand that kind of behaviour. I definitely don’t think it’s normal, but the sector fosters this insane mindset. Nothing you ever do is good enough, you can always work harder and there are a million other people who would volunteer in your post if you cant cope. Those desperate, hungry graduates nipping at your heels and the usual promise of an elusive job appearing at the end of your struggle are enough to keep you going for a while. The promised jobs don’t tend to appear though. Sometimes you get a compliment and a nice mug, but not paid employment. I’ve literally managed a conservation project for free, had great success doing so and still the job I was promised is yet to materialise. The problem is that while you’re in the volunteer maze, you hold on to the logic that if you leave it will all be for nothing. If you can just hold on a bit longer, you’ll be rewarded with the breakthrough you’ve been working towards. You should be grateful just to have gotten this far. It’s a sad mindset and eventually becomes pretty pathetic. How can you expect someone to respect you when you don’t respect yourself?

The day I refused to volunteer anymore was one of the best things I think I could have done for my conservation career and certainly helped my mental health. My girlfriend, Kim, couldn’t take seeing me work myself to death for no reward anymore. I had no money and wanted to move on with my life. I wanted to get a dog, stop renting flats with horrible landlords and think about having a family. Conservation couldn’t offer me these things and Kim, with her stable teacher wage, deserved to live the life we both wanted. She had worked hard, made good choices and had supported me every step of the way. Eventually I couldn’t cope with the feeling that my hopeless career was holding her back. So, I went to work in a school as a pupil support assistant, the most stable job I could find at the time. I made some money, started to move on with my life and I left conservation behind in order to save what was left of my passion. If conservation wouldn’t pay me for my hard work, then I wasn’t going to hold on forever. It wasn’t long before I started to yearn for the forests again.

Before working in the school, I could walk around and find squirrels by the sound of pinecones being nibbled in the canopy. The forest was a tranquil place that heightened all my senses. Now they were overwhelmed. Bells were deafening, the lights were bright, the air heavy and stagnant. It was an alien world. Despite being like a fish out of water, I found out that I was actually very good at my job. Being a young male, in a female dominated workforce, meant that I helped out a lot of angry young guys who needed a good male role model. I taught a lot of kids about nature and even got them taking part in beach cleans. On good days it was great but on bad days I just wanted to run away. If you’ve ever had a child call you a “Fu**ing moron” you’ll know what I mean. The thought that I spent 4 years in university for this crossed my mind a lot. Basically, I was back to feeling underappreciated and alone but in a completely different way. Colleagues spoke about the latest soap drama or the fact that their neighbour never cuts the grass, riveting stuff. Everyone has an air of being unhappy and bored, but no one does anything to escape this personality vacuum. In a world where you’re defined by your career, I felt judged constantly. People would ask why I worked in a school if I had a zoology degree. I thought the same thing, so it was hard to justify. When I volunteered people were confused by my choices but at least I was interesting. I enjoyed having stories to tell, the time a reindeer kicked me and left me hobbled for weeks or the time a half awake, very angry, cat escaped in my car. People would give me a look of pity when I told them that I worked in a school. I would avoid the topic of work at all costs and felt sorry for Kim. She could be judged just as easily for being attached to a guy who was either a hippy, running around the woods for free, or someone who couldn’t cut it in his sector so took a low paid position in a school. I would apply for jobs constantly and get knocked back time and time again. Each time the look of pity from people grew stronger. There I was, a failure. People didn’t understand the sector, so it wasn’t the industries fault it was mine. Years go by, people progress but there’s Jamie still struggling on and getting nowhere. Then out of nowhere one of the promised jobs appeared!

When I left my volunteer post with the squirrel project, in 2017, I told myself that I wouldn’t volunteer for anything again. I was worth more than that and until I put my foot down, I wasn’t going to get anywhere. Two years later, at my lowest point, I was offered a paid job on that same squirrel project and it’s where I find myself now. I am Jamie Sneddon, professional squirrel tracker. I’m still not sure exactly what to call myself. My job title is research field assistant, but I still go by ecologist/field biologist/zoologist etc depending on the audience. I still haven’t found my identity but it’s a good start. Working with volunteers has also allowed me to appreciate how far I’ve come. One volunteer told me that people in her position look at me as a success story, a strange concept for my warped sense of self. The work is hard, the pay isn’t great, and my work life balance is still poor but at least Kim doesn’t need to watch out for hawk attacks anymore. Being on a zero-hour contract means that the job hunt continues but for now I’m a paid member of the highly competitive conservation sector and that feels pretty good.

The advice I would give to anyone is to know your worth. Many of your bosses will diminish your skills because they want you to keep working for free. People with self-worth move on, they grow, they achieve. Volunteering is an essential element of the industry we work in but you should know when to stop. Learn what you need to and move on. Don’t hold out hope for a job that might never appear. Network, speak to people honestly and be you. Your personality can be just as valuable as your skills but what makes you unique wont necessarily shine through on your CV, no matter how many times you rewrite it. Overall, just remember that your love for conservation has to balance with your love for yourself and the people in your life. If you’re a penniless, sleep deprived, broken soul then you’re no use to anyone. Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone and there are thousands of crazy conservationists out there that understand you. We’re all in this together.  

For More of Jamie, check out their Linkedin Page


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