Letters to young conservationists

Letter to 8-year-old Patty

Dear 8-year-old Patty,

Wow! Looking back at you at just eight years old and filled with such optimism, enthusiasm, and zest for conservation gives me strength and hope. But, before I continue, let me encourage you never to let go of that passion! It will serve you well in the future. Throughout your childhood and adulthood, you will face many challenges. Some of these struggles will push you to your core. You have already experienced a bit of teasing from classmates in school about your love for the ocean and marine life. I wish I could tell you it gets better when your peers mature, but it doesn’t get better. It just gets different.

You are a strange one, dear Patty, but I think that “weirdness” is a blessing. In a few more years, you’ll watch the movie Dead Poets Society, which will introduce you to Henry David Thoreau and the philosophy of “carpe diem”— seize the day. You learn to appreciate nature more and cherish the ideals of Thoreau’s work, Walden: I went to the woods because I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of lifeThoreau deserves your attention. His colleague, Ralph Waldo Emerson, shared some incredible insight on life, too, especially when one feels alone and misunderstood by their peers. Emerson once asked, ‘Is it so bad to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.’ 

In middle school, you will experience a lot of frustration. You continue to become more and more inspired by the ocean and marine life. Your passion leads to what some consider strange habits, such as snipping six-pack rings, reusing plastic and glass containers, and bringing your grocery bags to the store with you. Don’t worry; the shopping bag trend will eventually catch on, but you will get some funny glances at the supermarket until that happens. You work hard to reduce your plastic consumption and keep trash out of the ocean. Again, your actions result in eye rolls from your peers but remember Emerson’s words. To be great is to be misunderstood. You are doing great things.

Your tendency for such greatness will continue into high school. However, I promise that if you keep up with your passion, you will find your collective group. Joseph Campbell, a renowned writer, said, ‘Follow your bliss’. Follow your bliss to One ocean, where you will find your friends and colleagues. You will be among peers who empathise with your passion within your collective group, other conservation educators and marine life enthusiasts. They, too, are doing what it takes to reach their dreams because they are following their bliss. They know what it’s like to be misunderstood while pursuing great things.

You will break everyone’s expectations of what an animal trainer is supposed to be. You will experience the pain of rejection, and after several stings, I know you will want to give up. Don’t throw in the towel, no matter what. The comedian Steve Martin shares some brilliant advice for aspiring actors and performers, which I hope you will apply to your own situation: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” After the animal care team initially rejects you, take the time to learn from each of these opportunities. Your first swim test and interview will go well, but the hiring team for One ocean will claim you need more scuba diving experience. Fantastic! Head to the Florida Keys on your weekend and practice diving. You’ll see sharks, rays, barracuda, and fish of all colours. It’ll be like heaven. Soon, you’ll get so good at diving that eventually, your supervisors will commend you for those skills. 

But scuba diving skills alone won’t be enough. The next time you try out for an animal care position, the managers will explain that you need more animal experience. Again, this is excellent feedback! A new animal rescue centre will need volunteers to help with skunks, reptiles of all sizes, birds, ferrets, and dozens of other animals. These experiences will fill you with joy and help you strengthen your ability to interact safely with the animals while engaging the public about the animals. However, even with your scuba diving prowess and animal handling skills, it still won’t be enough. You need to be so good they can’t ignore you. The hiring team will tell you something new each time you try out—prove you’re an excellent swimmer, get experience with large animals. The list goes on and on. When you hear these recommendations, get a lifeguard certification and volunteer at a local animal sanctuary taking care of tigers and lions. Learn from each experience.

While working with tigers, you will learn an interesting thing about these fierce predators. Tigers symbolise power and prestige, but do you know why they are successful? It’s because they don’t give up. Tigers are only successful in one out of twenty hunting attempts. They only catch their prey 5-7% of the time. Can you imagine? Tigers are only successful because they persist. They try, try again. Tigers never give up. So, don’t you give up! Keep going. 

On your seventh attempt (or maybe it’ll be your eighth, or tenth; who cares?), animal care finally offers you your dream job—training otters, rescuing manatees, swimming with dolphins, and playing with seals and sea lions. The challenges aren’t over, but your efforts finally pay off. Working with animals isn’t just fun and games; there is a lot of hard work involved. Animal care staff have to scuba dive every day to clean habitats. Thankfully, you have fantastic scuba diving skills from all the previous practice. It’s one of your favourite activities. You also need to present engaging and informative talks, tours, and interactions with guests and visitors. Your time sharing the animals at the sanctuary with the public will pay off. Working in animal care will train potentially dangerous animals like polar bears and walrus. Your time gaining confidence and experience with tigers will come in handy. The rejections become a source of strength. By learning from each rejection, you became so good that no one could ignore you.

And, my dear Patty, this… this is just the beginning of your life’s adventures. You will work with so many incredible animals; animals you never dreamed of training—birds of prey, penguins, polar bears, reptiles, primates, an entire farm of goats, pigs, chickens, and elephants. Elephants! You will travel the country and the world, sharing what you learn with other zookeepers and animal care professionals. You will inspire hundreds, if not thousands, of people, children and adults alike, to protect the environment and help endangered species. You will be great! 

I know it seems a lifetime away, but I want to show you what things are like in the future. In 2022, you are 44-years-old. No longer do your peers misunderstand you. Other animal care professionals dealing with challenges that life throws at them seek your help. You become a training mentor and an “enrichment queen” with innovative ideas for engaging the animals in your care. You teach other animal care personnel how to be better keepers and trainers by caring for themselves. No one thinks you’re “weird” for caring for animals. They believe your career is exciting and fascinating. You won them over by following your bliss and being so good they couldn’t ignore you. Your ideas about connecting our daily self-care habits to conservation will be revolutionary. You will develop relationships with dolphins, polar bears, and elephants that could fill books with stories of the life lessons learned from the animals. 

I’m going to plant one last story in your head. Let these stories enter your deep subconscious so that they become a part of you when you experience them or hear them as you grow up. This isn’t a story you make up, but one I’ve adopted as my way of life. It’s called the Flight of the Hummingbird. You will hear it from a beautifully inspiring conservationist named Wangari Maathai. Again, pay attention, as Wangari is another mentor whose words will change your life and shape your future. This is the story of a terrible forest fire. It forced all the animals to flee their homes. They gathered at the edge of the forest and watched the trees engulfed in flames. The animals felt deep despair… all except one. The tiny hummingbird would not abandon the forest. She flew to a nearby stream and dipped her beak into the water. Then she carried the single bead of water over to the fire and released the drop of water onto the flames. Immediately, the hummingbird flew right back to the stream, picked up another droplet of water in her beak and flew back to the fire. She flew back and forth, and as she flew past the other animals, they cried out. The rabbit wailed, “What can I do? The smoke is too thick!” And the raven crowed, “My beak is too small!” And the wolf howled, “The fire will burn my fur.” But the hummingbird did not stop. Back and forth, one droplet of water at a time. Finally, the great bear called out to the hummingbird, “Little sister, what are you doing?” The hummingbird looked at all her friends and replied, “I am doing what I can.”

Embracing the philosophies of carpe diem, never giving up, and doing what you can, Hummingbird Style results in a lifetime of adventures. All your struggles and all your triumphs result from living deep and “sucking the marrow of life,” from embracing your weirdness, even when others didn’t understand you. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything in the world. So, I hope you find the gift in every opportunity, challenge, and step on your life journey.

Never give up. Keep doing what you can. You are on your way to doing great things as you were born to do. You will change the world, one drop at a time. 

All my love to you, little hummingbird. You inspire your family, your community, and you inspire me. Keep it up!


44-year-old PJ

Illustrated by Kimberly Hoffman @kimhoffy

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