Lisa (Sea turtle researcher or housemaid?)

Written by Lisa

All names in this piece have been altered to protect the identities of the people they are about.  Names are being used for clarity purposes only.

I remember accepting my job offer as a sea turtle biologist for the 2020 season. I was jumping with joy over my first paid position working with sea turtles. I had been a paid biotech beforehand, but Sea turtle conservation is my absolute passion.

I can’t tell you where it exactly went wrong. But it went sour, fast. I started off working mostly in the office. My responsibilities included sending out turtle patrollers, responding as dispatch, tending to equipment, and being a field lead when needed.  Towards the end of the season I was promised to work in our incubation lab and do the sea turtle hatchling releases.

What was described to me as a 6 month stint of working towards conservation turned into a janitor job. I do want to give one of my bosses, Emily, credit where it is due. In the beginning Emily tried very hard to get me into the field. She knew this was my second time applying to work for this organization and how badly I wanted to be in sea turtle conservation.  However, it was not enough to make up for what was yet to come.

Instead of working on papers, probing for nests, doing necropsies, or even interacting on the social media page, I was given a list of chores everyday. People who work in this field know there is a lot of time spent doing the not so glamorous things and I’m okay with that. I’ve cleaned waste from animal traps and organized storage rooms.  It is all a part of keeping the machine moving.  However, the amount of chores and lack of respect towards me became too much.

I was required to go into the giant dumpster and recycling bin to move garbage around. I cleaned toilets. I sanitized the necropsy lab. I washed cars and UTVs for people who were in the field. I filled up people’s gas. I cleaned our office kitchen. I broke my back moving ice chests for people camping. I reorganized and took inventory of every single closet on their property.  I became the person assigned all of the office chores while coworkers were spending time camping, doing GIS work, or on the organization’s Facebook page. Even co-workers hired to a lower position than I did not have half of the janitorial duties I did. I was feeling frustrated but kept telling myself that this was a part of the job. So I kept treading on with the thought that I was helping the cause move forward.

So I took matters into my own hands and inquired about different projects I could work on. Every time I asked for an assignment, I was told to sweep. Every time I asked to edit a paper, I was told to empty the dehumidifier. Until I finally got picked to volunteer for another project, designing a logo, I looked forward to it every day. I was excited to be working so closely to the head of our department and my personal hero, Ashley.  I thought this would be my chance to prove my worth above my cleaning skills and get recognized. However I never got feedback on my work. It was always a complete overhaul. If my work sucked, I would be the first person to admit it.  I am a very tough critic of myself.  But I was so proud of these designs. I worked on them in my free time just hoping to contribute to the legacy of the organization I was serving under. Ashley eventually stopped answering me, or even acknowledging me in the office. This stung colder than usual because not only had she been my personal hero for years but my desk was directly outside of her office. I also learned later on, she did not know my name. She did not know I was the person she was emailing. I was one out of five people who worked in the office.

As time went on in the office, a co-worker, let’s call him Dave, started spending more time chatting me up. Things started escalating from a “how are you” to him explaining his sexual life with his wife and her fantasies of having a threesome with another woman. This was followed by a request from Dave on Facebook, comments about how his wife finds me attractive, and stories about his genitals. Unfortunately, Dave and I had to work close together in a team with two other men. Dave thought it was appropriate to make me the end of a few sexual jokes which, thank god, my other male coworkers did not approve of. Clearly uncomfortable and completely outraged, I had to speak to my boss about it and be moved to another shift. I did not want him fired, but I wanted to be comfortable at work. Over the next month I found Dave speaking to interns about himself taking showers. I made it a point to interrupt the conversation but he completely ignored me. At this point, I made one of my male co-workers come outside to interrupt. I stayed outside with those girls for a little while after. I refused to let him abuse the power of his uniform over interns.

I kept doing my tasks and the days kept getting worse. My feet dragged across the floor with the thought of doing more chores and being berated for the ones I didn’t do well enough. A fire grew inside of my chest everytime my shift overlapped with Dave and he made a sexual joke or tried to explain things to me I already knew. If he patronizingly explained to me that tides go up and down to me one more time, I was going to lose it. The only reason I didn’t snap a keyboard in half is because Emily told me that I was going to be in charge of the incubation lab. FINALLY, this was my break! Oh was I wrong.

I spent my first two or three weeks working from 7pm-3:30am alone. Which would have been fine but our office is isolated 20 min from any town, no other staff was on duty, and I am a 5 ft tall, 125 pound woman. My first night on the job, our office administrator pulled me aside to say I needed to lock all of the doors and never go in the parking lot (where my car was) because a pack of coyotes hang out there at night. I sucked it up for those weeks, fought through my exhaustion, and battled fear of some drunken beach camper trying to break in.

I finally had two people come stay with me overnight. One was Ashley and the other was a volunteer of 11 years, Maureen. I was so excited to learn from them. The first two or three nights of that week I had to spend in the necropsy lab, alone, with no bathroom because according to Maureen, Ashley wanted to sleep and we made too much noise. The only way to access the bathroom was walking near the parking lot with the coyotes. Maureen was only allowed to start sleeping on a cot in the office after 9 years of night work with Ashley. Eventually, Emily told them that it was borderline illegal for me to be in those conditions so I was allowed to stay in the general office.  Whenever Ashley emerged from her cave, I was never greeted. It was always “sweep the floor, it feels sandy”. There is no closer way to be to your boss then seeing them in their pajamas at 2 am going to pee, but she still didn’t care to learn my name. Once again with the fear I was being over dramatic, I said nothing.

As the turtles started to hatch, more people stayed overnight with me. At first volunteers and another experienced biotech, Gina, were being sent out to release them. Which was fine, the volunteers need to be recognized for their free hard work. It became a problem when I finished all my janitorial duties and was not allowed to walk down the block to see the volunteers release sea turtles. It became an even bigger problem when I asked my boss to release hatchlings and then the interns as well as my coworkers (who were not on any overnight shifts) got to release them. What really sent me over the edge was another coworker, Adam, the same supervisory level as me, got to release two nests without doing even one night shift. I had been on night shift for at least a month and a half at that point. I tried playing by the rules but I kept getting singled out. I put in the effort in the incubation room and the office, I should get to send at least one nest off. 

My mother and sister had to come visit me at this point because I was so distressed. I called everyday crying until I started feeling almost nothing at all. I dreaded going into work. I craved being in my bed. I was isolated from a lot of my friends due to our conflicting schedules. I was across the country during COVID where people in my life were getting sick and dying. I told my mother and sister that if I went just once that I would feel validated and could push through the season. So they said “why don’t you just go?”

That same night, a nest was ready to be released. When sea turtles start to frenzy, they must be released immediately. They will start to scratch at the containers we keep them in and that noise can cause other nests in the incubation room to hatch prematurely. The other girl I was working with, Gina, was coming back from releasing turtles with a volunteer, Debbie. I called my housemate and asked if he would drive my mom and sister to the park. I spoke to the volunteers, the Smith’s, and asked if they would mind if my mom and sister came to watch. The Smith’s had absolutely no problem and offered for them to drive my family in the government vehicle. Me, knowing that wasn’t allowed, thanked them for their generosity but said we would be taking my car. I checked on all the hatchlings before I left, took the proper safety precautions, and radioed Gina who was just 10 minutes from the office. I kept the door unlocked for her because I was told that I was the only biotech who had a key to get inside. I left the door open for her because the nests had to be checked on every hour and sprayed with water. There were even more volunteers in the trailer outside our building that kept an eye on anyone entering the building. My mom and sister used the restroom while the The Smith’s came inside to help me put the eggs in the truck for transport.

I went on the hatchling release. I knew other biotechs were going when they weren’t scheduled but I was too much of a rule-follower before that. I was tired of being overlooked and cleaning the toilet. When we pulled back into the office, I heard the fire alarm go off. I ran directly inside to check on the people and turtles. It turns out, the building had a faulty fire alarm and didn’t tell any of the night employees how to shut it off. However, I was the one who figured out how to shut it off.  Debbie, Gina’s volunteer, told Emily about the entire venture and then claimed I left work in the middle of the night. However, I stayed at work all night and had employees who were on overlapping shifts that could vouch for me. It was Debbie’s first night as a volunteer.

Emily accused me of putting the lab in danger, although I followed all the safety procedures. I was accused of letting my family in the incubation room (only certain personnel were allowed in). She accused me of being irresponsible because the turtles could have hatched prematurely with the fire alarm. Which, in untrue. Sea turtles can be sparked to hatch by low frequency noises such as a man’s voice, not a high frequency sound like a fire alarm. I was accused of leaving work and going home. 

I quit. 

However, I felt guilty and wanted to try to make amends. I respect Emily still to this day.  I told her the way I felt and she told me that she felt like she let me down. She did. She broke my heart. The result of this conversation was me not quitting but being put on the day shift.

That was fine with me. I technically broke the rules. I completely own up to it. I was just so desperate to hold onto something. I wanted to keep the facade I had of my dream organization and my dream job, working underneath one of my personal heroes, Ashley. I stayed for two more weeks until Emily accused me of lying about the story I told her. So I asked her if she asked the other night shift employees to verify or deny my story. She told me no. I have absolutely nothing to hide. I told the complete truth because I respect Emily and her hard work.

I quit again and emailed her a list of all of the people with phone numbers she could ask to verify my story including the phone numbers of my family. Not only did it include what I did wrong, but it included the pattern of disrespect I was shown throughout the season. I emailed it to HR, both of my bosses, and the superintendent. 

I was not the only person disrespected in multiple ways at this job.  Upper management got away with: sending people out in lightning, sending people driving in unsafe vehicles, refusing to rescue patrollers when their UTVs were being overtaken by high tides, and much more. I witnessed Ashley yell at the top of her lungs towards my coworkers for trivial things and even at Emily for events she had no control over.  The hero title I once associated with Ashley had turned to Bully, which is apparently agreed upon by her past employees.  I had to embarrassingly message my coworkers and explain the story in my terms. Upper management had a reputation for spreading rumors and I wanted to be a head of it. I met a lot of wonderful people I highly respect and thought owning up to it would be the best way of showing it and preserving the good part of my reputation. Luckily I was met with a lot of support from my coworkers agreeing that I had taken the brunt of abuse from Ashley and Emily.

What my goal was out of my letter was that no other biotech be crushed the way I was ever again. Did I break the rules? Technically yes, and I feel guilty for it often. But I didn’t deserve to be treated the way I was. Which, according to past employees, has been a trend on their end. I know I shouldn’t feel haunted by it, but I do. I cringe every time I have to click “you may contact my previous employers” on an application. How did my dream job with my hero end up being the reason I had to go to therapy? 

But, my heart was in the right place. I made sure everything was as safe as possible and finally did something at that stupid job for myself. I’ve spent my entire career and most of my personal life doing things for other people or animals. That day, I finally made sure I got what I knew I deserved to see. I wanted to see my babies, the ones I checked on every night, I helped find, transport, and account for the start of their new lives. I wanted to see that all of my janitorial work, looking past sexual harassment, and the disrespect I went through aided in conservation.

If anyone is reading this please never sacrifice your health and happiness as much as I had. I’m proud of my growth and my ability to stand up for myself. 

In no way do I aim to disrespect the women I worked underneath. Without them, this sea turtle population would be almost gone. I thank you and respect you for your work. Just remember to respect the people who are willing to work the hardest for you.

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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