Like most kids, when I was little I dreamed of growing up and becoming a veterinarian. I loved animals, and the fact that we had 5 dogs and 3 cats throughout my life only solidified my obsession. The difference between most kids and I, though, is that I never grew out of it.
When I was in high school, I was 100% positive that I was going to become an Animal Psychologist. The fact that I was terrible at science, and had no idea what an animal psychologist actually does (still don’t.) didn’t deter me. I figured it was the best alternative to being an actual vet, because I assumed it meant I would never have to dissect a frog or learn how to take a dog’s rectal temperature (I’m actually pretty sure that’s not true).
Junior year of high school, when I started looking at colleges, I was exclusively looking at places with
animal behavior programs. My first choice was Vanderbilt, because they had a monkey room (THEY WERE GOING TO LET ME PLAY WITH MONKEYS AT COLLEGE?!?!!??! I knew I was on the right track.) but I also started writing letters to animal behavior specialists at other schools, like Southwestern University and Arizona State, inquiring about their programs. What can I say? I was a ballsy kid with a DREAM.
Somewhere in the middle of this process, my parents (who were, until that point, very supportive) decided it would maybe be a good idea for me to learn exactly what an Animal Behavior Specialist did before I spent their hard earned tuition money on something I knew NOTHING about, other than that it meant I got to play with monkeys. So, we looked for summer programs that would allow me to get up close and personal with the profession I had spent years obsessing over (and would also look GREAT on my college applications).
We decided on a Rustic Pathways program that would allow me to spend 2 weeks in China at a Panda research center, and 2 weeks in Thailand on an Elephant Reserve. Coolest way to spend your summer vacation, or coolest way to spend your summer vacation? I was PUMPED.
After a VERY tearful goodbye with high school Billy (he was leaving for college at the end of the summer) and a promise that we could talk on the phone twice a week for 2 minutes (which was like, $40 a call) my mom drove me to the airport.
When we got there, we found out my flight was actually the next day. Whoops!
When I finally got to China, I found out that 90% of the kids who were supposed to be in the program had dropped out (it was only a few months after the earthquake in Sichuan) and it was just me, two girls, and one pretty weird dude. Our counselors were a 25 year-old-guy and girl with BO, both of whom were still trying to figure out what they wanted to do after college. One of the girls happened to be a hotel heiress, so at least it wasn’t a total loss.
The other two girls and I shared a hotel room smaller than the one I live in now (which is, even by NYC apartment standards, small), and slept on mats on the floor. We woke up at 6am every morning and ate spinach and mushroom dumplings for breakfast (aka my dream come true) and spent 11 hours every day doing manual labor at the research center.
This manual labor included cleaning the panda’s cages of discarded bamboo, scooping their poop, spraying them with water to keep them cool (did anyone offer to spray me? no.) and feeding them
apple slices while trying not to get our fingers bitten off.
Every day for lunch, they served us an unrecognizable “hot pot” (I’m usually an experimental eater, but as soon someone told me there were pig intestines in it, I knew it was NOT for me) in an un-airconditioned restaurant. Definitely not ideal after hours of physically demanding work in 90 degree heat, though I was skinny as hell after weeks of lifting hundreds of pounds of bamboo and eating nothing but white rice.
After lunch, it was time for the “animal behavior” portion of our day, which involved sitting in silence outside of the panda’s cage for four hours and recording EVERYTHING they did in three minute increments. I don’t know how much you know about pandas, but the bottom line is they do a whole lot of nothing. It was miserable.
As it turns out, pandas aren’t actually sweet and cuddly. They’re mean, vicious assholes who eat their young, and the reason they’re going extinct is because they are too lazy to mate. Whoever is doing their PR should get a raise.
I realized after hour 10 that HELL no was I ever going to be an Animal Behavior Specialist. I had zero desire to spend the rest of my life watching animals eat, sleep and occasionally scratch themselves. All I wanted was to be home making out with high school Billy at his pool, and I told him so during many teary phone calls (that I later got in huge trouble for).
Finally, on our last day at the research center, we were allowed to hold a baby panda, which 100% made up for the days of free labor we’d given them. No matter how mean and vicious they are, baby pandas are CUTE. Then, our counselors took us out to dinner at the fanciest restaurant in town: Pizza Hut.
The next day, I got to the elephant reserve in Thailand and things were immediately a MILLION times better. The food was amazing, the elephants were nice and smart, and there were actual people to spend time with during the tedious hours of “behavioral observation.” Plus, I got to buy high school Billy a bootleg copy of Wall-E while it was still in theaters. Everybody won.
When I got home, 15 pounds lighter and with more bug bites than any human should have to endure, I admitted to my parents that there was absolutely no way I was going to become an animal behavioral specialist. It was boring and I hated it.
Instead, I decided I wanted to go to business school! That worked out well, too.