“Your job is amazing”, “How can I get a job like that?”, “I want to be a sloth scientist”
These are the usual responses I get when I tell people that I’m a sloth researcher. Granted, I love what I do, but unfortunately I have to correct the situation rather quickly – a ‘job’ would suggest I get a wage. Since embarking on this wild and wonderful journey almost 7 years ago, I haven’t been paid once. Everything that I do, every day, is a labour of love. But how did I get here? How do I survive? and… why on earth do I do it? From here on out I am going to be brutally honest about my life. The good, the bad and the ugly. I get a lot of emails – from people of all ages and from all walks of life – who are genuinely thinking about following in my barely-there footsteps, wanting to know the next steps to take. I fully applaud anyone who is brave enough to consider quitting their day job to pursue something that they are passionate about, but first I think it’s only fair to give a realistic account of this lifestyle away from the fluffy, filtered stuff that you see on social media.
Where it began
I’ve always loved animals. Never sloths specifically, but simply being outdoors and surrounded by nature has always been my preferred place. When contemplating career choices, I knew I was good at biology in school and I knew that I wanted to do something with animals – so a degree in zoology was the obvious next step. It was during my time as a student that I discovered and fell in love with the world of sloths. I had opted to take a 12-month research placement as a part of my course and, by some miracle, the opportunity arose to work at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. I knew instantly that I had to get the job. I didn’t have the best grades and knew it was a long shot, but I have honestly never prepared for anything as much as I prepared for that interview. I spent weeks reading every sloth research paper I could find and turned up 2 hours early for the interview. I am perpetually late for everything in life (one of my many sloth-like tendencies), so anyone who knows me will know how much of a big deal my early arrival was. Thankfully, my enthusiasm (and borderline desperation) paid off and I was offered the position! Three weeks later I was on a one-way flight to the Costa Rican jungle – not realising that my life was about to change forever.
Like most other people on my course I could quite simply have completed my research placement, returned to the university and got on with a normal life. As is becoming apparent, however, I like to bite off more than I can chew. I threw myself head-first into the world of sloths and took on numerous projects that I was told several times were “far too ambitious”. Admittedly, deciding to collect data readings every 4-hours, 24-hours a day for 8 months was a little crazy – but I did it. I may have ended up with a rather confused body clock, but I had enough data to fuel a killer thesis. Thanks to the endless support of my supervisors and the Sloth Sanctuary, I ended up with the highest university placement grade that year and I was offered a PhD on the back of it. Lesson learnt – if you are willing to work hard and make sacrifices, you can make anything happen. Just follow your heart and don’t get too caught up on the idea of “career prospects” at the end of it.
“I want to be a sloth researcher”
Living in the western world, we are brought up in a society where ‘normal’ involves having a stable job, a beautiful home, a loving family, and a comforting pension waiting for us at the end of it all. Life is relatively secure. The path that I have chosen is far from that. I have emptied my life savings, accumulated eye-watering amounts of student debt, and I am now surviving on loans from family members. I juggle several part-time jobs alongside my full-time PhD, haven’t had a day off in 9 weeks and I still don’t break even. If your dream is to make money, I can only advise that you do not venture into the world of wildlife conservation or research. And it isn’t just the financial struggle. I am never in the same place for much longer than a year. Relationships are near on impossible to maintain and I constantly miss my friends and family. I get settled somewhere, and then I must uproot my entire life and move to some place new. I have packed up everything I own and moved house 7 times in the last 14 months. I will never have the house with the white-picket fence, and I have come to accept that.
But working with sloths is fun… right? Well for the last year I have been in Swansea, hidden behind my desk pulling my hair out trying to make sense of the data I have collected. Spending days on end working through excel spreadsheets containing 2 million rows of data, trying to wrap my head around statistics (NOT my strong point), and attempting to extract genetic material from the most minute hairs imaginable – in short, there has been absolutely no sloth action whatsoever!
Life in the field does thankfully come with sloths, but also its trials and tribulations. Making home in a new country, where I don’t speak the language and certainly don’t have the luxuries of the western world is challenging. Living in a place where we go days without electricity or running water. Where 100% humidity means that everything you own grows a furry green coat of mould. Including your hair. Where you walk through the jungle and everything wants to either eat or sting you. The plants you brush against bring you out in constant mystery rashes, the spiders make webs across the path large enough cover your entire body, and that tickling feeling on the back of your leg – it’s probably a leaf but could well be a tarantula. The mosquitos are determined to suck your blood dry and you’d better get out of the way of the army ants that descend on your house without giving you a choice in the matter. Oh, and not forgetting the flesh-eating parasites that leave you needing months of intensive treatment. All in all, it’s messy!
But honestly, none of that really matters. I count myself as extremely lucky. As you may expect, working hands-on with sloths is truly magical and the Costa Rican jungle is bursting with raw, astounding beauty. I have the pleasure of falling asleep to the chirps of tree-frogs and waking up to the sounds of howler monkeys. Spectacular butterflies fill the air during the day and fireflies light the path at night. Picture perfect beaches are everywhere, the food is delicious and the local people are among the kindest I have ever met. There is a reason that “Pura Vida” is the most commonly used phrase around here: literally translating as “pure life”.
More importantly, however, I have found my true passion in life – the thing that sets my soul on fire – and I am fortunate enough to be indulging in that passion every single day (even if it does mean I can only afford to eat rice and beans). I know that the work I am doing is genuinely going to make a lasting impact on the conservation of a species I love, and no amount of mosquito bites can dampen that thought. For me, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
If your ambition and desire to work with sloths (or anything else for that matter) overrides the need for stability and comfort in your life – then you should absolutely chase that dream. But you must throw yourself into it head first. There is no such thing as a “sloth scientist” job – you have to make it work any way you can. As long as you believe in yourself and are willing to put the effort in, you can make it happen. I have been told a million times that this isn’t a sustainable life plan, or that I am being too ambitious, or – worse than all of that – I am just some crazy girl who will never make a difference. But as Steve Jobs once famously said “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do”.
The small nagging voice in the back of my head constantly reminds me of life’s practicalities, but I have never been more confident in the path I am taking. I am lucky enough to have found my passion, I have a dream for the future, and I am going to fight for it. In moments of doubt I look at the journeys taken by some of my biggest idols in the world of wildlife conservation – Jane Goodall, Dianne Fossey, Wangari Maathai …. – not a single one took the easy, financially secure route. They were brave, took risks and stood up for what they believed in.
After all, “well behaved women rarely make history”. Perhaps there is a lesson in that somewhere for all of us.