Written by Hezy Anholt
I’ve always found freedom and fascination in wild places. Between semesters at university, I planted seedling conifers in remote Northern regions for the Canadian forestry industry, and I found a sense of peace in heavy manual labour amongst those ancient trees and sharp young mountains. I became perfectly comfortable in those wild spaces, and I fell in love with wildlife.
The very moment I finished veterinary school, I moved to Nigeria to work for a conservation project trying to save endangered monkeys and chimpanzees from extinction. The NGO had been formed in the 80’s by a young American couple driving through Nigeria on a transit visa. Due to unforeseen circumstances, they stopped there and began a project to save endangered primates. Their qualifications were hubris, white privilege, and capital. 25 years later I joined the project as a newly graduated vet, oblivious to red flags, ignorant of the complicated relationship between conservation and colonial legacy, and one more volunteer on a long list of their burnouts.
I arrived fresh from vet school, an intensely competitive training environment known for its pervasive culture of overwork and disregard for mental health. And I was entering a competitive field, desperate to prove myself. I was vulnerable, and I was perfect for them.
The project founders were my two directors. ‘Madame’ and ‘Oga’ were romantically entwined and at constant odds with one another. Madame was the tornado responsible for the office; it looked like it had been shelled during the Biafran war and collecting dust ever since. A sign over the door aptly read ‘Beatings will continue until morale improves.’ Oga was in a tumultuous relationship with Madame. He explained to me once that she came from a ‘yelling family.’ Oga subsisted on Star beer, cigarettes, and his unshakeable convictions. Frequent employer of hyperbole, a narcissistic mess of contradictions, driven half-mad by his compassion for animals and an addiction to alcohol. A pump-action sawed-off 18-gauge shotgun accompanied him everywhere, making its way to the dinner table every night, like some ominous lapdog. He boasted about the people he had shot and where he had shot them.
Our shared residence was a poorly lit lair, surrounded by a moat of confiscated monkeys and parrots. Mountains of books supported the warped and cracked walls: tropical medicine, animal behaviour, anatomy, memoirs, and classics. For a short time, I loved that house. I loved the chaos and the people, the evident joy for life, the noise, and the African food. And I loved the animals: the monkeys, the chimpanzees, and the parrots, confiscated from illegal trade and making their slow journeys back into the wild.
With utter obliviousness, I leapt headlong into the non-profit burnout cycle. I was built up, praised, overworked, isolated from anyone outside of the organization, and then methodically torn down and taken apart.
I don’t understand the pathologies that cause people to practice emotional (and other forms of) abuse, but after ten years of working in conservation, I have become intimately familiar with what it looks and feels like.
A veterinary procedure would be granted one evening and vetoed the next morning. Outrageous medical claims were put forward to undermine my assessments. My bosses started rumours of my incompetency amongst the staff. I stayed up all night trying to save their newly adopted dog from acute hemorrhagic diarrhea syndrome. After my medical advice was ignored and the dog died in my arms, I was accused of having euthanized the animal out of spite. This sort of thing happened a lot.
I had multiple bouts of malaria. I struggled to get enough to eat and was admonished for walking a half block down the road to buy myself bread one morning. Such acts of insubordination were evidence that my impeded recovery from malaria was due to my irresponsible nature.
Oga presided over an antipoaching taskforce. Young men in uniform came and went from the courtyard at all hours. They came to report intelligence and short-comings, smoke cigarettes, and get yelled at. A vague aura of confusion followed them as they wandered around, carrying AKs with little regard for muzzle control and fingers resting lightly on the triggers.
The same day I tried to buy myself bread, I was pulled out of malaria fever-dreams at midnight to provide first aid to a man who had been shot by the taskforce. Glass shrapnel had destroyed his foot, and my director, drunk and obdurate, refused to take him to a medical doctor. It was the evident abuse of others that finally pushed me to leave the NGO: inhumane treatment of the taskforce prisoners, the project managers, previous veterinarians, and the wild animals under their care. The lack of sound decision-making, biosecurity, human safety, and animal welfare. The abuse I experienced personally didn’t really click at the time. I didn’t understand what was being done to me specifically.
In tears over being accused by my female director of killing the hemorrhagic dog, my male director (her marital partner and almost 70 years old) tenderly cupped my chin and kissed me on the lips in some sort of show of moral support. I leaned on that misstep as my final excuse to give up on the project.
In my mind, leaving the project was an abject failure. I was abandoning the chimpanzees and other animals to the dubious care of these two aging Americans who I had come to perceive as monsters. In truth a drunken kiss was the least of my concerns. But institutionalized abuse is so intangible. It can be so very difficult to explain, and the victim never gets away without mud on their face. I relied on that one incident of sexual assault as a tangible excuse for leaving, but in the face of much larger and more serious trepidations.
I wish I could say that those 8 months in Nigeria made me wise to the phenomena of toxic work culture and abuse of power. But it wasn’t the last time I allowed myself to be exploited in the haze of a dazzling opportunity, and it’s taken another ten years of working in wildlife conservation to discern those patterns of abuse, weaving their insidious ways throughout the profession.
This story is not a unique one, and that is the point of it. Many young vets have experienced similar trials, particularly in environments which are, for whatever reasons, remote or isolated. Importantly, I’ve seen vets from low-income countries and racialized groups in particular, continue under abusive employers for much longer than I could have, because of the fewer alternative opportunities available to them.
On balance, I have been tremendously privileged and supported in my career. I have received phenomenal mentorship, been given amazing opportunities, and worked with incredible people. As we gain influence, as we become leaders in the field, it is so important to stand up against abuse and unethical practices when we encounter them. By supporting each other, I believe we can change the culture of conservation. I hope it is already changing.
For more of Hezy, visit @hezyfezybushvet