Lonely Conservationists

PJ (ZooFit- Helping Conservationists Take Care of Themselves)

Written by PJ Beaven

I didn’t know what to do. There I was, living my dream, something I had fought so hard to achieve, but all I could think about was quitting. Fifteen years of blood, sweat, and tears (sometimes literally) were about to go down the drain. I had swum with dolphins, introduced guests to belugas, trained polar bears, played with sea otters, and moved across the country to work with elephants. Deep down, I knew quitting wasn’t the answer. After all the struggles I went through to get where I was? But quitting was all I could think about. I just didn’t want to be Here anymore.

How was that even feasible? What was so bad about HereHere was an amazing, beautiful zoo, with amazing, beautiful animals, and I might add, incredible co-workers. Here was one of the best zoos I’d ever visited, and I got to call Here my job! I learned to not just care for zoo animals Here, but all animals, from all over the world, and shared my enthusiastic passion for all living things with others. It was Here that I became a training mentor, and taught others ways to implement positive training methods, create novel enrichment (a fancy word for toys and activities), and improve overall animal welfare.

Looking back, my issues obviously weren’t from Here, at least not in the physical sense. They were Here, the mental state. That’s where most of my problems stemmed from. I was miserable, but not because my job sucked. It was because I let the job suck my life out of me. Nothing was more important to me than the animals in my care, namely the three older elephants that resided at the zoo. My husband of 13 years? Not as important. My friends and family in South Carolina, Florida, and now Washington? Not as important. My own health? Definitely not as important. 

Therein lay the core of my issues. The years of preparing food for animals—carrying buckets for marine mammals or lifting hay bales to feed elephants—along with cleaning habitats, lifting wheelbarrows, SCUBA diving with heavy equipment, twisting and turning, running from place to place, bending, scrubbing, stretching, sweeping, and all the other activities associated with this dream job had taken its toll on my body. I was not even close to 40-years-old, but my body felt like it was approaching 100. My back constantly ached. My knees were in horrible shape. I felt exhausted all the time. I was moody, cranky, and borderline depressed. Maybe a bit more than borderline.

At home, my relationship with my husband suffered. All of my energy went to work, so when I came home, I had nothing left in me. Crash and burn was my regular cycle. Work my fingers to the bone, come home completely drained, sleep hard, and then repeat. I felt like Jack Torrance from The Shining. “All work and no play makes PJ a dull zookeeper.” I was tired of feeling tired. The joy and wonder was gone, and I didn’t want to be Here, or anywhere. 

It’s interesting how Life just smacks you upside the head sometimes, isn’t it? I remember one day I was preparing some evening treats for the elephants and a stark realization came over me. It was as if lightning had struck my brain. Holy shit! How on earth can I expect to take great care of these elephants if I’m not taking care of myself?

That was it. One simple question shined a light and became my new Big Why. I had my Big Why for getting my dream job, but this was my Big Why for getting in shape, and staying in the game. How many times had I gotten on the fitness bandwagon in the past only to fall off? Not this time. This time, it wasn’t a vanity or selfish issue. It wasn’t about me at all. For me, taking care of myself was an animal welfare issue. All I wanted was to be the best zookeeper, for the animals. This was much bigger than myself, and as time would tell, it was even bigger than the elephants. 

As much as I would have loved for this realization and new Big Why to just let everything fall into place, that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t just an “aha” moment and then magically I received the gift of fitness. This was a full-on journey, as powerful, as challenging, and eventually as rewarding and fulfilling as my previous Big Why. The journey was the culmination of all the lessons my animals shared with me over the years. I wasn’t doing this just for the elephants, but for every animal I had ever worked with and would ever work with in the future. It was a significant Big Why, one that never allowed me to give up. But it started with that Big Why. Basically, my Big Why for becoming a zookeeper and my new Big Why for being the best zookeeper were like superpowers. Obstacles weren’t barriers toward your goal anymore, they were merely speedbumps. I want your own Big Why to be a superpower that supercharges you and your focus, too.

What made my fitness journey so incredible is that, honestly, it didn’t have an end goal. There was never going to be a point I reached the pinnacle of fitness and stop trying. I was never going to stop wanting to provide great care for the animals. So, every interaction with the animals reinforced my efforts to never give up on letting the best version of me shine through. Throughout my process, I lost over fifty pounds, dropped three pant sizes, and gained so much I never thought was possible—insight, strength, resiliency, and a positive mindset that keeps me going to this very day. 

Over the course of a year my mood drastically improved. I had a pep in my step, and my relationship with the animals and co-workers improved dramatically. My immediate co-workers weren’t the only ones to notice. Keepers I only saw once in a while noticed and wanted to learn my secrets. 

My energy went through the roof, too. I no longer dragged myself through the afternoons to barely make it home and crash. I started looking for opportunities to connect with people outside my work, starting with my husband. Our love grew stronger not because I “got hotter” but my confidence in myself grew, along with my energy and ability to do more than “just work”. The increase in energy allowed me to be a bit more efficient at my job, which allowed me time to do other tasks that consumed my time outside of the zoo. And the initial realization that animal care started with self-care meant managing my energy, not my time. Being efficient at my job and gaining more confidence allowed me to say “no” more often, putting my energy needs first, so I could show up for the animals at 100% rather than a drained battery. I could also still show up at 100% for my family, and be everything I dreamed.

When I discovered my Big Why for fitness, and realized I couldn’t take care of the animals unless I started taking better care of myself, I knew things were going to be different. But I didn’t really understand how different it was until I tried some of my previous methods of losing weight. 

At the time of my epiphany, my husband was a part of a CrossFit gym. He was seeing success, so I decided to go all-in as well. If CrossFit could turn my stay-at-home working-on-web-development-and-playing-video-games nearly-non-stop husband into a buff gym rat, then by golly, it should work for me, too.

But there was one problem—a problem I’m grateful for to this day, as I don’t know if ZooFit would even be a thing had there not been a problem. CrossFit decidedly did NOT work for me. My already suffering back and knees could not take the impact and strain from the intense workouts. Not to mention the class schedule really conflicted with my work schedule. There was never a convenient time for a class that didn’t have me wasting time between working out and my job. 

I quit doing CrossFit, and I almost gave up on my fitness journey after only a month of trying. Thankfully, there was my Big Why to drag me back up to my feet. “Remember why you started,” it told me.

At first I was a bit confused and frustrated. I mean, CrossFit was literally changing my husband’s life! Why couldn’t it change mine, too? “Remember why I started,” I repeated to myself. 

The answer hit me almost as hard as my Big Why question. Duh! Because what works for one animal or training situation may not work for every animal and every training situation. While the principles of animal training were universal, the way I trained dolphins at the beginning of my career was different from the way I trained and worked with polar bears a few years later, even though it was the same facility, even with some of the same trainers. Dolphins and polar bears are vastly different animals. But even animals with similarities,  such as dolphins and belugas– both marine mammals– weren’t exactly the same. I learned to work calmer with the beluga whales, as they didn’t respond as positively to the jumping and theatrics as the dolphins did. Heck, even working with two different dolphins, or two different beluga whales, or two different elephants, wasn’t the same. 

There is no “The Way”! The same could be said for fitness. Yes, CrossFit was great… for some people. However, I’m not “some people” or “everyone”. I’m PJ. So, what was my way? What would work for me?

My Big Why kept repeating the mantra “Remember why you started.” I was doing this to be a better zookeeper, to provide the best care to the animals. I needed to take care of myself if I wanted to take great care of the elephants. A thought occurred to me and became the second biggest aha in my life (right after great animal care starts with better self-care). What if I used the same practices on myself as I used with training animals? What if I became both trainer and animal? Using positive reinforcement training methods on myself to make fitness fun and empowering?

From then on, “remember why you started” wasn’t just my mantra to keep going forward, it became my mantra for how I would keep moving forward. I would use the principles I had learned over fifteen years as an animal trainer and zoo educator to create healthy habits that would not just get me to my goal weight or ideal fitness level, but keep me motivated always and forever. Whenever I hit a particularly tough challenge, I turned to my experience working with animals to help me out. I let the animals be my guides and my mentors.

To gain momentum in establishing healthy habits, I relied on some of the tried and true training philosophies I learned when first starting out my career, working with dolphins. They taught me how to put trust in myself, stay committed, and start small and easy (so easy, I couldn’t fail). Fast-forwarding to the present, working with elephants, I applied the lessons of patience, consistency, and focusing on the process rather than the desired outcome. When life threw a curveball at me, I recalled my time working with sea otters, and how temporarily lowering the criteria helped keep the new healthy habits while being kind to myself. Making my fitness program diverse and enriching reminded me of a different time period, where I worked with polar bears and discovered how demotivating it is to overwhelm myself with too much. I also remembered how I truly embraced the title Queen of Play by creating fun activities for elephants and sea otters, and how I, too, could make working out engaging by letting my creative side spill out and make challenges exciting and enticing. Dealing with mistakes reminded me of my temporary work with orangutans before I accepted a full-time elephant keeper position. We don’t ignore our mistakes, but we can learn from them. Heading all the way back to my time working with belugas, I remembered how sometimes I might need to take a couple of steps back, and work on something easy. 

The final piece of the puzzle that put everything together was connecting my new healthy lifestyle with conservation. It became significantly more reinforcing and motivating to stay the course when I knew my decisions didn’t just help me be the best version of myself for the animals, but helped the planet, too. I stopped eating processed food that contain palm oil, soybean oil, and sugar. I biked and walked more. I turned off my electronics early, saving energy, and helping me get to sleep faster. I stopped eating fast food, which I learned were just pollution, deforestation, and carbon emission hubs. I ate healthy, organic, locally sourced foods. I experienced nature and let my appreciation grow. Mostly, I celebrated doing what I could to make a difference in my health and the world around me. I celebrated, and I continued to grow. And I continue growing even today, seven years later. Becoming the best version of myself, today, tomorrow, and forever.

For more of PJ’s work, check out ZooFit.net

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