Reflections after 3 months
It's incredible that I'm already half way through my 6 months of sabbatical, and I'm excited on what lays ahead in the next 3 months. On July 1st, I embarked on this journey to discovery and was curious how it would unfold. In this week post, I use a technique called "retrospective with myself" that I proudly stole from my former colleague Sonja Sinz. The idea is to reflect on What I enjoyed – What I struggled with – What I learned so far during the past months of volunteering at animal shelters in Eastern Europe.
What I enjoyed
It was clear to me before starting this journey that I was an animal lover. However, I was unsure how I would cope with being with animals all day long - would it be too much and I get bored? Would I get lonely and miss "humans"? Would I get annoyed at the difficult dog that doesn't stop barking? Would I make an impact?
While volunteering at animal shelters, it became clearer that I'm a cat lover first, and then a "dog liker". It amazed me how many hours I could just sit there and be with cats. I enjoy and admire particularly their quietness, elegant moves and bold climbing techniques. I connected more deeply also with several dogs, especially while at Street Hearts BG, given the amount of time for 1:1 was quite large.
I was blessed being surrounded by motivated & passionate people, who do such a fantastic job and care for the voiceless, abandoned or mistreated animals. The purpose and impact of their mission is tangible and laudable; I felt lucky that I could share some weeks alongside them.
I enjoyed discovering and being immerged in a new culture & environment. Even though I could not speak the local language besides some basic words of Romanian and Bulgarian, I managed to exchange with locals when possible and that gave me a different perspective.
Lastly, I appreciated having time for me, being alone to reflect, being outdoor, cooking simple and healthy meals every evening, and also explore new avenues different from my day-to-day routine back home (see more in the What I learned paragraph).
What I struggled with
I have to be honest, I haven't done much sport during the first 6 months of 2020 (except some skiing in winter until the resorts got shut down mid-March) and my fitness level was fairly low when I started this trip. Even though this has not been a huge struggle, working with animals does require a certain level of physical strength. You bend a lot, you squat, you carry or move things around. I was quite exhausted the first few weeks in the evening, and enjoyed sitting in the relax chair in the garden and do nothing. That brought actually a positive side: I slept much better than anticipated and of course, regained some muscles too ;)
It can get frustrating to see many stray animals on the streets and it can get overwhelming to witness the number of new ones arriving at the clinic/shelter every week. In particular, the local mentality would upset me intermittently, where animals are sometimes considered a simple commodity, similar to an object that can be disposed of.
The lack of responsibility of some pet owners means that too many animals are not yet spayed, which lead in turn to more unwanted kittens/puppies getting abandoned. These have to fend for themselves in an unsuitable environment, most often leading to their death if they don't get picked up and bottle-fed. Yet I also came to listen and appreciate some of the underlying reasons. It's easy to judge from an external perspective at first. The stray population issue doesn't date from yesterday and won't get solved overnight. So it takes courage for those who decided to tackle this challenge and roll up their sleeves. It's a long-term endeavor that I am admirative of. I'm also a firm believer that with educational programs and knowledge of animal welfare increasing over time among the general public, there will be less and less strays over the years.
This experience will certainly have taught me to be more compassionate towards others and accept different opinions.
What I learned so far
One person cannot do it all - team work is paramount, with animals too! The level of work required to open & run an animal shelter, but more importantly, to keep it running in a sustainable manner can be daunting. I witnessed first hand the quantity of work, the perpetual fundraising required, that each of the founders invested at the various places I have been volunteering. Most of them haven't had holidays for months on... burn-out is not only a term reserved to the corporate and office world! It showed me that, no matter how much you care for your work and the animals you help, self-care should not be forgotten.
I learned that daily life away from a computer can be quite fulfilling, and the intellectual stimulus is still present. I learned to slow down, connect more with nature and came to appreciate each day for its simple challenges.
I realized my curiosity knows no limit. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. This is the case with my postgrad studies in One Health which I started 3 weeks ago. The quality of the exchange with other students and tutors on the weekly lessons, even remotely, has sparked my interest to dive full-on. The topics are fascinating and include human-animal relationships, food security and sustainability, ecological concepts, emerging infectious diseases etc. I will write soon more about it as I prepare for my first assignment.
I am excited that these first 3 months brought me so much already, and I can't wait to continue this journey - soon on another continent - with my husband and many more animals.
Thanks for reading and let's make the last 3 months of 2020 count!