By David Jiang
“David, let’s go to the zoo.” These were six words that once foreshadowed afternoons of pure joy during my childhood: a time when I excitedly zipped around from cage to cage, an adventurer in search of exotic beasts.
Animals were my childhood passion, my first love. National Geographic magazines and Planet Earth documentaries were staples before bedtime. My very first Christmas gift was a pair of binoculars, for wildlife watches. When most kids concerned themselves with dolls or monster trucks, I busily kept a little zoo in my house with insects found in the yard (my parents quickly shut that down). Ask six-year old me and I would for sure say that my greatest dream was to work with wildlife.
I would have never anticipated that twelve years later, this dream finally came true. It just seemed that all of the pieces, one by one, fell into place, as some fate awaited me. First, I selected to do a bridge year before jumping straight into university. Second, Global Citizen Year sent me to live seven months in Brazil, which happened to be the most biodiverse nation on the planet. Finally, third, I got assigned to a wildlife rescue park, where I would directly care for everything from parrots to penguins, toucans to tamanduas, and owls to ocelots. On paper, I had everything I could have ever wished for.
Yet, in real life, I truly had no idea what was in store. Up until now, I have engaged with wildlife in the way most people have: outside looking in, secured by distance or a chain link fence. Yet, nothing was more surreal than being inside the enclosure on my first day. For the first time in my life, there was nothing between me (besides a hose and petty squeegee mop) and the beast. And knowing that this would be the reality of my next seven months.
Whether it be a flock of aggressive Amazon parrots or a troop of crazy capuchin monkeys, I learned quickly the need to tread carefully or be attacked. After a cage’s worth of cleaning, feeding, and not-getting-killed, I am covered in fruit stains, fish guts, or animal feces. The animals don’t seem to be impressed with my work, carelessly dirtying up the enclosure I had so arduously cleaned. Forget the rosy image of blossoming human-animal friendships. As a newbie on the job, my main goal was getting out of there alive.
As funny as it is to describe my first working week, in the moment, it was one filled with cognitive dissonance. It was one when I constantly questioned my commitment and passion. Had I been disillusioned in my passion for wildlife? Why does reality feel so wrong when on paper it felt so right and destined? Can I even survive seven months cleaning this many cages? As I continued to obsessively question myself during the first weeks, one particular Chinese parable constantly popped up in my head. This parable perfectly represented the worst of what I would discover out of my experience:
There was once a man who loved dragons. He loved dragons so much that he hung images of them in his home, wore them on his clothes, and dreamed about them at night. He loved them more than anything in the world.
The man’s devotion to dragons reached the ears of the Dragon King, who decided to pay him a visit. He snaked down from the heavens to the Earth, curling himself around the man’s house, awaiting his arrival.
The Dragon King expected a grand reception upon the man’s arrival home. Yet, he could not be farther from the truth. Upon seeing the dragon’s serpent-like body, his golden fins, and the wispy grey smoke exhaling from his breath, the man screamed in terror and fled for the hills.
It was too late that the Dragon King realized that, in reality, the man only liked the idea of dragons. However, to meet one in person just became too real.
I saw myself as that the man, fascinated by the dragon of my life: this opportunity I have in wildlife conservation. I have always loved its concept, enough to devote an entire year to its cause. Yet, I feared that once I discovered its truth, it would become too much for me.
However, looking back after a month on job, I am certain it will not turn out like that. Despite each day’s “terrors and toils”, I only feel more exhilarated to come back the next day, returning to confront the next set of challenges. I accept that it is not the idyllic experience that people make it out to be, because it represents something so much more: a higher goal with a deeper meaning, one that I can feel but have yet to discover it fully. I have since rejected that parable, instead, choosing to remind myself to embrace the discomfort of my new life and purpose. Because now, with more time and experience, I know where the gain and growth lies: inside the enclosure.