2019 Year in Review: Amanda Nicholson, Director of Outreach

It’s time to look back on 2019! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2019 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

2019 has been quite a year; it’s passed by quickly, yet it also feels like I’ve crammed a couple years’ worth of activities and events into the span of a single year. We kicked off the year with ice storm recovery and reconstruction … quickly jumped into the premiere of Untamed, Season 1 … and somehow, I’m already closing out this year by frantically writing out treatments for Season 2! In between, I said goodbye to some beloved ambassadors (I’ll miss you always, Jaz) and also said “see you later” to a few beloved co-workers (Brie and Raina, Peach and I are still sad every day). Lots of memorable moments, but one of the standout events of this year was a special training opportunity in early August.

In my time at the Wildlife Center, I’ve been able to intermittently attend the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA) symposium; in 2013, I somehow got myself invited to be the volunteer program coordinator of the symposium. That meant that  I not only get to help plan (and, obviously, attend) the symposium each year, but also meant had the opportunity to get to know some of the amazing people in the wildlife field.

In 2016, I attended a day-long seminar on wildlife education and training – the focus was on choosing and training non-releasable education animal ambassadors. It was an excellent learning opportunity led by three amazing women in the field; for me, it laid the foundation of moving toward using operant conditioning training methods and giving our ambassadors more choices and opportunities.  That set us up for more positive interactions and relationships.

This summer, I had several important conversations with Ed, Randy, and Lacy about the status of some of our individual ambassadors, along with current training challenges and frustrations. The result of those conversations was to have Melissa Moore, director of the New Mexico Wildlife Center (and one of my three personal training heroes), come out to the Center for a three-day “train the trainers” session.

The outreach team spent just about every minute of three glorious days with Melissa – showing her our enclosures, introducing her to the raptor ambassadors, talking through challenges, and having her observe us in action during training sessions. Melissa was also able to help us think through some bird training transition plans as Raina left the Center and Lauren joined the team.

I can’t understate how valuable this opportunity was; I’ve reached out to Melissa and other trainers before to talk/email through particular situations with raptor ambassadors, but having someone here to actually see our set-up and see us in action allowed us to move forward and break through some roadblocks.

The funny thing is, it’s not like Melissa came and waved a magic wand; there is no magic technique or trick that enables us to skip out on the time it takes to train. When I look back at my hastily scribbled notes from that period, it’s not like there’s any one magic tidbit that stands out; in reality, it all sounds rather basic. But having Melissa here enabled me to reset my brain and expectations, and push through my own mental roadblocks regarding training. For weeks after Melissa was here, Alex and I would often meet up in the animal kitchen as we prepped food and would share insights about training sessions – and often, it wasn’t the individual birds that we were talking about, it was our own mindset and outlook. In learning more about bird training, I think we learned more about ourselves as well.

As Lauren has said in her year-end post, training is an honest process -- one that forces you to find a way to clearly communicate with an entirely different species that speaks an entirely different language. It takes time, and it can be challenging and sometimes frustrating – and it can also be incredibly rewarding, fun, and amazing to watch unfold before you.

-- Amanda Nicholson, Director of Outreach

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!