Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hello. Welcome to your new career. Now catch your sheep.

Yesterday was the annual introductory animal handling workshop for the brand new, first-year, Captive Wildlife Care and Education class at Womerlippi Farm. We've a large entering class for this major this year and the workshop sessions were a little shorter because of that, but the basic format was the same as in previous years (examples here and here).

Students entering this major as first years fresh out of high school (there were some students present from other majors and some transfer students, but not many) may require a good solid dose of what the military would call "indoc." That would be the introductory briefings and attitude adjustments that are, in that service context, delivered through the first few days of "Basic" training.

What boot-camp briefings and attitude adjustments might be required for a brand new CWCE major?

We have multiple goals with this workshop, we being the major professors, Doctors Cheryl Frederick (AKA "Fred", and Sarah Cunningham) as well as the Womerlippi farmers. And surprisingly, but not unusual for anyone properly familiar with experiential education practice and theory, they aren't very much to do with animal handling. Animal handling theory and practice is probably only the fourth or fifth outcome on the priority list.

The first outcome is that these students must understand that they are now trainee scientists and engage with that career identity and goal?

Why would someone show up to a science major degree program and not identify with being a scientist? Good question. I jokingly blame "Animal Planet" as kind of a catch-all placeholder for the mentality that says that fuzzy animals are cute and meant to be cuddled like teddy bears, but there are probably multiple overlapping cultural factors at work, from the sheer raw power of commercial teenage culture, to the delinquency of science in many high schools, and the general collapse of civilization. Of course I'm being hyperbolic here. But the fact remains that a number of students show up to this particular degree program with a fairly unrealistic idea of what the kind of work is that they'll be getting into, what kind of skills and attitudes are required, and why. Science tops the list for remediation.

Of course these majors are scientists, when you think about it. Duh! The degree could be titled "Applied Biology," subtitled "Animal Care Concentration" and that would perhaps be more accurate.

Scientific practices are used to work out animal care routines, nutrition, animal behavioral protocols, and of course medical care. One reason zoos are in existence in the first place is educational and scientific. These majors are first and foremost applied scientists in the field of animal care, as well as science educators, and research scientists, once they get out into the workforce.

But. of course, science is considered "hard" and scary, especially, surveys show, by teenage American girls. This is truly tragic, and so we do our best to fix it. We do this by straightforwardly demonstrating to the students that it is purely vital to know your science in order to take proper care of an animal.

And there's nothing quite like being told to grab your sheep and check them for a parasite with a long scary Latin name, Hemiconchus contortus, or being asked to give an injection of a strange substance you are told is a special kind of medicine called a vaccine, to protect against another organism with a yet-more-difficult Latin name, Clostridium tetani, all the time hearing the instructor's words ringing in your ears, telling you, not for the first time but perhaps the first time that you actually listened, that you already are a scientist, if only a trainee.

The real power of experiential education is that it works better.

Even for what might seem like outcomes that could be delivered in the classroom.

The sheer scariness of the experience, and the adreneline rush of catching and holding your first "wild" animal (our sheep can be pretty wild), will drive the lesson home forever. I think it entirely possible and even likely that these young women and men will remember this into their old age as the day they became scientists.

I still remember some of the similar experiential educational experiences I had at the hands of military and outdoor activity and yes, science teachers.

The next outcome is that students identify with the proper level of professionalism and learn to employ a gutsy, can-do attitude. We want them to be "switched on," engaged, organized, thinking all the time, willing to get "stuck in", and above all, not distracted.

A new notion for this year's class was that they were told that anyone answering their cell phone would have it dropped in the deep sticky hole in the pig-pen. I doubt I would actually have dropped anyone's cell phone in pig poo, but I did get their attention.

They were given some quite strict warnings about paying attention, about proper workplace safety, about why they needed to be one hundred percent engaged, for their own, and for the animals' sakes.

And no-one dared to answer their cell phone or text another student.

Today it was sheep and lambs. Tomorrow it will be lions and tigers and bears, oh my, and safety must come first. Distraction is lethal.

One of the unfortunate aspects of today's commercial teenage culture has been the way that it has dis-empowered the high school teacher and infantalized the teenager. In ancient and even in more recent American societies, teenagers were trainee adults, and their culture was little different from that of adults. Actually, there was simply no such thing as a "teenager" as we know it today. There were just young adults. They had adult responsibilities and adult work to do, and distractions like cell phones, fashion, and video games simply didn't exist.

You'd think that at Unity College we wouldn't have too much anxiety over fashion and popularity and the hierarchy of teen society and that kind of stuff, but we do, especially among the first years. By the time they graduate, they've more or less discarded all that nonsense and are much more professional. But the process has to start somewhere, and if we hit it hard in the first few weeks, we can get them to begin to drop the habits of distraction, and become focused instead on learning, which is where we need them to be focused.

Again, there's nothing like having this brought home to you because the very nice outfit you assembled for your day out at the farm got spattered with sheep blood or manure. Hopefully you'll never forget the lesson and perhaps even develop the fortitude to pass it on to your own children.

Lets talk about that, too: Fortitude. Guts. Gumption, whatever you want to call it, today's is a competitive society and the CWCE field certainly no less competitive than any other and perhaps more so. Students can't be shrinking violets and expect to succeed. Animal care can also be a dangerous profession, where adversity and difficulty rein, and where it's entirely possible for you to go to work one day and do something stupid or have a workmate do something stupid and get hurt or killed, or have an animal get hurt or killed. Being switched on and engaged is part of safety, but being simply brave enough to actually grab your animal and get stuck in is also part of it.

And it can't be taught easily in the classroom, and certainly not by computer. You have to do it to learn it.

In particular, if you are half-hearted or shrink back, your animal will struggle and escape and likely hurt itself or you.

And if you shrink back from grabbing a sheep, or wilt at the thought of a dung tag, this might not be the career for you. Better to learn that sooner rather than later. There are plenty of less physically challenging careers.

It was a good day to be alive at Unity College. My faith in human nature is undiminished, and my basic and innate feeling that all young people can be good and brave and true, if they try, was of course proven once more, replenishing my own faith in the world. The kids got stuck in and did the work, and although many confessed to being scared of the sheep and particularly of "not doing it right," most realized that, as we said, again and again, "'s time to get over all that, isn't it?"

Here are some of the best "action" shots. Aimee has many more on her Facebook album which you can access here.

Here (above) is one of the CWCE young men catching his first sheep. Note the hesitant body language. This is where we say "'s time to get over it."

Here's Bentley the Womerlippi ram, our most dangerous animal, demonstrating the sheer effectiveness of the basic control position for sheep. Bentley probably weighs 250 pounds, and can be violent, especially with his head. Another good lesson. Animals are not your fuzzy friends.

This is what we like to see. Total concentration, total engagement. Everyone using the proper tools and procedure, everyone getting stuck in. Well done.

One aspect of professionalism is to listen whenever a briefing is being given. You don't want to miss anything, especially the safety instructions. We're all very seasoned teachers and so our built-in radar can pick up a distracted student at fifty paces by body language alone. Here students are being shown how to clip chicken wings to help keep the birds safe. if their wings are clipped, they have a much harder time getting out of their pen. Some, I'm sorry to say, are more focused on the birds they're holding or watching than the briefing, and may have to be told once more what to do.

Here's a little more concentration on the part of one particularly switched-on student, as well as a great photo of Aimee doing what she does best.

We had a good day out with the students and were pleased to have them over to the farm. We made sure, of course, to show them the other animals and the garden operation, and to show them a selection of farm products. There are lots of great lessons to be had at the farm. We touched on some of the sustainability lessons, including the nutrient cycling as well as the general human ecology of keeping several types of animals in combination with a truck farm or market garden operation. We were a bit rushed for this part because the vans of new students kept coming, but everyone got a little of everything, and the Unity College curriculum will drive home the goods later in their careers.

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