What do you want to be when you grow up?
Ugh. What sort of question is that for a 5-year-old? What sort of question is that for a person of any age, for that matter?
Growing up, my answer to that question bounced back and forth between author and teacher, but I distinctly remember at one point falling into a habit of responding with “zoologist.”
To be honest, I didn’t even really know what zoologists did. I just knew that they worked with animals, the word “zoo” was included in their title (which filled my mind with happy memories of the Oregon Zoo in Portland) and I loved animals.
I also noticed that when I told adults I wanted to be a zoologist, they would smile and act impressed, and, being the people pleaser I was, I enjoyed impressing others with the words I (kind of) knew. I kept responding in the same way, referencing a profession I didn’t understand, guided by my vague and idyllic childhood dreams of one day getting to work with animals.
At my core, though, that aspiration to be a zoologist stemmed from an honest love of animals.
In preschool, I watched “The Adventures of Milo and Otis” for the first time. To this day, I remember the birth scene just as I saw it then: tiny, slimy, blind puppies and kittens, their births projected in vivid detail on the large, cube-shaped TV on a desk at the center of the preschool floor.
I remember sitting on the carpet and looking up at the screen, unable to look away. It was riveting and mildly horrifying, but also enthralling. I remember my complete fascination with the lives of Milo and Otis — a fascination that stuck with me and resurfaced throughout my childhood.
It resurfaced when I would flip rocks and yelp with glee and terror upon seeing frogs clinging to the surface below them, their eyes bugging out and their chins gulping.
It resurfaced when I would spot crawfish scuttling around the murky waters of the creeks near the campsites I visited during the summers of my preteen years.
It resurfaced when I first visited the Oregon Zoo with my parents and grandpa and marveled at the mountain goats, bears, meerkats, naked mole rats and bats living there. I revisited that zoo so many times growing up, and even though I am from Bend, Oregon, I still consider it my childhood zoo.
At one point, I wanted to be an animal — specifically, a horse, a cat or an owl. I would plug the drain in my sink, fill it up with water and pretend to be a cat, lapping up lukewarm tap water from my self-made watering hole. I would race around my home on all fours, speeding by my cats and dogs in a frenzied but happy blur of limbs, stooped over by the natural inequalities of my legs and arms.
As I continued to grow up though, my animal figurines began to collect dust. I felt as though I was alienating myself from the very animals, aspirations and tokens of my childhood that I cared so deeply about.
With my desire to be a nonhuman animal slightly muffled, I decided I wanted to be someone who wrote stories from the animal perspective, full-heartedly and unknowingly embracing anthropomorphization. I gravitated toward book series such as “Animal Ark,” “Warriors” and “Guardians of Ga’Hoole,” completely losing myself in fictional worlds involving courageous, nonhuman characters and dramatic storylines.
I think I stopped reading those stories after middle school started, only because I got too busy to read for leisure. Eventually, I’d spent too much time out of those worlds to ever go back in them and feel the same way.
But a few years after that, I remember visiting a wildlife rehabilitation center in Atlanta, Georgia, where my immediate family was visiting my dad’s side of the family. It was technically closed that day, but I remember the director of the center kindly taking me around the facility, introducing me to a number of animals and showing me another future path involving animals — one that had also really piqued my interest as a kid.
My sense of closeness with animals and wildlife has changed dramatically as I have grown up, but I feel as though my guiding principles have just matured, becoming updated versions of what they once were.
I started out wanting to literally be an animal, but after continuously stripping away the layers of fantasy and childhood imagery, I have somehow boiled my intentions and love of animals down to the heart of my aspirations for the future: to do work that helps animals in some way. Whether that’s through conservation, science communication, research or education, I honestly don’t know yet — but my intent has remained the same for my entire life.
So maybe the better question to ask kids is this: What do you want to do when you grow up?