Going Home

Originally, I hadn’t been thinking about returning to the sanctuary. That ship, I thought, had sailed. But as I put the pieces in place for my big change, I realized it would be prudent for me to have an internship this summer. Something to prove to graduate schools I’m serious and committed to the idea of making a lot less money and getting much more dirty while doing it.

It is also imperative that I take Biology I this summer. I have a good idea of the undergraduate classes I will need to prepare for graduate school, and it’s about a full year’s worth. Whether USF will offer up everything my little heart desires in the next year is a chance I’m taking, but at least I will have tried. However, in order to take most of these classes, Biology I & II are pre-requisites. While I might be able to get away with Biology II as a co-requisite, Biology I is going to have to be tackled on it’s own and gotten out of the way.

That meant an internship in the Tampa Bay area. That severely limited my options, which weren’t that great anyway as most programs are geared for people already seeking degrees.

Funnily enough, it was when I realized I should ask the sanctuary for a letter of recommendation that the idea of just returning came to me. So simple!

The sanctuary has an official internship program, but I didn’t want to take a spot away from anyone and I wanted a little more control over my schedule. So, when I went back around Thanksgiving, I broached the idea of my returning for an intensive internship-like period of time over the summer.

Now, I understood this was not the greatest offer in the book. It takes a lot to train volunteers. It will take me a week or so at least to get back in the game – if I’m out there every day. Volunteer retention and stability is very important in such a difficult environment. If they said it wasn’t worth it, I’d get it. At least I would have tried.

Of the few people I mentioned this to, one committee member took interest and wanted to know the details of what I was thinking. So after Christmas I emailed her with an outline of my plan (still vague as USF will not put out the summer schedule until APRIL when classes start in MAY – although the Biology department has assured me a session of Biology I is always taught).

I made it clear that while I didn’t want to stop volunteering again, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep it up in the fall. I would be starting classes (hopefully) full-time and also need to look for a part-time job.

She replied back why didn’t I just come back as a lowest-level volunteer (which would mean least-hours required monthly) and see if I could make it a permanent return?

Again, so simple! But it never occurred to me, as I was so “internship-type situation” focused. And just because I have small monthly quota of hours, doesn’t mean I can’t put in more over the summer. I can certainly come up with some specific project to complete during that time if I feel a huge need to prove something to graduate schools.

It also gives me freedom with my schedule. And is a good step to ensuring I don’t fall back into all of my old responsibilities and get burnt out again. (Although I doubt I would let this happen. One reason I didn’t go back sooner is because I felt I hadn’t learned enough about the limits and possibilities of my mind and body. I’d spent too long on autopilot, in part because of my marriage, doing what needed doing regardless of whether I could/should actually do it. I’m fairly confident that I know them now.)

I’ve thought about how being a low-level (LL) volunteer will feel. Overall, I don’t think it will be too weird for me. No matter what level you are, everyone picks up shit. Literally. And I know this will sound strange, but that’s one of my favorite tasks – cleaning habitats means your out there on the sanctuary grounds, walking around, near the animals, knowing that whatever else you do that day, you’ve given them a clean home.

As an LL, I won’t be able to clean the habitats of the larger cats, but since both my babies died I won’t feel any huge loss there. I don’t remember if I ever spoken about it, but I’ve been “Mom” to two bobcats longer than either the tiger or the lioness were around.

I also think the volunteers who knew me from before will respect my knowledge. That’s just how the place works. Age, social standing, and for the most part even education mean nothing. It’s all about how many hours you’ve put in. I’ve taken orders from someone ten years my senior and ten years my junior, as well as given them to cute guys I’d like to get with and people old enough to be my parents.

The only two downsides are that LL volunteers don’t feed and they don’t conduct tours.

Feeding, while sometimes difficult and stressful, is always looked at as a reward. Getting to watch carnivores chow down is amazing. And I will miss being out there in the evening, when feeding occurs. All LL volunteers are pretty much off-property by the afternoon. As someone who once lived out there and would get to be completely alone Sunday evenings with the lioness, I cherished the quiet and the satisfaction of knowing the day was done and the animals were safe.

The tours are something many other volunteers wouldn’t believe I’d miss. I can get burned out on people quickly, and I’m very protective of the animals, which can make for a stressful tour when guests think it’s so cute and funny when an abused leopard is hissing and charging the fence. The guide usually isn’t supposed to bitch-slap the patrons.

But especially with being away for so long, I’ve come to realize how much I love talking about the animals, and what people need to know so they can go home and make decisions that ensure more abuse and neglect doesn’t happen.

I used to be praised by guests for my tours quite a bit. And it surprised me, until I realized the same passion that made me mad when guests didn’t respect the privacy of the animals also made me a wonderful guide. People liked my tours because they could tell these animals were loved, that I believed in the sanctuary’s mission and in doing whatever it took to stop the exploitation of captive exotics.

I’ve thought about perhaps advancing to be a ML volunteer. That is a seductive and dangerous proposition. I’m going back with a bigger picture in mind; to eventually leave again when I find a graduate program. I can’t get sidetracked with the instant gratification of putting in a hard day’s work at the sanctuary, especially if it compromises the time and energy I put into school.

But we’ll see. First I just need to get back there. I had planned to be back in May. But returning as an LL means so small of a time commitment, I could go back any time after February (too much planned already) and fulfill my hours on just one weekend morning a week. Part of me wants to be back before my birthday.

Perhaps because I view birthdays and September (never really got out of the school mindset) the way many view the New Year. A time for reflection and change. It would be nice to have one part of my plan in place by then.

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