About Melisa

Me and my rescue cat Snoopy. She was found on the street in Brooklyn and we have been together ever since.

The quick story:

I am a Registered Veterinary Technician and a Science Illustrator on a mission to make the world a better place for orphaned, injured, and rescued animals. I am silly, love to laugh, dance around (sometimes badly) and snuggle animals. Through Woollybear Travels, I go to animal sanctuaries around the world and volunteer my services as an animal nurse, where it’s legal, or do general volunteer work if it’s not. I write about the animals I meet, the people who are helping them, and create artwork based on my experiences. A percentage of the profits from my art sales go directly to the sanctuary who inspired the piece. My goal is to bring awareness to these special places to let you know how you too can visit and help these animals.  


Volkswagen caravan- Hendricks Park in Eugene, Oregon around the mid 1990’s

If you’re up
for a longer story:

I’ve had many different lives it seems. I started college right after high school and studied fine art. On one of my college breaks I joined in for part of the last Grateful Dead tour. After three years of school I decided to take a break. I was a hippie wanderer for a while and was part of a Volkswagen caravan traveling around the country. The van I was in broke down in Missoula, Montana and I ended up staying there for 10 years. I worked as a waitress, a barista, a futon-maker, a baker, and an organic farmer, just to name a few. Then I had an accident.

Life Changes

While wakeboarding, I broke my leg very badly and was unable to go back to my previous jobs. My road to recovery included learning to walk again. During that time I looked at a lot of seed catalogues and gardening books. I was drawn to one with beautiful pepper illustrations. I had been obsessed with growing hot peppers on the farm, which is not an easy feat in Montana with such a short growing-season. I started wondering about illustration as a line of work. I hadn’t really considered that you could do that sort of thing for a job. I always loved both art and science and science illustration seemed like the perfect way to combine both. I decided to go back to school where I finished my art degree plus a biology degree with a wilderness studies minor. I completed these degrees with the goal of studying scientific illustration.

I was accepted into the highly competitive UCSC program where I got my Science Illustration Master’s Certificate (it was very exciting as I didn’t think I would be able to get in!). It was an amazing program. Part of the curriculum included seeking out internships. I found two in New York City and packed my bags. 

Excitement upon discovering my book at the New York Aquarium gift shop!

Life in New York City

I started at the American Museum of Natural History in the Vertebrate Paleontology Department doing reconstructive drawings of turtle skull fossils. I also began working at Natural History Magazine as an Art Director and Science Illustrator. During this time, my freelance work as an illustrator was starting to take off and I felt very excited given how well I was doing as a beginner. Then…the recession happened. 

The print industry took a big hit and money for art quickly dried up. Both of my internships had turned into jobs and both jobs suddenly became obsolete. I received a contract to illustrate the book “Inside Butterflies” by Hazel Davies and thought that was my way back into the industry. But after I finished the drawings, the recession was still in full force. The book turned out really beautiful, but it didn’t lead to more work. My freelance jobs had dried up. I was bidding very low on the few illustration jobs available and wasn't getting them. I started selling my art at festivals and street fairs in Brooklyn, but it wasn’t enough. I tried everything I could to make it as an artist and I failed. Hard. 

Sea Turtle rescue program in Gandoca, Costa Rica, through Widecast Sea Turtle Conservation Network.

Turtles and Sloths

In the midst of this one of my dear friends unexpectedly passed away. He was a huge animal lover with several pets and a special place in his heart for turtles. He grew up collecting them in his backyard pond. When he died, I decided to honor him by going to a sea turtle rescue to volunteer for a week. While I was setting up the trip to Costa Rica, someone sent me a link to a Sloth Sanctuary nearby. 

Mateo from sloth sanctuary in Aviarios, Costa Rica. He liked to nibble at us so we would use his stuffed giraffe as a barrier sometimes.

 I wrote and asked if they would like me to do some illustration work in exchange for a place to stay. They were very receptive and inviting. They wanted me to sit in on necropsies and draw the sloth digestive system. It wasn’t what I had in mind when I proposed the trade. I feared it would be too sad and was surprised when my clinical side came out. I was able to focus on the science. I started to consider a career working with animals in a medical setting.

When I was a kid

I always dreamed of being either an artist or a veterinarian. I thought the latter would be too sad, too hard, too much death and illness (spoiler: this did turn out to be somewhat true in the long run). I started thinking about how I could work with animals. 

This is from my fourth grade autobiography!
I was super famous in the local paper as an artist. haha!

After I came back from Costa Rica, I knew what I wanted. I would travel to animal sanctuaries around the world and draw a book about it. I drafted a dream plan with several locations and contacted a travel company for around-the-world ticket prices. I knew I’d need funding and began looking up grants and taking classes about applying for grants. I applied for two grants and didn’t get either of them. Maybe I could have tried harder, but honestly I was tired and exhausted from rejections and living in a very expensive city and choose to focus on getting a job. 

Giving up on Art

I sought out people who had moved to the city to be an artist, musician or actor and didn’t make it. I asked how to move on with a different identity. I put being an artist in my past and was thinking that it would become a hobby again. After my sloth experience, I discovered that a medical path to helping animals might be possible for me. I thought about it for awhile. I went to Barcelona with a friend who needed help cat-sitting for an asthmatic cat and stayed in a fantastic apartment for three weeks. I made one last-ditch effort and bid very low on an illustration job. When I didn’t even get a call back, I took that as a sign. I enrolled in a Veterinary Technician program while I was in Spain and started a week after I returned to the states.

Veterinary Technician School 

Getting to school upstate was a long commute from Brooklyn. It took between 2-3 hours one-way via public transportation. When I found someone to carpool with, it still took more than an hour. It was quite the commitment. The schooling required we do two internships. My first was at the ASPCA in Manhattan. I saw a lot of sad stuff there and realized just how true those heart wrenching commercials are. My next internship was at the New York City Zoos. They are run by the Wildlife Conservation Society. I realize not all zoos are good and I was relieved to discover that the animals were treated very well with top notch veterinary care, enrichment programs, and handlers that absolutely loved them. I spent time between Central Park Zoo in Manhattan, Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, and Queens Zoo in Queens. I really enjoyed working with different kinds of animals. It was an amazing opportunity and experience. The head vet techs were very encouraging and I found their compassion inspiring. I saw some very interesting surgeries and worked with several species. I finished my studies and passed my national board exams. I was growing weary of city life, as fun as it was at times, and started craving nature. I spent a lot of time commuting to the beach and I decided I needed to be around mountains and oceans. 

Sunset in Pismo Beach, CA
This is Zippy in the doggie Bjorn after surgery. She really wanted to be held.

Moving to the Central Coast, California

My sister was living in San Luis Obispo, California (yes where Oprah called the happiest place in America) and asked me to come west. I decided to go for it. SLO is a really nice community that isn’t over crowded like so much of the California coast. There’s a lot of hiking and the ocean is minutes away. I was excited to be close to family and especially my nephew as he grew up. I got a great job at Animal Care Clinic and worked there for four years as a Registered Veterinary Technician, gaining a lot of experience. I started to feel the emotional toll and burn out which began to wear on me mentally. I enjoy the field and I love helping animals, however 10-hour days full time was not ideal or healthy for me personally.  

In the spring of 2018 I had been listening to a lot of travel podcasts and I heard about something called  The Paradise Pack It is a bundle of courses that help with creating a location independent lifestyle and business. I decided to take the plunge as it had a lot of interesting content. Next I joined the “Location Indie” online community and connected with hundreds of people who were working to change their lifestyle into something on their terms that could be done from anywhere. This community held a meetup in Denver in the fall and I signed up to attend. I knew I needed to make a change and hoped this could help me figure out a clear directions so I could plan it out over a couple of years.

I had another accident

In August of 2018 I was in a really bad car accident. (Read more about it here) I suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident along with multiple cuts and burns and bruises etc. I was amazingly lucky for someone who got hit by a semi-truck. One of my last thoughts before the airbag hit was “I didn’t get to do my animal project” and I felt real disappointment. That changed everything.

With an EEG and clearance from the neurophysiologist, I was heading to Denver and the Location Indie Conference. I did everything I could to minimize the effects of flying and stress on my head injury. I had moments being overwhelmed and needed quiet and calm; ultimately I did ok. We had an 11 person group, none of which I had met, staying in an Airbnb and I was relieved when I got the medical clearance to attend.

Fellow Location Indie friends!

Location Indie, Denver Experience

At the meetup, the leaders Travis Sherry and Jason Moore chose people to get up on the “hotseat” and talk about where they were in their business ideas and plans.

 Location Indie Denver experience hotseat. Photo by Lily Alayne Owen

I was one of the people they chose. Luckily they didn’t tell us who it would be until the morning of the event so I didn’t have time to stress out about what I would say. There were some highly successful business people in the room and I was intimidated by the idea. Thankfully, the people themselves were not intimidating and everyone was very open and helpful and really seemed to care about the success of others.

When it was my turn in front of the room, I shared what I wanted to do. They looked at my Scientific Illustration website. I told them about my freelance publication design contract with the American Museum of Natural History which I could do anywhere and was half my income. They all just kind of stared at me and asked me why I wasn’t already doing it. I had all the building blocks in place. I had legitimate answers – What about my 401K and health insurance? Wouldn’t it be irresponsible to leave all of that? Remember how I tried and I failed at this eight years ago? I had long ago given up the idea of making a living as an artist. And what if I repeat the same failures? 

I had some issues to work through. I thought about how when I was 100% sure I was going to die in that car accident, I wasn’t thinking “Thank goodness I spent my life building a 401K.” I was bummed that I hadn’t followed my dreams. It was a really powerful moment that sticks with me very clearly. So back to the hotseat. They had me write a list of everything I would do in my ideal year if I had all the money in the world. Then Jason erased the money and had me look at the list and see what I could still do. Turns out I could still do a lot of it. Then they asked me when I was going to start. I chose January 5, 2019, about three months away. I didn’t intend to do that, it just came out. However after I said it out loud and felt that freedom, I was accountable. I went home and gave notice at my veterinary job. Then I started planning my first trip.  Read all about my first trip HERE.

Thanks for following along and thank you for your interest in helping animals!