Grit looks different for me every day, because my team does anything it takes, no matter how long or how many hours, to ensure that an animal is taken care of. Sometimes the work can be dirty, like the time we climbed down a sewer pipe trying to rescue manatees that were stuck. Sometimes it exhausts you physically, like the time I held an animal for 24 hours nonstop and couldn’t stand up straight to stretch my back for fear the animal would drown (I’m 6’6”, so imagine the pain!). Or it’s emotionally tough. There are times I have to sit on the beach with people who’ve been caring for a stranded animal for hours and I have to break the news to them that it’s not going to make it.
Nothing teaches a person Grit like rescuing sick, injured and orphaned animals 24/7, 365 days of the year. Animal rescue is grueling work — facing freezing cold, scorching sun, torrential rain or slogging-through-the-muck kind of work. And work that takes such an emotional toll on you and pushes you to such limits that most people say, “I just can’t.” But Jon “JP” Peterson is not most people. JP started his career at SeaWorld Ohio in 1992. Today, he’s the curator of rescue at SeaWorld Orlando, leading rescue operations, along with a dedicated team, for thousands of animals in need. Whether he’s putting in 15-hour days caring for resident animals at SeaWorld or fielding emergency calls for rescues on weekends, holidays and overnight, JP’s job requires around-the-clock dedication, and every bit of his 20 years of experience.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with JP to talk about his passion for animals and ocean conservation, and how Grit has gotten him to where he is today:
Thank you so much for speaking with us! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path?
I got a chance to try out as an animal trainer in 1993 and I fell in love with working with animals. Four years later, I transferred to SeaWorld Orlando and started on the animal care rescue team, which turned out to be right up my alley: it’s outside, it’s helping animals, it’s not a desk job.
I really hit my stride with my career when I went on my first rescue. I drove the SeaWorld rescue boat and got to be the guy setting the net to help the animal in distress. All I could think the whole time was, “Wow, look at what I just did. I got to help rescue this guy.” That’s when I first felt this drive in me. This is what SeaWorld is about — and this is what I’m good at.
I’ve now spent 20-plus years rescuing animals as well as helping rehabilitate and return them to the wild. Seeing something that I’ve cared for thriving in the wild — there aren’t words to tell you how great that is.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? Were there particularly hard times that you faced at the beginning of your journey?
Grit looks different for me every day, because my team does anything it takes, no matter how long or how many hours, to ensure that an animal is taken care of.
Sometimes the work can be dirty, like the time we climbed down a sewer pipe trying to rescue manatees that were stuck. Sometimes it exhausts you physically, like the time I held an animal for 24 hours nonstop and couldn’t stand up straight to stretch my back for fear the animal would drown (I’m 6’6”, so imagine the pain!). Or it’s emotionally tough. There are times I have to sit on the beach with people who’ve been caring for a stranded animal for hours and I have to break the news to them that it’s not going to make it.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The animals we can help — the ones you return to the ocean, with no crowds or media present. It’s the baby orphan manatee you’ve raised that gets released to open waters. It’s the turtle that came in with pneumonia and a five percent chance of survival, and then thrives. It’s the ones that prove you wrong that remind you to never give up.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
In my career, I’ve earned a lot of opportunities and experiences that most people haven’t. But I didn’t get to lead the rescue team just because I was there, or because someone liked me. I got here because I worked incredibly hard. I put in long hours. I’ve dedicated 20 years to constantly learning, researching, hearing from experts, doing field assessments on my own time. We go to great lengths to save just one animal, so our team always goes the extra mile.
Back in 2011, there was a mass stranding of pilot whales in the Florida Keys. We were fortunate to get to know a whale we nicknamed Hundy who had scoliosis. It was determined that SeaWorld was the best location to provide specialized care. We brought in spinal surgeons and conducted stem cell research and other groundbreaking research to do everything to help her. Sadly, after months of care Hundy succumbed to her enormous challenges, but we learned so much about caring for pilot whales from her, and we are better equipped to care for animals facing the same issues.
Based on your experience, can you share five pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)
1) You have to have a clear goal: Mine is to help every animal I can and share as much as I can with my team about the care and rescue of animals.
2) You have to have focus: For me, it’s thinking about what it’s going to take for me to be the best at animal rescue, helping endangered species and putting my energy and efforts in that direction.
3) Teamwork is critical, always: One person can’t do it alone, no matter how good they are. For anybody faced with a major challenge or goal they want to accomplish, it takes more than them to meet it. A runner in a marathon is doing a lot of the leg work themselves, but they need trainers, people handing them water. There’s a support system that’s there. That’s why we work with partner organizations that are an integral part of any rescue mission.
4) You have to know when to ask for help and take advice: There is nothing wrong with asking if there is a better way to do something or saying, “I can’t do this myself.” I say it all the time. SeaWorld could not succeed in helping all the animals we do if it were not for all our partners who share our passion and expertise.
5) Your success can’t be about you: I work hard because I want my team to succeed in what we do. Last year the SeaWorld Orlando team helped more than 550 animals — and as a company, we’ve assisted more than 33,000 animals over 50 years. That can only happen when you have a passionate and dedicated team working collaboratively to succeed.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped you when things were tough?
There are countless people who have helped and guided me along the way, corrected me, brought me back when I was off course and spent time to explain things I didn’t understand with different animals. My hope is that I have been that same person to people, that the hours I put down in others helps someone that is where I was 20 years ago.
But my total strength is my family. I’ve got the best and most understanding wife. Her background is also in animal care, so she understands what I do and why we do it, and she believes in it. I also have two little boys who think their dad has the coolest job in the world. I’m always a hero in their eyes, and that’s motivation enough.
You give up a lot to do what we do. Animals in need don’t take a day off. Having support at home is critical, and I truly am blessed because I have that support. It doesn’t mean it comes without stress, but when I need to leave at two in the morning, my wife understands.
What advice would you give to executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?
The best advice I can give is to take the time to really hear, and learn from others. Every person brings something unique to a company, or to an animal rescue. If we all had the same skill sets, we wouldn’t succeed. We need someone to steer the boat, someone to position the gear, someone to drive the truck. All of us are much better together then individually.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Take a moment and think about the impact your actions have on the planet. Don’t pollute. Take your trash home with you. A lot of the critical issues facing animals are manmade- things like plastic bags, or microbeads. Pollution truly kills.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
What you put into it is what you take out. If you put in the hours, you will reap the rewards.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.