Six years ago, I left my dream job to pursue a new dream. I’ll admit sometimes I regret it. I often think that if I had  the focus and balance necessary to juggle a full-time job, and write a book while gaining experience as a wellness coach, I might be in a better position to help zookeepers. 

But I didn’t have the focus, nor the balance of energy, work, and love, to do it all. Maybe that type of balance doesn’t actually exist. But I do know a balance that does exist, and that is you CAN have your dream job and your sanity.

I can imagine what some animal care professionals are thinking. “What do you know?” I get it. I left the field six years ago, and in that time, so much has changed. I did not experience the turmoil of the past year as a zookeeper. So how can I possibly sit here on my fancy computer and tell you that I know what you’re going through? Or that I know how to fix all that ails you?

Truth be told, I don’t know what you are going through. No one can. And I’m not actually here to fix all your problems. I can’t do that. But what I can do is share some of what I’ve learned along my journey to becoming a wellness coach, and how it can benefit zookeepers today. 

You can have both your dream job and your sanity. And ZooFit can help you gain the tools necessary to achieve it.

What is it you really want?

When I hear some people are leaving the field because the morale at their current workplace is too toxic, it sort of breaks my heart. I have been in your shoes. I remember way back in 2013 having that same feeling—I didn’t want to be “Here” anymore. Even though “Here” was everything I had dreamed of—a beautiful zoo, wonderful animals, a great team of dedicated zookeepers. I was pretty broken, physically and emotionally. 

One day, while prepping enrichment treats for the animals, I had a stark realization. It was as if lightning had struck my brain. How on earth can I expect to take care of the elephants if I’m not taking care of myself?

How many of us in the animal care field view self-care as a selfish action? For years, I tried to cover up the back pain and knee pain with medication rather than solve the underlying issues of weak muscles and heavy impact from being overweight. I fought through exhaustion with caffeine, sugar, and cigarettes rather than allow myself to get proper rest. I created all these horrible vicious cycles that eventually led to me wanting to quit my job because I felt I was going insane. The animals took so much out of me, because I gave them 100% of what I had, and there was nothing left for me.

But when I had my epiphany, I realized that self-care isn’t a selfish act, it’s an animal welfare issue. When I started incorporating self-care habits into my daily routine working with animals, my energy improved, my mood improved, and suddenly, “Here” didn’t seem like such a horrible place anymore.

It started with ME taking care of ME. 

Dreams can Change, so Can You

If working at a zoo was such a dream job, why did I leave? I mean, I can have it all, right? It was a dream job, but sometimes our dreams shift.

When I started on my fitness and self-care journey, I realized that teaching visitors how to treat themselves better could lead to conservation action. I wanted to stay in both worlds–fitness and zookeeping–but the more I tried to balance the two, the more I realized I had to choose. Either keep on being a zookeeper and loving my life, being happy, sharing little tidbits with other zookeepers and a small number of visitors. Or I could see just how far I could reach with my ZooFit concept—show others how to make fitness and self-care engaging, empowering, and impactful.

I chose the latter. And as much as I miss the zoo and wonder if I could’ve found success with ZooFit as a zookeeper, I do not regret pursuing this idea. Even if it fails epically. I at least tried.

On your journey in self-care or practicing compassion for yourself, you may find that your dream has shifted too. And if that’s the case, go for your dream. Always go for your dream, even if it changes.

But if your dream is to work with animals, and you feel you have to choose between that and your sanity, take a deep breath and keep on reading. Because you can certainly have your cake and eat it, too.

Self-Care is in Your Hands

Self-care is an act of animal welfare, but it is not the zoo’s or management’s responsibility to seek it. It is up to each of us to take care of ourselves. It may sound like a daunting task, but I promise even the smallest of actions can make the biggest difference.

Those small habits build up little by little a stronghold to perform at our best—physically, mentally, and emotionally—no matter what life throws at us. We build resiliency before a crisis happens, making even a crisis easier to manage. We intuitively will know how to handle stressful situations with calmness and centered clarity. When life knocks us down, as it inevitably will, we get back up stronger than before. We find we have the strength and fortitude to show up as our best selves, day in and day out. 

This isn’t about saying “no” to your job (at least not all the time). It’s about saying “no” to things that aren’t serving you, your health, or the well-being of your animals. Maybe that means instead of going out for drinks after work, you go home to get some much needed rest. Instead of grabbing the quickest, most convenient lunch or breakfast, you prepare a meal that will fuel your lifestyle. This could also mean on occasion you say “no” to work and say “yes” to what you need most at that moment. Yes, you can work an extra shift over your weekend, but no, you can’t stay for a 10-hour shift on that extra day. 

It’s about finding balance. When you put yourself first, and get in tune with what your body needs most, you will find the opportunities to allow indulgences at appropriate times. But this comes after healthy habits have been established, and self-care is almost second-nature. 

Self-Care Habits to Keep Your Sanity

How do you establish these great self-care habits? Well, I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is, there isn’t one specific catch-all method to help you maintain a healthy balance of work and self-care. The good news is you can have FUN figuring out which path works best for you.

You get to play both animal and trainer in this scenario. Use positive reinforcement and enrichment to discover activities you enjoy, that impact your health and well-being the most, and focus on them. If you wander off the main path along the way or make a “wrong turn,” that’s totally cool, too. You get to enjoy the scenery (aka the remarkable lessons) before turning back and heading on the right trail again.

Perhaps your #1 habit is getting enough rest each night. Through some experimentation, you’ll learn what is your perfect routine (shower right before bed, what kind of exercise to do, when is the optimal time to eat dinner, when to shut off electronics, how long it takes you to GET to sleep, etc.). This takes a commitment of saying yes to YOU and the animals, and perhaps a bigger no to social events, at least during your workweek. 

Perhaps you are looking to gain more energy through fitness. Rather than just join a gym and get overwhelmed with the options, have some fun exploring one small thing at a time until you have a whole stockpile of ideas, exercises, classes, and activities that don’t just get you moving, but move you. They actually bring you joy. That’s more important than the calorie burn. It’s the consistency of the habit, not the intensity. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing again.

And let’s not underestimate how powerfully impactful mindfulness meditation can be. It can calm the monkey brain, help us focus on what’s important now, show up with compassion, empathy, and kindness for not just our animals, but our fellow humans as well. We develop more patience, gratitude, and understanding. Which are all vital for taking care of ourselves as much as eating right, getting enough sleep, and adding movement into our routine.

So, let’s start saying yes to ourselves. We can have our dream job and keep our sanity. Taking care of ourselves provides better care to the animals. It starts with one small action. What’s one thing you can start doing today to promise a better future tomorrow?