Humans of the Pet Professions Part 4: Why

Today I have the honor of interviewing a colleague that I have to say is a personal hero of mine. I met Miranda Workman in the depths of the IAABC email list and ever since, I have been in awe of the never ending compassion and grace she shows in every aspect of her life both professional and personal.

Miranda Workman, MS CABC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KSA is a clinical assistant professor in the animal behavior, ecology, and conservation department at Canisius College in Western New York. Her classes focus on animal learning, applied animal behavior, anthrozoology and professional career development. A life-long learner, she is currently pursuing her PhD at the University at Buffalo. As an anthrozoologist her research focuses on shelter-based issues. Her  work includes a feline adoption study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science and her master’s thesis: Euthanasia Decisions in the Sheltering Industry – A Critical Inquiry. Miranda even did a TEDx Talk - Collateral Damage in the War Against Animal Homelessness.

In addition to her academic work, Miranda has spent a large portion of her career working with shelters and rescues as a volunteer and a behavior department staff member. She is the Lead Trainer/Mentor for the Jackson Galaxy Foundation’s Cat Pawsitive program. And finally, as the owner of Purrfect Paws Animal Behavior Center, LLC she has over 15 years’ experience in applied animal behavior and training and was featured as an expert in her field by the Buffalo News.

MS: Miranda, I met you through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants - IAABC and you were already very accomplished. So please catch me up, how are you involved in the pet industry and how long have you been doing what you do?
MW: Many moons ago I relocated to Buffalo, NY after my marriage. I took the opportunity provided by my move to a new region to find a way to reignite my old love affair of working with animals. I started volunteering at a local SPCA in their behavior department. Realizing I had found my calling, I achieved certification as a CPDT and worked toward opening my own training and daycare business. I also I also worked part-time for the SPCA as their behavior specialist. That led to an opportunity to teach college students who were interested in animal behavior as an adjunct professor at Canisius College. When Canisius College started the first Anthrozoology master’s degree program in 2011, I was accepted into the first cohort and graduated in 2014. Currently, I am a full-time clinical assistant professor teaching animal behavior related courses at Canisius College, doing research on human-animal relationships (with a specialty in shelter-related topics), and pursuing my doctorate at the University at Buffalo in Sociology.

I believe it is important to give back to your industry. Regarding service, I was a Board Member and President of CCPDT for many years. Currently, I am Chair of the Cat Division for IAABC. I also serve as the Lead Trainer/Mentor for the Jackson Galaxy Foundation’s Cat Pawsitive Program.

MS: Your road into animal behavior and consulting sounds like so many others I know who go their start in shelters. Where do you find the time!?! Do you have a niche or specialty that keeps you from being overwhelmed?
MW: As much as dogs were my introduction into this industry and the mainstay of my training and daycare business, I am now a cat lady. There are a lot of amazing people working in and on dog behavior-related issues. Cats are a different story. They need more advocates as they are often overlooked, even though there are more pet cats in the U.S. than pet dogs. I’ve always been a supporter of the less advantaged so I pounced into the world of cats enthusiastically.

I am very passionate about shelter and rescue. Having worked in shelters and with rescues for over 15 years, I have a unique understanding of the joys and challenges surrounding homeless companion animals. I am intensely interested in shelter-based research and will be focusing my research efforts on shelter-based issues, especially understanding the human side of shelter/rescue. This was why I turned the microscope inward during my master’s thesis research with the goal of understanding how life-and-death decisions about homeless companion animals are made. I have presented that research at several conferences. The hugs, tears, and smiles shared with me after those presentations tell me I’m asking tough questions about difficult topics in a way that is based in compassion for all of us human animals who love our non-human companion animals.

Although I take very few behavior cases these days due to my academic schedule, I believe that my work as an educator of the next generation of animal behavior professionals will reach exponentially more individuals – human and non-human. Whether it is as a college professor, a presenter at conferences, working with shelters through the Jackson Galaxy Foundation or educating through webinars hosted by IAABC, I hope to share knowledge and my experience. Sharing knowledge makes it powerful; hoarding it limits that power.

MS: The information you share is so important. I have heard your thesis topic presented at the IAABC conference and attest that it was one of the most moving and necessary conversations that needs to happen in all the animal professions. There wasn't a dry eye in the room but it was delivered with the same compassion and care that it deserves. So how did you get to where you are today? Was it built with intention like so many others?
MW: I wish I could say it was with deliberate choices, but it was not. My career is really the result of being open to opportunity. I focused on being conscientious, hard-working, always learning, and building relationships. When I worked on being the best at my craft, the opportunities found me. I had to be willing to see the opportunities and explore them. It isn’t easy to take risks – I used to be very good at assessing personal risk and never failing – but if I always took the guaranteed bet, I wouldn’t have had the amazing journey I’m on today. Being open to failure and not knowing the outcome have led me down some amazing rabbit holes.

MS: Fear of failure is a huge limiting belief to slay. Knowing that it will all work out in the end and to hold that as a shield to uncertainty is inspiring. Many professionals keep from ever branching out because of the "what if" but you are clearly a huge success story to that. Where do you find inspiration? 
MW: I find inspiration in the non-humans I encounter. My own companion animals, throughout my life and career, have taught me more than I have ever read in books. As a foster parent and a shelter worker, I have had the privilege to learn from animals in transition. If you are willing to hear it, they will gladly share their wisdom. I’ve never met an animal that didn’t teach me something.

I also find inspiration in great thinkers – in person and across time. Finding your soul-minds in others is the best thing I’ve done to nurture my own mind. My brother is key among the living. We make sure to take time to share and challenge one another’s thought and experience. I also love reading the thoughts of those no longer here, but who share their minds across time through their works. I’m really a philosopher – an experimental philosopher – at heart.

MS: Your way of looking at the world reminds me of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. You find meaning and messages everywhere you're willing to listen. But being so connected we certain can't keep it up forever, so what do you do to get back on track when you’re in a funk?
MW: I meet up with my brother. Even though we live two states away from one another, we have a meeting place halfway where we find one another and spend the day together – just us. Those days are tonic for my soul. I have also written in a journal when I have a need for self-expression. I find non-animal related things to focus on – reading, music, art, crafts, sports. I’m a very empathic person, so I often realize I’ve been over-extending my nurturing side to others. This usually means I’ve not paid attention to maintaining my boundaries.

I once read a book called, Start With Why by Simon Sinek that challenges you to operationalize your purpose on this Earth. My “why” is to cheat death. Sparing you the explanation for why that is my “why,” fostering an animal who may not otherwise have had the chance for a new beginning, usually behavior cases, brings my “why” front and center. Saving lives is a joy and a privilege that I don’t take for granted.

MS: That is a mighty powerful "Why." I have to check out that book. Being so empathic, self care is a must, so how do you practice self care?
MW: This is always a struggle for me. I’m such a giver that I have to deliberately remind myself that I need to be at the top of my giving list. My closest friends will tell you I’m a workaholic and their goal in life is to make me take a break now and then. I try to take at least 30 minutes each day (and I’m about 60% successful) where I stop moving. I have a never ending to do list in my head that is always in a battle with a very hectic schedule. Generally, this means putting myself in a situation where I am captive physically like taking a bath, coloring, or having a meal with friends. I’m still working on slowing myself down mentally – I recently wrote a classical sociological theory paper in my dreams and remembered what I wrote long enough to put in on paper! – and I have tried to meditate, but I’m not that good, yet.

MS: With your heavy involvement in academia that there would be a lot running through your head at any given moment and I'm sure it's almost maddening to try and get it out or at least hold on to it. Having 30 minutes of "you" time is a great way to turn off the world for a while and it is smart to anchor it to something that prevents you from procrastinating it. You mentioned your schedule is hectic, do you have a routine or schedule that you follow?
MW: Being in academia means that my schedule changes every few months. Within each semester I stick to a schedule so I make sure to manage my time wisely. I also always take Sundays off of work. My husband and I make sure to have at least one “date night” each week so we see one another and have a chance to talk. He owns a construction-related business so his busy season is my slow season which means we have to set aside time for one another and stick to it. We’ve also started traveling by train to out of town destinations when we have the opportunity so that we are captive with each other – which we love.

MS: I've had a few people ask me if I recommend scheduling time with family, friends and spouses. Clearly here you have made that a priority and it goes to show that you have to make time for what matters. Otherwise I'm sure it would get lost in everything else going on. That takes firm boundaries so you don't give away that time. Besides Sundays off, do you have any other boundaries from work/school/etc?
MW: I have stopped answering emails after 9 PM or on weekends. I also just adopted a puppy which makes me step away from work and train her, spend time with her, and enjoy puppy snuggles.

MS: Very healthy and congrats on the puppy! But it still sounds like you perpetually carry a lot on your shoulders. Have you ever experienced burnout or compassion fatigue?
MW: Yes. It took me three years to admit it. I was raised to always fulfill your obligations, regardless of the cost to yourself. That was a horrible mind-set to have in the shelter industry. I was angry. I was depressed. I was so depleted that I actually wrecked my body physically to the point that I no longer manufacture cortisol in normal amounts. I stopped feeling anything but negative emotions. At one point, I actually couldn’t remember the last time I had smiled or laughed. I’m still in recovery, and will always be to some degree I think, but I know now how to manage my mental and emotional health. I’m productive again, I smile and laugh without trying too hard, and I remember what hope feels like.

MS: I'm so sorry you crashed so hard! It is the best of us that hurt ourselves so badly sometimes. But it is wonderful you retained a very hard to break mindset of having to fulfill obligations regardless of the consequences. Did you find help in practicing gratitude, personal wins, or any other form of positivity?
MW: I try very hard to be kind to all. Kindness is powerful, especially when given freely. I do have a “feel good file” of success stories, notes, emails, pictures of past cases (shelter or private clients) that I look at now and then. I keep inspirational quotes in easy to find places. My favorites are “Trust Your Crazy Ideas” and “Believe When It Is Beyond Reason to Believe.”

MS: Your two quotes say it all. Regardless of what the voices inside and outside your head say, keep going! That's hard when the animal industries are filled with negativity and bullying. Have you ever been bullied by other professionals?
MW: Definitely. I once was targeted by a trainer who is philosophically opposite from me. He talked about me in a podcast and said I was “drinking the kool-aid” of positive reinforcement. He even said that I would rather kill a dog than do whatever it takes to save them from euthanasia. Other trainers and clients were calling and texting me about what was said. He even enlisted a local veterinarian to join the cause to discredit me. I have also been targeted by individuals who wanted to blame someone for euthanasia at the shelter where I was the behavior specialist. They tried to discredit me by saying I had to euthanize my own dogs because they were aggressive and I clearly had no skill because I couldn’t fix them. Those dogs had died of cancer. It stung. They also called me the “architect of the culling program” aimed at a specific type of dog at our shelter.

Anyone who actually knew me would tell you that I never made an unnecessary euthanasia decision. I fought to safe every life I responsibly could. It was really hard to stomach such baseless vitriol.

MS: That's horrible! It is insane the campaigns that people put themselves on to hurt other people. Especially the most compassionate of us. I know just how hard euthanasia is as a subject for you and to hit you in your "heart place" is so devastating. Yet you never let is stop you and the amazing work you do. How do you handle people who don’t agree with you or bully you?
MW: I generally don’t respond personally. I continue to let my work speak for itself. In the future, this is one aspect of human behavior and society that I want to understand. Why are we so cruel to those who share the same love of animals but are different from us in philosophy, moral perspective, etc? I hope my future research will help understand this.

So, I guess I handle it by seeking first to understand with the hope that one day I might be understood.

MS: Instead of blaming, attacking or hating these people, you channel it into understanding. I hope that every professional takes that to heart. There is definitely something to be learned from everyone, regardless of how horrible they seem. And I couldn't agree more about wanting to understand where that comes from. I can't wait to read your work on the subject. So being on the cusp of some amazing work, what challenges do you think the industry faces in the next few years?
MW: I think we need to address regulation of the animal behavior and training industry. The buyer beware market is no longer acceptable. I also think we need to learn to talk with one another instead of talking to/at one another. And, now that science and research is starting to catch up with the industry, we need to find a way to give good science a seat at the table. Once seated, we need to allow science a voice. We need to learn to accept new knowledge and information with grace – even if it means accepting changes in our understanding of behavior.

MS: Thank you Miranda for sharing your wisdom and insight. I know I was deeply inspired by this conversation. What advice would you give someone who has been inspired to follow in your footsteps?
MW: Find your “why.” And when you do, never let anyone distract you from it. Be open to change and unexpected opportunity. Don’t give up on your dreams – even if life delays them a bit. Challenge yourself and allow yourself to be challenged by others; that is how you grow. Never stop learning, ever. Believe wholeheartedly that your passion is a strength – never a weakness. I’m a big Doctor Who fan, so as The Doctor says: “We are all just stories in the end, make it a good one.”

---

This interview inspired and rekindled a great deal of passion in the work that I do. How did this interview inspire you? What is your why? Share in the comments!