“Scary” Animals Need Love, Too.

1 July 2024 Off By Bambam

This piece comes to us from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). In honor of LGBTQ+ Pride month, Nature and WCS are sharing stories of nature and conservation from members of these communities. 

Like many of my colleagues that I work with as a Conservation Educator at the Central Park Zoo, I have always been enamored with animals and the natural world. Some of my earliest memories involve being glued to the television watching Australian zookeeper and TV personality, Steve Irwin, handle wildlife and explain to us how each and every animal was unique and deserved love. For me, it was reptiles in particular.

I pursued my dream of working with reptiles by earning an undergrad degree in zoology. Learning more about the natural world, I also learned more about myself and how much I enjoy research and disseminating information to others about my passions, which focused on limbless geckos known as pygopodids.

During the time I studied zoology, I had amazing opportunities to work in ecology and conservation. Some highlights of my experiences include assisting in ranavirus tracking in amphibians in upstate New York, supervising a community-science-based census of native terrapin populations in Queens’s Jamaica Bay, and assisting with bat ecology research in Costa Rica.

George at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge holding a diamondback terrapin while assisting with population ecology research. Photo credit: Russel Burke (Hofstra University)

In the period immediately following graduation, I grappled with a series of challenges that included a global pandemic, an abandoned attempt at graduate school, and lots of uncertainty surrounding my gender identity. In the blur of a year and a half, I began working at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—first as a camp counselor, then as an Adjunct Educator, landing finally in my current role as a Conservation Educator at the Central Park Zoo in New York City.

I always like to say that my forte is the “Creepy, Crawly, Scaly, and Slimy” because, in addition to reptiles, I love bugs and other misunderstood species. Growing up, I always felt a bit on the outside of the norm, being the queer effeminate child I was. I believe it was this feeling of being out of place that helped foster my love for the less appreciated animals.

At times it was hard for me to feel like I had a place in the world, which is why I related so much to reptiles, amphibians, and bugs. People who prefer these animals usually get labeled as odd, an identity I have grown to love because just like the animals themselves, I think this oddness is a form of beauty.

George in Brookhaven Pine Barrens with long-tailed field mouse while assisting with population ecology research. Photo credit: Imogene Wells, Stony Brook University.

Outside of work, when I share my love for animals with others, I typically encounter those who favor and focus on the cute, cuddly, and furry. Interestingly, sometimes that preference comes with comes a fear, and occasionally even hatred, for the misunderstood animals I’ve come to love learning and teaching about.

It breaks my heart constantly hearing negative opinions and perceptions towards the more misunderstood animals, as I believe this attitude can shape our relationships with others as people. When it becomes socially acceptable to hate on different or misunderstood animals, we may be more likely to negatively judge traits that are considered “abnormal” in people.

This can be seen throughout the world in the public attitude towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Because our gender identity challenges social norms, too often we must contend with misinformation, vitriol, and even physical harm just because we are different.

A hope I have not only for wildlife but also for humanity is that we can come to love uniqueness in the human experience. Love and empathy go hand in hand. Developing one can lead to the other.

George with Opal, a zebu (a South Asian cattle species), at the Central Park Zoo’s Tisch Children’s Zoo. Photo Credit: Cydney Blitzer ©WCS.

I have recently started graduate school again through Miami University’s Advanced Inquiry Program at the Bronx Zoo. The goal of my master plan project is to get people to develop empathy towards “non-charismatic,” or less immediately impressive, animals and in turn encourage an appreciation for them and a commitment to their conservation.

Learning more about empathy-based conservation lately, I appreciate even more what an impactful role Steve Irwin played in nurturing not only my love of reptiles but how I see the natural world and want to engage with others. Watching him encourage people to love “scary” animals such as snakes and crocodiles inspires me to do the best I can in my work.

Bringing one of these misunderstood animals to my classroom provides me with an opportunity to change someone’s opinion and become more engaged and inspired. You can witness in real time people getting over their fears and misconceptions through hands-on animal encounters.

Through these interactions, I hope to encourage empathy towards these animals and maybe even a love for them. That is why every time I see someone become excited towards my favorite classroom animals—a collection of snakes and two precious rats—it makes me so genuinely happy. It’s not only a win for the misunderstood animals, but for all of us that were labeled as “different.”

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