‘I always tell them good morning’

Sjoerd Veenstra has been an animal handler for fifty years

‘I always tell them good morning’

Animal handler Sjoerd Veenstra has been working with mice, tarantulas, and zebra finches for fifty years. He’s never wanted to do anything else. ‘I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a basement somewhere.’
By René Hoogschagen / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo Reyer Boxem

‘Oh my God, I’m going home’, Sjoerd Veenstra said in his thick Groningen accent when he spotted the decorations on his desk. ‘Is that today? Is it my fiftieth anniversary working here?’

Absolutely. It’s been fifty years. He started on October 14, 1969, when he was just fifteen years old. Imagine that: working for the same company for fifty years. Doing the same work every day, for fifty years. He is now sixty-five years old. He won’t retire for another year.

There’s no way he would escape the celebrations. His fellow animal handlers at the RUG put an inflatable gate near the entrance with an Abraham doll, streamers, and balloons. The number fifty was everywhere, from the main entrance to the aquarium rooms. All his colleagues dropped by, even the ones that weren’t working that day.

Gratitude

It was a great gesture, he says, making a face. ‘Much better than a party in a big room with lots of speeches.’ Everyone singing his praises? No, thank you. His wife and colleague Roelie Wiegman nods. ‘We’d rather have a little bit of gratitude every day than everything at the end.’

Sjoerd, a grey-haired man with a deep voice and a single silver earring, isn’t lacking in gratitude, though. His name is mentioned in numerous PhD theses. The academics thank him for taking care of their research animals, for his company, for the great conversations they’ve had. They even visited him at home. ‘It’s too bad I have to say goodbye to them every four years’, says Veenstra.

We only discuss work on the way home, and that’s it

One person he never said goodbye to was his fellow animal handler Roelie Wiegman. Veenstra had been working at the RUG for twenty years at the Biological Centra in Haren, when Wegman joined in 1989. ‘We gave it a lot of thought’, Veenstra says, serious. Wiegman nods. A relationship with a colleague can be a risky venture. What do you do if it all goes wrong?

‘But our love was stronger’, he says. And it’s still going strong. Although they’re not obvious about it. Wiegman is still using her maiden name, she works with different animals, and they keep their work and private lives separate. ‘We don’t want to bother our other co-workers’, says Wiegman. What about at home? Do they ever discuss work there? ‘No’, Veenstra says resolutely. ‘For a little bit on the way home’, Wiegman adds, ‘but that’s it.’

When work got hard because of a personnel shortage in the nineties it was nice to have a partner for a colleague, says Veenstra. They’d come home exhausted, fall asleep on the couch, and then still had to make dinner. They had a hard time keeping the house clean. ‘I don’t think anyone else would have put up with that.’

Hard work

Has he ever considered changing careers? He shrugs? ‘I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a basement somewhere…’ He’s content taking care of the animals and the researchers. These days, fish are his only charges. It’s a good job, and ‘the fish team is great’. As long as he doesn’t have to kneel. ‘I can’t get back up anymore.’

After fifty years of hard work, he physically no longer at his peak. He’s been declared partially unfit to work and only works in the mornings. ‘We didn’t have labour laws when I was young’, Sjoerd says as an explanation for why his limbs are so stiff. Taking care of the animals was much harder work than it is now. ‘I carried all these heavy buckets, walked through that came up to my ankles, on uneven ground. Now they check everything, like if you’re lifting stuff right.’

The students used to come by for a chat. Now they don’t have the time

Another thing that’s changed is the social contacts he has. Before, when he was still working in Haren, people would simply stop by and chat to the animal handlers. ‘They knew the coffee was always hot and they actually had time for a chat. These days, the students don’t have as much time.’ Today, the animals are at Zernike, and Sjoerd doesn’t know half the people working in the same hallway. ‘We’re at the very end of the hallway and everyone just passes us by.’  

While Veenstra currently takes care of the fish, he used to take care of gulls, mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, oystercatchers, and zebra finches. The tarantulas were the trickiest. The round jars they live in sometimes had to be cleaned. ‘I’d hold the jar they were in at the bottom and put a clean one on upside down.’ He holds his muscular arms aloft, as though he’s holding two jars. ‘The spider would have to go into the other jar. But sometimes I’d drop the jar and then the spider was on the ground.’ And then what? ‘You’d better get a jar over that spider real quick.’

Animal testing

He used to be able to take animals home after a study was done, but that’s no longer allowed, Veenstra says as he walks through the aquarium room. Machinery hums, air bubbles rise up, the fish swim. Some of them are alone, others in groups. ‘If they get aggressive, I separate them’, Veenstra explains. They’re not the kind of animals you can pet, but he likes them. ‘I always tell them good morning’, he says, laughing, ‘but they never answer me.’

Animal testing is still a sore subject. One of Wiegman’s friends is opposed to the whole thing. ‘So we just don’t talk about it anymore’, says Wiegman, resigned. They don’t perform any of the animal tests. They only take care of the animals, make sure they get fed every day, that they’re happy. 

Animal testing will probably always be necessary

These days, it’s not that easy to just do research that involves animal testing. First, a committee has to decide whether it’s truly necessary. The animal handlers themselves keep an eye on things as well; if they see something that’s not right, they speak up. ‘But I think we’ll always need animal testing’, says Veenstra.

In the photo for this article, he’s looking at the fish that will be used for research. Some people can get really angry at that. Veenstra shrugs. ‘I’m almost done anyway.’ Just one more year until retirement.

Nederlands

21 October 2019 | 22-10-2019, 9:27