So you want to be a Wildlife Educator? The Good, the Bad, the Ugly…and the Miraculous
I hear it almost everyday, "You have the most fun job ever. I’d love to do what you do!" Most folks think that being a wildlife educator is living the life of Jack Hanna: fame, your picture in the newspaper, spending days romping and playing with nature’s most exotic species. Sometimes, it is. Most of the time, it isn’t.
Standing in front of hundreds of people, holding a rare animal, explaining their place in the ecosystem and all the challenges that face the species, definitely can be an adrenaline rush and a moment of ego-boosting joy. So is that moment when a debilitated, improperly cared for, former pet, turns the corner towards health after weeks and months of dedicated, tender care. So is that fleeting instant when a baby animal, abandoned by its mother, clings to you for support and maternal love. Sheer bliss. But these "good" moments are few in the overall life of being a wildlife educator.
No one tells the young and hopeful educator "wanna-be" about real day-to-day life, the "bad" and the "ugly." There are endless daily cycles of cage cleaning and animal feeding; never-ending phone calls from well-intentioned, but misguided, mothers who want a monkey at their 3-year old’s birthday party; daily struggles with audiences who are less than well-mannered and parents who aren’t even embarrassed about it; the constant fear that an animal will be startled in public and, heaven forbid, get hurt or hurt someone else; traveling hours in 100+ degree heat to a small town auditorium just to find there’s no air conditioning; staying up all night at an emergency veterinary clinic when an animal falls ill. Sound glamorous? Hardly.
A successful wildlife educator must be an expert zoologist, an experienced veterinary technician, an engrossing and spirited public speaker, a customer care advocate, a crowd control specialist, a shrewd marketing and public relations guru, a creative website designer, a meticulous accountant, and a regulatory and legal expert. It is not easy. Expect lots of work and 16 hour days (make that 24-hour days if an animal is young or ill). Expect no days off. Vacations are a thing of the past. Expect lots of expenses and very little profit, if any. Expect to weep when you’re brought an animal in crisis and to weep even harder when one passes away. It is not the life most people think we lead when they see us beaming at the microphone.
So, why would anyone chose to be a wildlife educator? We live for those fleeting "miraculous" moments. We are driven by that instant when you feel the audience has connected with you and you just know you made a difference in their understanding; when you see that glimmer in a child’s eye and you know you’ve touched their heart; when a formerly shy education animal unexpectedly demands an audience’s attention and actually basks in their applause; when you receive letters of gratitude from people who tell you what endearing memories you’ve created for them and what a difference you’ve made. These miraculous moments are what we live and work for, and they make all the bad and ugly moments fade in comparison.