Every once in a while I pause my hustle through life long enough to write a letter to someone who has touched me, often without realizing it. I have sent letters to teachers who helped me develop as a writer and scientist, 4-H leaders who cajoled me into leadership roles, animal trainers who challenged my concepts, and strangers who caused me to examine my own beliefs, often without any awareness themselves. These individuals never expect these letters, most feel they were fulfilling their purpose, and many don’t even remember me, and all of that is okay. I am saddened, Dr. Yin, that you will not have the time to read my letter to you. I doubt you remember me in the scores of individuals that you reached out to at seminars and conferences, and I am certain you knew how many of us admire the energy and skills you brought to the table in helping our pets. I know that in those final moments, when you were making the only decision that made sense to you, this letter and thousands like it couldn’t have made a difference, but I want you to know that you made a difference, every day, for thousands of people and pets, and you will continue to make a difference for thousands more.
We met years ago at a seminar at a Wolf Park in Indiana in 1999; I was an undergraduate from Knox College attending a part of the seminar with a professor for credit in my Animal Behavior course. We had a contemplative discussion about the merits of studying wolf behavior to understand domesticated dog behavior. You were a veterinarian with a passion for behavior, a great smile, and an engaging personality, I was a young adult who had trained dogs for a little over a decade and thought I might pursue a research career in behavior. I mentioned, in passing, that I had wanted to be a veterinarian as a child and you encouraged me to take additional courses in research methodology and statistics. A year passed, and I expanded my training skills into a new realm; I started an internship at Glen Oak Zoo (now Peoria Zoo) in Peoria, Illinois in the education department. I was fascinated at how easily most animals could be trained if I first observed and schooled myself. You, meanwhile, were working with giraffes and ostriches at the Sacramento Zoo; which would be valuable for me later on. I followed my zoological passions into a T. J. Watson Fellowship where I interacted with zoological and conservation projects around the world, and I lost track of your activities.
It wasn’t long before you popped up on my radar again. A year later I was working at a zoo in Louisiana as a curator and we bumped into each other at a Bud William’s livestock handling seminar. I was trying to come up with ideas that would help corral our zebras and giraffes safely into their barns at night and you were, as usual, learning everything possible about behavior. You shared your knowledge about training giraffes in targeting and we brainstormed how to convince giraffes the less-than-ideal barn, which required ducking for them to enter, was acceptable while their permanent housing was built. By that point you had started writing for dog magazines and I started seeking out your writings and I started training dogs again, this time with the added benefit of years of training zoo animals and a modernization of dog training. After a few years of zoo work, I started working out-to-sea on the Eastern seaboard; I thought I had put the training bug behind me and my childhood dream of veterinary medicine seemed more like a distant memory. Then my company experienced layoffs; I was in the 50% of employees released from service.
Old habits die hard; I started training dogs again to make ends meet. I even drove cross country from North Carolina with a friend to attend the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s convention in Louisville, Kentucky. When I saw your name on the program, I had to attend your seminar on “Are You Seeing What You Think you Are Seeing?” and afterwards I asked you about how to work more closely with veterinarians as a trainer. As our conversation ended, I mentioned that I sometimes wished I had pursued veterinary medicine. You pointed out that in another decade I could be a practicing veterinarian or I could be wondering if I should have become a veterinarian. I had a lot of time to digest that piece of advice as I drove back home! That started a whirlwind of finishing a few pre-requisite courses and applying to veterinary schools. I thought about the impact you were having in behavior training and veterinary medicine, how you were serving your own authentic purpose, and I wondered if I could do the same. Ultimately, I applied to veterinary school and was admitted.
Oh, Dr. Yin, veterinary school was nothing like I imagined! We did have a behavior course, but it seems of little consequence in light of anatomy, pathology, and pharmacology. I didn’t thrive in veterinary school but discovered that I had a penchant for behavior and that the previous years of working with animals and people provided valuable information inside and outside of the clinics. I also had friends in a lot of sectors of pet care; groomers, trainers, veterinarians, and owners who helped keep me grounded and remind me of my ultimate mission. My goal is to connect behavior across sectors by focusing on cooperation, communication, and citizenship. I shared this goal with you at your lecture I attended as a veterinary student entitled “Mini Miracles with Clickers workshop: Developing technical skills and learning tricks for quick results” at the American Veterinary Medical Association annual convention in 2010. You told me it was a worthy goal.
Dr. Yin, the last time I saw you was at the Veterinary Behavior Symposium in Chicago last summer; I shared my experience of using a Thundershirt on my cat, who was diagnosed with separation anxiety by a veterinary behaviorist at North Carolina State University. I mentioned that I was having a hard time finding work that would pay the shocking amount of student debt that funded my veterinary education. I was sad and anxious myself, worried about my future within the profession, and debating with the direction my path should take as a veterinarian. You told me that clinical experience is valuable and that there was nothing wrong with practicing veterinary medicine, supporting patients and clients, and providing great care for the mental, physical, and emotional health of pets. I listened to you, Dr. Yin, and am now completing my first year of veterinary medicine. This journey has been heart-rending and joyous. There are days I can’t wait to see my patients and days where getting out of bed seems like the most insane act of my day. Thank you, Dr. Yin, for always encouraging me, always responding to my questions and comments, and for providing guidance to an unknown person in the crowd, even when you struggled with your own place in this world. I wish you had found a space to keep you in this world, but I understand, Dr. Yin, and I will miss you.