From the time I was a child, my introverted nature led me to a deep affiliation with animals. My first meaningful relationships with animals were with my family pets. I was shy, and had a hard time speaking up for myself, yet with animals there was no need to talk in order to forge a bond. As an empath, I feel a sense of connection with animals, and love spending time in their presence. I grieved heavily when we lost a family pet (as a veterinarian, I also grieved heavily when I worked with suffering animals). I also knew that I wanted to work with and to care for animals from the time I was very young, probably around 5 or 6 years old (the first patient I tried to save was a bumblebee). For me becoming a veterinarian was a childhood dream realized.
I recall first truly connecting with my spirituality during summer camp when I was about 10. During camp they sent us out along a nature trail to be alone, to spend some time reading our devotionals. Most of the camp kids paired up and spent their time chatting and goofing off, but I took to the task like a duck to water. I was absolutely enthralled with the idea of being alone in the wilderness. It lit me up like nothing else, and I realized that what I gained in those moments by myself in nature could never be duplicated in the formal setting of a sanctuary. Being alone in nature was my church. Also because I am an introvert, spending quiet time by myself, and preferably in nature, is how I recharge.
Knowing from an early age that I wanted to pursue veterinary medicine, I took a job at a local vet clinic as soon as I was legally able to. I started as a veterinary assistant–my job was to clean kennels, clean up all messes (read feces, urine, diarrhea, blood, abscesses, you name it), and to clean the vet hospital every night upon closing. After proving that I was willing to do the dirty work in order to gain experience, I was allowed to do much more in terms of veterinary assistance. I absolutely loved this job. I loved being able to care for those who couldn’t take care of themselves.
My passion for animals knew no bounds, and extended to wildlife and nature as well. I worked any jobs that I could, as a volunteer or for pay (if lucky) just to gain the experience and to have the privilege to be in the presence of a variety of species. After working in a small animal vet clinic through high school, I worked in the exotics ward of the veterinary school during undergrad, and also volunteered at the local zoo with the great apes, monkeys, and black bears. Again, my work primarily consisted of cleaning up messes, and I took on this responsibility like a badge of honor. I loved my work. It was perhaps some of the most rewarding work I’ve done in my life, having that direct contact and connection with animals. What a privilege and a thrill it was to be recognized with excitement by the gorillas and chimps I cared for. I was in my element.
Years later, in college, I took my first trip to Africa, and my passion exploded–spending time in nature in the presence of wild animals truly took me to a new level. It was like a religious experience. There is simply nothing more thrilling to me than being in the presence of a wild being, in their turf and on their terms, where time stands still. Truly, you are never more present than when in the presence of the wild.
Because my passion for animals was so strong, becoming a veterinarian was a natural career choice for me. In truth, there was no other choice but to become a vet. I loved vet school, being surrounded by my peers and mentors, and immersed in a stimulating and challenging learning environment. Whereas some of my peers graduated vet school and never looked back, I found that once I was out in clinical practice, I missed the academic environment. I worked hard to earn the title of doctor, and was so proud to identify myself as a veterinarian, fulfilling a childhood dream. And yet, shortly after graduation I began to realize that my soul connection to being in the presence of animals was being overshadowed by the daily responsibilities and pressures of being their doctor. In short, I was not a good businessperson. I wanted to provide the best possible care for my patients, which often meant knowing the limitations of my clinic and my own capabilities, and referring them on to a speciality hospital when necessary. My boss, however, did not like this way of thinking, and began to resent my inability to bring in as much money as possible from my cases.
Despite loving the intimate connection with animals that being a small animal clinician offered, my sights were set on working with free-ranging wildlife in Africa. This passion was ignited long before vet school, so I knew in my heart that after vet school, I wasn’t yet finished with my education nor my journey, and decided to go back to school. I went on to pursue a PhD in wildlife epidemiology and virology, and this gave me the opportunity to rekindle my spiritual fire, working in the field in Africa with wildlife (lions). For a few years I was once again surrounded by like-minded colleagues in a stimulating and challenging environment, and I thrived on the opportunity to learn and grow in my career.
Since the time I left clinical practice to pursue my PhD nearly 15 years ago, I have never returned. It has been years since I donned the traditional white coat, and played the part of the cliched vet most of society identifies with. Yet for the past 17 years since earning my DVM, when people ask me what I do, the first thing I say, the first thing I identify with, is that of a veterinarian. I am still highly connected to this identity, and still cherish it greatly. I love my profession. I love my colleagues. I love my career. Yet, I am beginning to realize that this very identity I cherish may be holding me back.
My grandmother loved the idea of me in my white coat with a stethoscope around my neck. She strongly identified this with a symbol of accomplishment, perhaps prestige, and success. She continued to ask me about whether I wore my white coat long after I had shed the white coat of clinical practice and donned a white laboratory coat for my PhD research. It became more difficult to explain to her and others why I was no longer in clinical practice, and just what it was that I did. Yes I was (and am) a vet, but no I do not have a small animal clinic. No I do not treat individual patients. Yes I know how to. No I do not have a practice in Africa. Yes I do work with wildlife in Africa. Very confusing.
You see, over the past 17 years since I earned the title of DVM, I have experienced a lot in my life. I have earned a doctorate, become board certified in many veterinary specialties, have created and run my own charity for 7 years, and have more recently become a professor, an author, a Reiki master, a certified meditation instructor, and a compassion fatigue therapist. It is no longer easy to answer the question of ‘what I do’ when people inquire, or when I connect with others through my personal life, my professional life, or on social media. Yet I am still leading with the title of veterinarian–maybe because it is easiest for people to understand, and simpler than trying to explain the many things I do, and because I still so deeply love and appreciate this identity I worked so hard to earn.
I have begun to realize however that this title has placed me into a box—a box for which I no longer fit, and perhaps never truly fit. I was only briefly the ‘typical’ vet most people think of, and even then, I felt as if I was an imposter, knowing my heart wasn’t cut out for clinical practice. I longed to work with wildlife, and yet when I earned the credentials to do so, I continued longing for more. I longed to tackle the bigger challenges we face in conservation, namely at the interface with humans and domestic animals. And so I set out to tackle them, and my career once again took a path un-forged. For years I have been in what is kindly termed an ‘alternative veterinary career’. I often have felt like an outsider, an independent, a pioneer, and at times this has been a lonely, albeit exhilarating path. Even though I still feel a strong sense of affiliation, comfort, and pride with my veterinary community, in truth many of my veterinary friends and colleagues don’t even fully understand ‘what I do’.
Over the years my desire has continuously evolved and emerged, from saving species in the wild, to bringing balance back to ecosystems, protecting biodiversity, and gaining a clearer picture of the magnitude of the global ecological challenges we face today. I have experienced my own form of burnout and compassion fatigue, witnessing such terrible tragedy that we humans have inflicted on Mother Nature. I have also been fortunate enough to learn first-hand that much of this ecological devastation, human-wildlife conflict, and decimation of species has not been done maliciously or intentionally, despite our tendency to think so. I have come to understand that in order to fix the challenges we face in conservation, we must focus on the needs of the people at the interface with nature. That in order to heal nature, we must first heal ourselves. I began to familiarize myself more and more with the human side of the equation in conservation, and I transformed my own perspective, mindset, and approach to conservation.
I also recognize that in order to create my vision of a better world where humans live in ecological balance with nature, I cannot do this alone. My passion is also brought to life through inspiring others to pursue their own unique paths, and to pursue them relentlessly. By honoring my own unique path, I am able to serve as an example of what is possible for others. It is in our individual pursuit of our own unique purpose that we will collectively make a positive impact on our vision for a better world. Your vision may look different than mine–perhaps your passion is to lessen the suffering of domestic animals, or to improve captive animal care, to save wild habitat, to reduce infectious disease, or to save an endangered species. Whatever your purpose or your passion, be all in. Pursue it with a fierce and unbridled spirit. Nurture your light and shine it so that others may find their own.
I now realize that I am on a lifelong journey of learning, growing, and transforming. I am discovering that the labels and identity that I use to connect with others on this journey no longer fits into a box. Yes, I am and will always be a veterinarian, but that was never all I was intended to be. I am so much more. I am in the process of ‘unbecoming’ my identity so that I can truly rediscover my self. How I will sum that up to the next person that asks, I don’t yet know! But I am figuring it out as I go.
As much as it may feel that my journey is unique, I suspect I am not alone. I suspect that many of you have a great desire to help animals of all species, or have a lifelong passion for nature and all beings, and have experienced an evolution in your life that you couldn’t possibly have imagined at a younger age, when it was so important to find and cling to an identity. I suspect that many of you also long to break out of your box, and to reconnect with the pure love of being in the presence of animals, or nature, in order to rediscover your passion. I suspect that many of you, like me, have felt lost in the shuffle of making a living, or paying the bills, or getting through the day, or studying and working to achieve and become, and would love to revisit a simpler time before you had a professional identity. It is time for us all to give ourselves permission to be more than a singular professional identity.
Or maybe you are still young and in pursuit of your professional identity, and haven’t yet considered what that will feel like and look like for you in 10 or 20 years. My advice to you is to choose a big box, with room for an ever-expanding and evolving identity.
We are all so much more than our work. We are so much more than a label, or an outward identity. We are our purpose, and our passion, and our spirit, and our journey here on earth is to find that purpose and passion, and to nurture it as we would a newborn child, and to share our light with the world. If it happens to fit nicely within the singular box of an outward identity, such as a veterinarian, consider yourself fortunate. If however you need to create a new box to stand in, with room for an ever-evolving identity, or perhaps to tear down the box and shed that identity entirely, there is no time like the present to begin.
Rather than identify with ‘what I do’, I am working on identifying the quintessential nature of who I am. When I come to stand firmly in my true purpose, in the I am, my ‘doing’ will take place organically as I am living my ‘being’, and I can truly make an impact to better our world.
I would love to hear from you, about your own struggle in the identity box, your journey, and your longing to reconnect with your purpose and shed the identity that no longer seems to fit. You are not alone! But you are a pioneer. It is your journey alone to walk, but I’ll be walking mine in the path right beside you.
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