Self-Care is an Animal Welfare Issue

As we wrap up another National Zookeeper Week, I wanted to share a little about my backstory: why I started ZooFit, and how ZooFit can help change the world, starting with ourselves.

Working Too Hard and Caring Too Much

I feel you, Panda. It’s just so hard!

Waaaaay back in 2013, I was in a bad place physically, emotionally, and mentally. There I was living my DREAM, working with amazing animals at an amazing zoo with amazing co-workers, and all I could think about was quitting. What was going on in my life? Well, my back and knees were in horrible shape. I kept telling myself it was the price to pay for such a strenuous job and there was nothing I could really do about it but watch my body deteriorate. This led to lack of energy, depression, and irritation with colleagues. I was also on the verge of major burnout, possibly over the edge a little.

I once was told back in the early days of my career that I worked too hard and I cared too much. Back then I thought this was without a doubt the most ridiculous criticism anyone could possibly tell me. I work too hard? And I care too much? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Caring for animals is hard work, but it doesn’t have to take its toll on your body

Now, twenty years later, I nod my head and realize that manager and their warning was wise beyond their years. Working hard is appreciated, yes. And to stay in this field, you most certainly have to care. But there is such thing as too much. It leads to burnout, what the industry calls “compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue is literally when you care too much, and eventually you have nothing left inside you. No energy, compassion, or care for the animals, co-workers, or yourself. It’s, in my opinion, the leading cause for many animal care professionals to leave the field.

Self-care is Animal Welfare

So, there I was back in 2013 working too hard, caring too much, and plunging over the edge towards the point of no return. I was utterly miserable. I was also one of the lucky ones who had my epiphany BEFORE I left the zoo. One day while chopping food for elephant snacks, the thought came to me, like lightning striking my brain- How can I possibly take care of these elephants if I can’t even take care of myself? And that was it. The light bulb turned on and I realized, self-care IS an animal welfare issue. Because you can’t take care of the animals until you are taking care of yourself.

Imagine this boat fender as a light-bulb! (Photo Credit Ryan Hawk, Woodland Park Zoo)

As time went by, this phrase became sort of my Peter Parker/Spiderman “with great power comes great responsibility” mantra. It works for EVERYTHING– whatever you think is the most important thing in your life, you can’t achieve it or succeed in that endeavor without first taking care of your fundamentals. Your family, your job, your business, the animals, even big world problems– conservation issues, social injustice, human rights, and global conflicts. We can’t take on these challenges if we aren’t in a place physically and mentally to take them on. In the pyramid of animal welfare, the base upon which our ability to do our job lies in how we are caring for our own health and wellness.

Change Your Life, Change the World

Taking care of myself made me feel I was on top of the world!

Once I realized this, making decisions that affected my health and fitness became super easy. Spending money on a personal trainer wasn’t a selfish act, it was investing in my skills as a zookeeper. Hitting the gym every day wasn’t a decision I had to make each day, I was committed. Once I committed and began implementing my own zookeeping philosophies (shaping behavior, using positive reinforcement, enrichment, and connecting my habits to conservation), my self-care drastically improved, and so did many of my ailments. I got a physical therapist and we worked on correcting my knee issues. Doing strength training at the gym actually alleviated my back pain because I was lifting properly at work, too. As my weight went down, my energy and focus skyrocketed. My mood improved, too, and the feeling of hopelessness left. The burnout dissipated, and I had a whole new lease on life, my job, and the animals I cared for.

So many small healthy habits can improve our ability to do our jobs as zookeepers. Practicing meditation can alleviate lock anxiety and improve your communication skills. Drinking water definitely helps us stay hydrated (dear lord, especially right now with the heat wave across the U.S.), but also clears our complexion, helps us differentiate hunger from thirst, and even keeps us regulated in heat. If you want to just get faster at your job, become more efficient and thorough, there are healthy habits to implement that help with that as well.

But the best part of self-care is being able to show up as the best version of myself for my animals, for my team, and for the community. Self-care is indeed part of animal welfare.

What’s one small practice you can implement to take better care of yourself so you can shine bright as the best zookeeper for your animals (whether you are taking care of zoo animals, furry friends, or just your own zoo at home with kids and pets)? Let’s start practicing these ideals of self-care, today, tomorrow, and forever. Eating clean, living green, and training positive. For you, for your loved ones, and for the planet.

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