The Start of the Journey

This blog is the first in our guest blog series from Anouk DePlaa. Anouk is part of the growing HBCA team and has helped us with several research projects. Her passion for animal welfare and conservation has fuelled her journey to date and we are looking forward to reading the next blog.

Anouk DePlaa

Anouk is a biologist and conservationist from the Netherlands, who developed a great love for all animals early in life. During and after her studies, she travelled all over the world to work with various species of primates, cetaceans and rodents both in the wild and in sanctuaries. The last several years she has mainly worked as an animal caretaker with birds and as a naturalist on board whale watching boats. In her free time, she is an active volunteer for multiple conservation charities and also HBCA. At the moment she is looking for new career opportunities in conservation, but it’s not that easy…

Childhood dream
As a kid, I loved animals. I could watch them all day and all I ever wanted was for them to be safe and happy. When I was 8 years old, I saw the movie Free Willy and then I knew I would become a marine biologist and protect wild orcas or, be a ballerina, well preferably both at the same time. The ballerina plan fell through quickly enough, so marine biology it was. Little did I know that this dream would turn itself into quite the struggle and the end is still not in sight.

University years
I studied Biology, because at the time, Marine Biology was not yet available at my University. Over the years since I saw Free Willy, I became more flexible and decided that working in conservation with any type of animal would be great, though orcas stayed the ultimate dream.

University projects took me to Panama, South Africa and New Zealand. I have been bitten from top to bottom by every bug available, have been covered in scratches, fallen down hundreds of times, had rats running riot in my accommodation, but it was all worth it. I was able to work with agoutis, sykes monkeys, common dolphins, fairy penguins, wild boar and red deer and saw tons more wildlife while in the field. It was amazing. I loved fieldwork and seeing wild animals every day, I felt like this was what I wanted to do: study animals in the wild in order to protect them.

Reality hits
After finishing my MSc studies in Biology and Forest and Nature Conservation, I had landed myself a job at the local government where I wrote permits for farmers. It was fine at the start, but the longer I did it, the more ethical objections I got and I realised this was really not for me.

After the job finished, reality hit. I wanted to get a position at a conservation charity, but I ran into the familiar catch 22. In order to gain experience you need experience and the list of desired skills for entry level jobs was crazy. I applied and applied endlessly, with often not so much as an email back, let alone an interview. Often I did not even apply for paid jobs, but also for internships and unpaid projects. Competition was fierce.

I managed to get selected for some unpaid projects and years of internships and volunteer work started. Once again I was bitten, stung, scratched, got injured, had rats racing over my bed, saw amazing places, worked with rare and beautiful wildlife and met wonderful people. However special these experiences were, I still had the feeling that the things I learned and did, did not bring me much closer to getting a paid job in a conservation or animal welfare charity.

Resources ran out and I needed to come up with a plan B. I got lucky and got two jobs – one as animal caretaker in the winter and the other as a whale watching guide in the summer. But in the back of my mind, this voice kept nagging that this was not conservation.

I decided to keep up with volunteering to stay active in conservation and animal welfare and managed to find two great organisations. The volunteer work I do now is remote and more in the area of report writing, background research and fundraising. This is obviously very different from the run through the bush experiences, but at last I feel like I am learning skills that will help me further and I receive the support I need to develop myself, which is a big step up from my previous experiences.

All of the sudden, there was this pandemic happening and I found myself back in the Netherlands with no job, no job prospects and no house. I decided to try and turn this negative situation into something useful and take this time to work on myself. The last years I got a bit stuck in animal care and whale watching, without learning anything new and not getting closer to my goal.

The remote volunteer work however, showed me that there are many opportunities to learn without having to travel far and spend lots of money. It also gave me the chance to meet people who genuinely want to help me to develop and learn.

So, I am going to make a new attempt at trying to get a job in conservation or animal welfare. This time I feel I am more prepared for what is coming. It will take work developing skills, I will need to do courses and I will need to ask for advice from different experienced people. I don’t know if in the end I will be able to get the job I am after because competition is still fierce, but I want to give it my best. If Corona has taught me something, it is that you should do the things you want when you can because you never know when you will have the chance again.