Abandoning Our Assumptions: How Tapirs Became My Favorite Animal
By Don Janssen, DVM
"What's your favorite animal?"
"It's a tapir."
"What's a tapir?"
"It's a kind of animal that lives in Southeast Asia, Central America, and South America. All the species of tapirs are endangered or vulnerable."
"Oh, I have seen them at the zoo, I think. They're like anteaters, right? No, maybe a pig?" (My eyes begin to roll.)
"They're actually more closely related to the rhinoceros."
"Really? I had no idea! Why are they your favorite animal?"
I've had this dialogue countless times. This question often comes up when I meet someone new, and they find out I am a retired zoo veterinarian. But I never mind the conversation. It's an opportunity to correct mistaken assumptions and to talk about something I care about.
So, why are tapirs my favorite? They are intriguing animals with a prehensile snout and a husky and solid body. They live in exciting places. Tapirs love anything to do with water and are quite fond of bananas. They have a trill-like vocalization that I have never been able to mimic. The mothers are devoted to their adorable calves, which look a bit like a striped watermelon. And the list of intriguing tapir attributes goes on.
Few people know how amazing they are. Are they more special than any other kind of animal? Perhaps they are only to me. I was the tapir veterinary advisor for their species, so I learned about their unique anatomy and diseases. I had opportunities to work with them in the rain forest of Costa Rica and on the estate of a former drug lord in Panama. I understand their plight. I know tapirs. I care about tapirs.
When I hear myself say about another person, "What is wrong with them?" or "Why do they act that way?" or any number of criticisms about my fellow human beings, I stop to think about my tapir dialogue. Am I believing something that is just not true? Am I assuming they're an anteater or pig when they're really a magnificent tapir? Do I know that person for who they are, not some made-up image of what I think they are? Am I reducing a person—who has hopes, dreams, and problems, just like me—to an object I can justify criticizing?
Workplace conflict has, at its foundation, this kind of thinking. But good leaders can set an example of how to think differently. Here are three ways to challenge our assumptions about people who we may see as problems.
1. Prepare yourself. Treat people as people, not as objects that are in our way.
Obstacles are objects we want to remove from our path. People are not objects. Honor people and grant them the respect they deserve simply because they are people. If you are the boss, hold them accountable for their actions. But never forget that they are humans, not malfunctioning machines.
2. Seek evidence. Get to know people for who they are, not what we assume they are.
Learning about individuals is an evidence-based activity that takes time and intention. It's easier and quicker to assume we know all we need to know. People can cause us trouble, for sure. But often, it's our inner dialogue about them that's askew. Each of us has a story we want to tell. So, listen, be curious, and ask questions. You might find that your beliefs change when you understand their story.
3. Raise the bar. Have a concern for others even if they don't seem to deserve it.
Caring about other people takes the focus off ourselves. We can then take a humble approach and be open to serve them unconditionally. An undeserved courtesy is often matched and returned, ultimately giving a boost to the relationship. When this approach becomes a habit, obstacles fade away. Trust and cooperation emerge. Outcomes turn favorable.
I confess I first thought of a tapir as a homely beast, kind of like a pig or anteater, not worthy of my attention. Over time, though, I got to know and understand them, and ultimately discover ways to serve their needs. I abandoned my old, mistaken assumptions. Only then did tapirs become my favorite animal.
Is there anyone causing trouble in your life? What assumptions might you be making? Are they valid? How do you know? How could you get to know their story better? How might that knowledge change your relationship?
Please send comments or questions to email@example.com.
Don Janssen, DVM is a veterinarian and retired corporate director of animal health for San Diego Zoo Global. He is the author of Upside-Down Leadership: A Zoo Veterinarian's Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader.
You can find more information about the book here.
Getting Better All the Time
How to Build Public Confidence and Trust
By James F. Gesualdi
To keep ahead, each one of us, no matter what our task, must search for new and better methods—for even that which we now do well must be done better tomorrow.
—James F. Bell
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
The pandemic has challenged us personally, professionally, and organizationally. Many individual zoological organizations have been rocked as they have come to grips with the fragility of their viability under these extraordinary circumstances. However, the zoological community and the animals in our care have helped bring joy and light to the world. A situation like the pandemic prompts public concern about the very animals that lifted their spirits. Getting through the pandemic will not be easy. But it is merely the beginning of what we must do to ensure a better post-pandemic future for animals and people, including those associated with animal and zoological organizations. As we put our hearts into the day-to-day work we do for animals, let us also employ our caring hearts, along with our clear minds and sturdy actions, to start creating the most loved, respected, and trusted zoological organizations and community.
The professional, accredited zoological community works hard at creating and ensuring memorable experiences for the people who come to see and learn about animals. Our communications and actions show this. In recent years, greater attention has also been placed on helping people to feel good or better about the lives and the well-being of the animals in our care. Focusing our actions on animal welfare and continuous improvement helps demonstrate that we care, and we put our love and respect for animals to work daily. This is simply the right thing to do, and it also encourages and reinforces public support, visitation, and engagement to further animal protection and wildlife conservation. The more positively engaged our visitors are with wild animals and plants, the greater their appreciation and respect for other living beings and the spaces on the Earth they inhabit. As we like to remind ourselves and others, we are all connected. Doing our best for the animals in our care models that behavior toward animals out in the wild. The reach of our good works extends well beyond our front door and backyard, more so when we do right by the animals entrusted to our care and remain available to help rescue animals in need.
Our words and actions can be more effective, particularly when challenged by criticism and questions about the appropriateness and ethics of maintaining animals in zoological settings. Here, as in crafting memorable experiences, we must be mindful of our words, actions, and how we make people feel about what we have given our lives to doing on behalf of animals. We care, our critics care, the public cares. We have the solemn responsibility and the greatest opportunity to positively impact the lives of individual animals. And we can exercise that duty in words and actions that demonstrate we care; that we freely give of ourselves in manifesting that caring, love, and respect; and that we acknowledge and understand other perspectives, but remain committed to thoughtfully serving animals and getting better at it every day.
To make ourselves, the public, government watchdogs, and even critics feel good or better about our efforts, we should consciously and intentionally act with "the heart of a loved, respected, and trusted animal or zoological organization." Here's how to do just that.
The Heart of a Loved, Respected, and Trusted Animal or Zoological Organization
Inspirational purpose: Making a difference for animals and people.
Mission statement: Includes commitment to advancing and enhancing animal welfare/well-being, as well as promoting animals' interests and protection. Our good works must begin at home, with the animals in our care. Make our efforts transparent, and then be internally and publicly accountable.
Our approach to our calling: The Enlightened Caregiver's Creed (June 2017) sets out how very much we care, and the constructive nature of everything we do.
Action plan: Organizational animal welfare policy/plan, including the "Five Opportunities to Thrive" and welfare assessments.
Governing ourselves responsibly:
- Board-level animal welfare oversight
- Animal Welfare Leadership Group and/or Committee
- Animal Welfare Officer
- Animal Welfare Act (AWA) Compliance Officer.
These efforts elevate animals' interests, protection, and welfare, and provide internal (and perhaps public) accountability.
Ongoing, good practices based on Excellence Beyond Compliance®:
- Proactive self-examination, leveraging agency guidance/ongoing developments
- Corrective measures and improvements, including Animal Welfare Enhancement Plans and Improvement Plans
- Daily practices and deeper internal and agency examination/accountability that help drive continuous improvement in animal welfare.
Disclosures and reporting:
- Follow-up: self-certified compliance reporting (post inspection, pre-license renewal)
- Self-posting of inspection reports/improvement plans
- Use of third-party reviews and disclosure of good practices/improvements
- Periodic and annual reports to accelerate and share advances.
Being transparent with these, especially with improvements, can foster public accountability.
Transforming challenges into opportunities for growth and improvement, especially regarding animal welfare:
Engaging others: The simple premise—getting more people to treat more animals with greater compassion, dignity, and respect is more likely when we treat each other with greater compassion, dignity, and respect (a sort of Golden Rule for dealing with others/people who work with animals).
Remember to shift from being right to doing right (March 2019). It is not about us. It is about what we can do for animals and others. Keep moving forward in a positive direction.
As we serve animals—their interests, protection, and welfare—as well as the public, in a manner consistent with these high-minded ideals and practices, we light the way for more good for more animals and people.
Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
© 2020 James F. Gesualdi, P.C. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. This is not, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.
For more information on EXCELLENCE BEYOND COMPLIANCE® see http://excellencebeyondcompliance.com/.