The University Years
I never did apply to art school. I didn’t believe that my ideas were good enough, I could see the flaws in my techniques, I didn’t trust myself. The thought of preparing my portfolio was overwhelming, and so I didn’t. True to my five-year-old self I applied and was accepted to the Science Department at the University of British Columbia, with the intent of majoring in Marine Biology. I found however, my interests lay in ecology, conservation and earth sciences, not in biochemistry, molecular biology and organic chemistry. To be a scientist you have to be very narrowly focused. You have to focus on one thing for the rest of your life. I wasn’t passionate enough about one thing, how could I choose?
I was told that ecology was a thing of the past and natural history no longer held value. I learned that the science department at UBC is geared for pre-med students and many of the classes are used as benchmarks for that program. I learned that if I majored in marine biology I would have to take many of those classes, and I would not be allowed to registrar for the earth science classes that fascinated me. This was so frustrating. I was paying to be at the school. I was paying for the information and the opportunity. I was paying for the degree – why shouldn’t I get to choose my classes?
(There is an argument here for the design of a degree and how it relates to preparation of a career path. Perhaps in my late teens/early twenties I should have listened to those who came before me and heeded their advise. Perhaps then I would have landed a job as a marine biologist and contributed to the scientific community. There was, however, no conversations with the university about future planning and career paths, about how the education we were receiving in exchange for a very large sum of money would contribute to our future. I was of the generation that believed a degree equates to employment. This was one of my hardest lessons to learn.)
As mentioned earlier, I tend to forge my own path, somethings by finding loophole to make the system work for me. Enter the Integrated Sciences Program. My loophole. Though I tell folks my degree is in Marine Biology, technically, my major was Integrated Sciences with a focus on Marine Ecology and Ecosystem Functioning. I got to pick and choose which classes I wanted (defending my choices of course). I got to create my degree from scratch. My specialization is in the role of macrofauna in coastal marine ecosystems. Put another way, I studied the animals that dominate this coastline and the factors that effect their lives. I found a way to study food chains.
University gave me the real words and real knowledge to understand the animals and wild spaces I love so much. I studied plate tectonics and algae, fish physiology (or as my Prof put it, the appreciation of what makes fishes awesome), the scientific method and the ocean conveyer belt theory. I learned to ID birds by their calls – this skill has landed me multiple jobs in my post grad life. I learned how minerals are formed in the earth – those pretty rocks I use in my work today, I could go on and on about the exact chemical and physical conditions required to makes those colours, those textures, that beauty.
I learned to conduct research, think critically, make informed decisions, and challenge assumptions. I learned the value in understanding the big picture and the inner workings. I learned to collect and digest information from a variety of sources. I learned what was happening in the forest by listening to the birds in the trees. I also learned that I didn’t want to continue on to a master’s degree. I didn’t want to work in a lab. I dreamed about donning gumboots every morning. About going out into the wild every day. About sharing my passion with the world. But I didn’t know how to make that into a career.
In my fourth year I was accepted into the internship program at ta wild life rehab centre on one of the Gulf Islands. The aquarium volunteer hours I had accumulated played a large part in that acceptance. It was a dream come true. I imagined myself snuggling the tiny baby seals, nursing them back to health. I’d tromp through the forest followed by the wild birds and rabbits I’d helped – much like a scene from Snow White.
The reality? Twelve hour shifts, night watch, dawn feedings, smelling like fish, constantly disinfecting little nips to prevent “seal finger,” mourning the ones who didn’t make it through the night, cursing the do-gooders who brought in the animals that didn’t need our help, body aches from the physical demands of the job, realizing the politics that surround wildlife rehab and the challenges of running a non-profit. The moment of release, when an animal realizes it’s free and takes off into the wild, sharing the success stories with visitors, witnessing a wild thing recover from the brink to a fat, fearless, fighting thing, the camaraderie of my fellow volunteers that lasts even today, the knowing that in my small way, I made a difference.
I went into that internship thinking I would like to pursue a career in wildlife rehabilitation. I was planning on finishing my degree and then getting a diploma in veterinary technology. By the end of the summer I had changed my mind.
While I believe there is a value in helping out one wild thing, as humans we naturally want to help, my studies in ecology taught me that ecosystems remain healthy because of healthy populations. Saving one animal does not a healthy ecosystem make. In fact, it can potentially hurt it. Why were these animals brought to us in the first place? Were the seal pups abandoned by their mother’s for a reason we couldn’t detect? Were we saving animals that could weaken the population? “Abandoned” seal pups are most often found on popular public beaches and snatched up by well meaning people just trying to help. The call a seal pup makes sounds distinctly like a toddler crying for it’s mum. Who wouldn’t want to help that!? Unless you knew that female harbour seals often leave their pups on the beach for hours at a time while they go off to hunt. The centre I worked for didn’t tag released animals, deeming it an invasive practice. While there are arguments for this, from a scientific perspective we had no data on the survival rate of our released animals. Did they thrive in the wild? Did they live a year? Did they even survive a week or a day after we released them?
I’ll never know. I’ll never know if the work I did that summer really helped give a handful of wild animals a second chance. In my fourth year I wrote a paper examining the pros and cons of wildlife rehab and if it could be defended scientifically or ethically. I received top marks on that one.