Many people who meet me for the first time are interested in my work as a historian whose specialty is gathering life stories of people. As they get to know me better they are even more surprised to learn that my first career was dedicated to animals, not people, and that I hold a degree in, of all things, Exotic Animal Training and Management.
In high school I had one determined goal in mind for my life’s work. I wanted to work with animals. I lived in a farming community and the only animals I had the opportunity to work with were dairy cows. In fact I attended an agricultural college for one semester thinking that would be my ticket to working in the animal field. It wasn’t and I soon found myself back home attending our local community college until I could figure out a plan.
It was there that I saw that forces outside myself worked on my behalf because it was a coincidental encounter that changed the course of my life. It was just one of those wondrous Universe Interventions that have been a mainstay of my life, but that’s the topic of a future blog.
I was waiting to speak to a college advisor to help me figure out my path when I flipped through a copy of People magazine and came upon the story of Bill Brisby and his college program (Moorpark College) that gave students hands-on experience working with lions, tigers, and bears! I left without seeing the advisor and knew in my heart that I would be one of those students.
One of the many articles written about the EATM program since its inception
Getting into the Exotic Animal Training and Management (EATM) program wasn’t easy. First, I left home for Spokane, Washington without having my mail forwarded to me. Letters from the school offering me an interview finally reached me but it was almost too late. Luckily I was able to make the appointment and I flew to southern California to meet with those who would ultimately decide if I was a worthy candidate for their program. Out of the then 500 applicants only 60 would be accepted. I received word I had been accepted and made arrangements to get settled in my new town before the fall semester started.
In April 1977 I arrived at a bus stop in Thousand Oaks, California. There I was met by current EATM students who so graciously offered to pick me up and allow me to stay with them until I could find a place of my own. I soon found a home to rent, roommates, and a job in walking distance until I could afford to buy a car.
In August, the “first years” were inducted into the 2-year program. It was the hardest, yet the most rewarding two years of my life. The program’s director, Bill Brisby, was a tough talking disciplinarian whose rule was to be followed to the letter or students risked the boot. Three late arrivals to class or duty and you are out. No vacations. Animals come first. And work harder physically than you have ever worked before. Brisby was also the kindest-hearted man I had known up to that point in my life and unknowingly became my surrogate father. His rules taught me self-discipline and accountability, characteristics that helped mature me.
Bill "Briz" Brisby , the program's director and famed animal trainer Wally Ross
My dreams were coming true. I worked closely with every exotic animal I had wished for, training or cleaning up after them and learning about their specific behavior traits and potential for danger. The lessons I learned during that time of my life have taught me to be a better mother, employee, and human being. If it were possible to go back in time to relive specific years, those years in the EATM program would be at the top of my list.
That's me atop an elephant (although the reporter got my name wrong)
Although I no longer work professionally with animals I continue to surround myself with the animal world. In many ways that short period of time in the company of “Briz”, like-minded peers, and animals from mice to elephants has influenced every other moment of my current life.
I love the idea of fate and the Universe can intervene in my life any time it wants. I cannot wait to see what else it has in store for me.