Written by Heather Kerrison
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Are you getting there slowly but surely? In the end the conservation industry gives us the opportunity to meet some amazing people, some amazing wildlife and do things that most other people will never do. What is the thing that keeps you going despite all of the hiccups along the way?
It is no secret that the world of (paid) conservationists is small and difficult to break into. You have to become the person that stands out amongst plenty of other incredible, educated, like-minded people. Of course, that can be exhausting. It sometimes feels like a never-ending circuit of getting nowhere. Albeit slow, the progress is there, and it is happening, whether you realize it or not. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy path.
I’ll start by saying that many of us conservationists are also empaths by nature. We feel deeply. We connect to the natural world, understand its inherent value and will stop at nothing to protect it. Because our work is tied so deeply to our emotions and passions, it can become emotionally taxing to not only face a climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, destruction of endangered forests, we also have to face the challenges that come along with trying to make things better. It is important to realize that if you are doing anything to conserve, you are a conservationist. I don’t think any level of education, number of years’ experience, or job title earns you the right to call yourself that. The passion you are carrying to make a change, means you are already a conservationist. Monetizing that, however, is the challenge.
I went into school thinking I would be a veterinarian. I always loved animals, both domestic and wild and thought I could specialize and treat wild animals. I went to the University of Guelph and majored in Zoology and somewhere along the way, the wild part swayed me. After my first year I went on a volunteer program where I travelled to a remote elephant sanctuary in Cambodia. It was there that I learned firsthand the challenges of not only human-wildlife conflict in Asia, but the extreme abuse so many elephants face at the hands of humans. Two years later, I went to Sri Lanka and also observed rescued elephants, learned about their plight. All the while completing my degree and coming to deeply understand ecology, biological conservation and the many entangled issues that arise when humans conflict with wildlife. I went to Thailand after that and visited yet another sanctuary. I took some time off after my degree and worked in veterinary clinics, which only underlined further that that was not the future I wanted. I had a job at Scales Nature Park as a Reptile Keeper and Educator that opened my eyes to the world of wildlife and environmental education. I loved that job. After one year out of my undergraduate degree, I started reaching out to professors whose research inspired me. I knew I wanted to do a Masters, I just didn’t know in what. I was so afraid to commit two years to a project that I wasn’t passionate about. After a great meeting with the professor who became my graduate advisor, I applied and was accepted to a Masters of Environmental Studies. Originally, my plan was to focus on human-elephant conflict in Asia. After my first year, I started work at Toronto Wildlife Centre for the summer, operating their Emergency Wildlife Hotline. I realized then how many human-wildlife conflicts occur right here at home, in our urban areas, and how ill-equipped people are to cope with that. I then centered my graduate work around mitigating human-wildlife conflict with education. I had discovered my passion for teaching others what I knew. I had realized how much of the harm to wildlife and to our natural world stems from ignorance, not ill intent. I had also started working for Wild Birds Unlimited as a Social Media Specialist, blogs I wrote for them about important ecological topics such as the harm of plastic pollution and outdoor cats, became part of my graduate work. Everything felt like it was falling into place and I was reaching actual people with educational messaging.
Flash forward to completing my Masters, along with a graduate diploma in Environmental and Sustainability Education. I am now an Education Coordinator and Workshop Facilitator teaching students about conservation and renewable energy. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit there were dark times along the way and still some to come. I have volunteered (paid) abroad multiple times, completed field courses and lab courses, been an environmental and wildlife educator several times, a teaching assistant, a guest speaker, a contributor to many blogs, a podcast guest and a live event host. It can be easy to feel like no one else can be more “it” than me, but I know that so many people, thankfully, are out there working just as hard to be a conservationist, so that all beings can live better. All I’m saying is that there is a light, the tunnel just be longer than you think. I have met such incredible, inspiring people. I have volunteered with and closely observed elephants and sloths that have been harmed by human activity. This is lifelong work, don’t feel like you have to rush. I have learned so much along the way that has ultimately made me the conservationist and candidate I am today. I am so glad we have this community to lean on each other, you are not alone.
For more of Heather, check out @heather_kerrison on Instagram