Given that I am someone who has zero aspirations to go into veterinary sciences or to work with animals, it may seem slightly odd that I decided to volunteer at a falconry centre. But (generally) I do like animals and this seemed a reasonable opportunity to do some work experience. As an aspie, it initially seemed a daunting prospect, what with my social anxiety, but I’ve found that it’s been an incredibly supportive environment and has been incredibly enjoyable.
I was actually meant to do work experience at the centre for a week in August (my school runs an activities week at the end of the year and year eleven are advised to find work experience). I arranged mine through email (with a good deal of support and advice from my parents) – I had visited the falconry with my family on a number of occasions prior, and on one visit we enquired about work experience. Following that, I got in touch with the director Naomi through email, and it was arranged. Then COVID hit and cancelled the whole activities week. When I enquired about rescheduling, Naomi suggested that once I turned sixteen, I could volunteer there properly, and so I took up the offer.
So now, every Sunday, I volunteer at the West of England Falconry at Newton St Loe.
On my first day, in the morning I was assigned to simply watching and listening, which I had expected, and which was fine by me. I was introduced to the other volunteers, and assigned to shadowing one volunteer, Beth, who was very friendly. I was shown how to prepare food for the birds and helped clean out a few aviaries.
Shadowing Beth was perfect for me, because I watched everything she did for several days before I began doing it myself, and then for several days after that I had her specifically watching over me, offering guidance and reassurance. Part of having aspergers means that I have very low self-confidence, and feel a lot better if I have someone I trust confirming that my actions are correct, so having Beth around was very helpful. There are also no stupid questions when you are new – I ask the same questions again and again, and they are answered. And it’s okay that I ask silly questions from time to time, because I know that what I am doing is important for the safety of the birds, so I can’t risk not asking the question and getting it wrong. It kind of defeats that anxiety about asking silly questions when you know that the harm in asking is always so much less than the potential harm in not asking. It helps you to get over that indecision.
To my surprise, in the afternoon on my first day, Naomi took me out flying Neo, the centre’s common buzzard. I was given a hawking bag, a pot of food, and a glove, and we walked out to the fields. Naomi carried Neo on her fist as we walked out there. The thing about Naomi is that she gives good, clear instructions. She has to be firm and explicit, because you have to do certain things to make sure the bird is calm. She told me – ‘stand in front of me there so Neo can see you’. That’s a rule I can then follow so I know where to stand. She says ‘stand still’ or ‘go over there’ and I can follow her instructions; there’s no vagueness because it’s not about being polite or anything, it’s about what the bird needs. If the bird needs you to back off, you get told to back off, without any faffing about, and this bluntness is good for me because it doesn’t involve decoding any social cues. Flying Neo was a great experience. I followed Naomi’s instructions and immediately began learning about the personality of this young buzzard, who is actually a bit of a scaredy-cat – he gets nervous and skittish around lots of customers (me too, Neo).
When, after a few weeks, I was entrusted to mind the office and interact with customers, I was initially a bit nervous. Me, interacting with strangers? Unheard of. But Naomi talked me through how to do it – how to operate the card machine, where we kept the change, where to write down the takings etc. – and I watched and listened to Beth going through it several times. You always open with the same line, you see, – ‘Would you like to see some birds today?’ and then you follow the steps in response to that. I think because it’s quite formulaic, I was able to get on with it, and still feel safe and comfortable. I also think that because I had time to get accustomed to the environment (where things were in the office, etc.), and comfortable with the other volunteers around me, it made it easier to talk to customers. And in any case there was usually someone else nearby who was supporting me if I didn’t know the answer to something.
I still prefer to just prep the food for the birds in the back or even to clean out aviaries, but I can interact with customers if needed, which is the important thing. I often mistakenly conflate ‘I don’t like doing X / I find X uncomfortable’ with ‘I can’t do X’ – and it’s good to remember that they aren’t the same. (Recently I had a minor crisis where I was feeling bad because I couldn’t take the bus whereas other people my age could – I had to remind myself that yes I can take the bus – just because I find it difficult doesn’t mean that I can’t do it.)
Sometimes when it gets busy and I want to keep myself from getting overstimulated, I will retreat to the back (of course I first make sure there is someone else to mind the office). I like the birds better than customers. With birds, and with animals in general, you don’t have to mask, and they don’t judge you for not making eye contact (note: just like with people, I also instinctively avoid eye contact with animals). Birds are especially good, because although they can be very loud, they usually make a consistent noise – so even when they are loud, they are still fairly predictable, and therefore they don’t unnerve me.
Also I think that when you’re with animals, most of your concentration is on that animal, especially when it’s a bird of prey. There’s no room in your brain for anything except how you are treating the bird, and so I find that it’s a good kind of mindfulness, a way to fill your head with something else for a while. There’s no room to be anxious or stressed about other things when you have a bird on your fist – the bird takes up all your attention, which is good for me. In a similar way to exercise, it provides a mental reset, a time to clear your head by filling it with one thing only.
Overall, volunteering is incredibly rewarding, and I feel that it’s helped to build my resilience as well as self-confidence. Working in the falconry centre has been a good opportunity to make new friends and it’s fun to work with people you wouldn’t normally talk to – most of the volunteers are several years older than me, and so it’s been interesting and useful to hear about their experiences. After lockdown, it’s been enjoyable to meet new people again, to go through that process of introductions, getting to know them, and building friendships. Although the days still leave me feeling worn out from the amount of stimulation, it’s a satisfying feeling because I feel I have contributed to something, and so it’s definitely worth it. Above all, volunteering has given me an insight into a fascinating world – there’s a lot to learn in the art of falconry, and my favourite part has simply been finding out the personalities of the many birds of prey we have at the centre.