A Person's a Person, No Matter How Small

Somehow, it has already been two months and my time at the Wildlife Center of Virginia is finished. I have learned so much during my short time here. I've had plenty of experiences to choose from as a topic for this blog, but I wanted to write about something that's very important to me and to everyone else here at the Wildlife Center of Virginia: respect.

Even before coming to the Center, I had strong views on the commodification of animals in captivity. I support zoos that are members of the Species Survival Program, or something similar, and I fully understand the role of captive animals in public outreach -- they help people connect to the species and care about the well-being of those animals.

However, I do spend a lot time thinking about whether our motives for keeping an animal captive are driven by what's best for the animals or by what we want as humans.

I can honestly say that there was never a moment in these past two months where I questioned whether our education ambassadors were here for the wrong reasons. Spending any amount of time with the employees here will tell you that our mission statement is not just a collection of nice sounding words; it is at the heart of everyone's actions.

The veterinary and rehabilitation staff put their hearts and souls into getting our patients healed up and back out into the wild.

The outreach team puts just as much care into educating the public about wildlife in hopes that more knowledge will lead to less human-wildlife conflict.

Our education ambassadors are not treated as pets, exhibits, or commodities; they are treated as co-workers (who get on-site medical coverage, housing, and daily catering, etc ...).

One of the most important aspects of this job is recognizing that the human members of the outreach team are essentially translators for our non-human co-workers. We have to get to know them well enough to read their cues – when they're agitated, not feeling well, uncomfortable, relaxed, etc. The more we work with an animal the better we are at reading them.

Pignoli and I have been getting to know each other since week two. I've learned she's not a morning person and she loves to poop while out on the glove, but she's quiet in front of a crowd and never bates (tries to fly off the glove).

One of the things I loved to see here was the high level of respect everyone has for each other and the animals. If an ambassador is having a bad day, we will choose someone else to come out on a program. The veterinarians are consulted about any possible health issues, and the health and safety of our education ambassadors always comes first – even if that means turning down a program or having to rearrange schedules.

This can be difficult sometimes, especially because those of us who are attracted to a career in outreach are very passionate about teaching as much as we can to as many people as we can. However, at the Center, we always have to keep in mind that we aren't the only ones going out on a program. For instance, it's always disappointing when a person comes up at the end of a program, just after you've put away an animal, and says they missed the presentation and would really love to see the animal. As an educator, my first instinct is always to do whatever I can to help someone learn, but as an animal handler, it's my responsibility to put the animals’ needs first.

As anyone who has been to a program I've led can tell you, I will certainly stand there all day and talk your ear off about any and every animal we treat here at the Center, but our educational ambassadors get fatigued a bit faster than I do. So depending on the animal, the length of time they have been working, and other factors, I may not bring the animal back out.

Even though this can be sometimes disappointing for the public (and us as well), I think it can also be a good thing. The general public doesn’t deal with non-human coworkers on a daily basis, making it more difficult for most people to not see wild animals as just another commodity – something that we can buy and sell and use whenever it is convenient for us. Places like the Wildlife Center of Virginia help put wild animals back in their proper context, as neighbors with whom we must learn to respectfully coexist.

"I... I do not understand the human race,
That has so little love
For creatures with a different face.
Treating animals like people,
Is no madness or disgrace.
I do not understand the human race."
- (Doctor Dolittle, Bricusse 1967)

"It's true we do not live in a zoo...
But man is an animal, too!
So why can't you -
Like me -
Like animals?....Animals!"
- (Doctor Dolittle, Bricusse 1967)

--Ashley Perry
WCV Class of 2016