All my life, I have wanted to make a difference in the world to someone or something. I didn’t know what it would be exactly, but I knew that I would find an ultimate satisfaction and achievement that would live with me forever. Wildlife conservation has always sparked a love, compassion and curiosity for this type of career. For this reason I told myself, where better to benefit by gaining experience from wildlife, than in Africa.
In October of 2010, I started searching for summer internships or programs that would meet the practical experience requirement for my major, Animal Ecology, option Pre-veterinary and Wildlife Care. I came upon a website called African Conservation Experience (ACE). Through this website, I found the program that matched perfectly with what I was hoping to find. The site was very helpful and provided me with all the information and details I needed to apply. I completed an application and submitted it with the hope that I would be accepted into this program, knowing very well that this experience could be a huge impact on my life. A month after I applied, I was accepted into the program and was given the chance to choose the project that I desired the most. From over fifteen different projects, I chose Khulula Rehabilitation Center in South Africa. Their mission is: “To care for wildlife of all forms and sizes, to make an attempt to help the continuation of African species, and to ensure wild animals continue to roam proudly and freely in Africa’s majestic landscapes”. I felt like I was one step closer to accomplishing one of my dreams: making a difference for animals and helping to continue conserving a species in the wild. I was excited for what would be a trip of a lifetime, yet a little worried about the assurance of this program. I knew I would be taking a risk traveling by myself to another country, not knowing what to expect or knowing anyone. The fact that I had to have my own life insurance cover my trip and I needed to take vaccinations meant that I was taking a risk. Prior to my trip, I called the program many times, asked many questions and felt relieved with their answers. I felt safe knowing that I would be picked up from the airport and taken directly to my project. Knowing that part of life is about taking chances and risks gave me courage to make the final decision to go South Africa.
In May, I was on my way to South Africa, hoping for the best but expecting much less with how terrified I was. An ACE agent was waiting for me at the airport and took me straight to my project located in Mpumalanga, Nelspruit. When I arrived, there were other volunteers there who made me feel welcomed and helped me settle into what I would call my home for the summer. Our days started at 7am and were composed of feeding and observing patients, cleaning and fixing cages, attending lectures, and going to other research facilities and national parks.
One facility we visited was a research facility in charge of researching a parasite called Trichinella, a roundworm that parasitizes African Nile Crocodiles. At the research facility, we were given the opportunity to help draw blood from the crocodiles. I chose to participate even though I knew it was risky. The experience was once in a lifetime. To obtain a blood sample, I had to jump on the crocodile and hold its body down. I held its mouth and eyes shut while someone else drew blood from the crocodile’s tail. The experience was exhilarating!
Another place we visited was the Kruger National Park. We spent a whole day traveling the park in a safari car to observe as much wildlife as we could in their natural environments. We spotted elephants, leopards, lions, giraffes, hyenas, rhinos, and many other species native to Africa. We were able to observe each animal and learned how to identify them based on their physical and behavioral traits. It was a fun experience to be able to see these animals in their natural habitat and watch predators while they tried to hunt down their meals. Activities like these were incorporated into the program and were spread out through the weeks so our days would vary quite a bit. Between husbandry work, lectures and learning and hands-on activities, our days ended between 7:00pm and 9:00pm, depending on what we were doing or the types of animals we were caring for in the rehabilitation center. We always had to keep in mind that at any time of the night, we might be needed for something. For example, when we had a baby rhino that was very sick and needed careful monitoring, we were on 24-hour watch duty.
There were many species of animals that were being rehabilitated in the center. There was a baby rhino, caracal cats, serval cats, porcupines, vervet monkeys, mongoose, ostriches, genets, different species of owls, a fox, a squirrel, bush babies, crows, a crane, steem buck and bush buck, tortoises and my favorite, lion cubs. There were around 57 animals being cared for at the center and it was our responsibility to feed, clean, give proper medication, and observe these animals at all times of the day and sometimes, night. We were given a different group of animals to care for every week. Each animal had a file where we would keep daily records of activities such as, feeding, observations and their defecation. Even though a lot of it was hard work, we were able to spend time with each animal and play with them every day. One of the best times I had while in the rehabilitation center, was being able to spend hours playing with three little lion cubs. My duties when working with the cubs included, feeding them, stimulating them to help them urinate and defecate, and weighing them. When all of that was done, I was able to take them out for some fresh air to play with them. When the lion cubs grew tired from play, they would curl-up beside me and fall asleep. The cubs showed affection towards all of us and even though they scratched and bit very hard, they loved interacting and spending time with us. They were the cutest creatures I had ever seen in my life. It was so rewarding to be able to hold those little cubs in my hands, and to know that I might never in my life get this chance again. This realization made me want to stay in that moment forever.
My days working were long and hard but every second was worth it. There is nothing more satisfying than to help an animal that depends on you for its well being and recovery. Out of all the experiences, the most rewarding and most exhilarating is the experience of releasing an animal back into its natural habitat. All the hard work and time spent, just to be able to see a glimpse of an animal running and disappearing into the background and knowing in your heart that an animal truly benefited from your help, is priceless. The satisfaction and emotions this brought to my heart will live in me forever. I left South Africa with much more than what I had expected. I met so many people along my journey who shared the same love, curiosity for wildlife and most importantly passion. I was inspired by amazing people and an amazing experience to continue my career in wildlife. From this I gained a better understanding of wildlife and a greater confidence to pursue this career path. It was my supervisor and owner of the rehabilitation center, Petronel Nieuwoudt, who truly inspired me with her passion, dedication and hard work for the well being of all wildlife. To this day, I still remember her saying, A true activist is not one who protests and holds up signs to help animals; it is not one who sits and does nothing but hopes for the best for animals. True activists are you, the volunteers, who take a chance and make risks to go out of your way to help these animals; who decide that standing there isn’t enough, but that your actions speak louder than your words. These words live with me every single day and have made me realize how blessed I am to have had such an amazing experience that helped form the person I am today.
A Lesson Learned
During my stay in South Africa, I was able to work hands-on with wildlife while gaining a better understanding of different topics related to handling and caring for injured, sick and orphaned wild animals. It was at the rehabilitation center where I was given the responsibilities to help these animals recover. At first, I believed that feeding the animals, giving them medicine and spending time with them was the best part of my job. But I was wrong about this; I didn’t realize it until I was the witness of a true event that touched my heart forever.
It was a cold afternoon and I was helping prepare a fox to be released from the rehabilitation center. We were going to release it into a nature reserve. We transported the fox in a crate by vehicle and drove two hours to the reserve. Once we got there, we placed the crate on the ground and simply waited for the time when we would open the box and watch him go. I looked over the reserve and noticed that the scenery was perfect for the occasion. It was a beautiful evening and the sun was setting at that exact moment. The sky was yellow, the wind was whistling and the tall grass was swaying gently in the breeze. I remember standing there and looking back at what we all had accomplished in helping this fox. I knew it was an exciting moment for all of us but I didn’t think I would feel so full of emotions when the time finally came to say goodbye.
When it was time to release the fox, our supervisor opened the crate and slowly tilted it forward to move the fox out of the cage. The fox ran out as if he was finally free and ready to start his life once again. It was at this exact moment that my heart stopped and a tear fell down my face. There was a moment of silence where I am sure everyone was just as speechless and as full of emotions as I was. To think, it was because of the dedication and hard work of many people that we were able to witness this special moment.
It was remarkable how this simple moment gave me the greatest satisfaction of all. I realized that the best part of working at the rehabilitation center was not the caring and handling of these animals but their recuperation and release in the end. It was the mission of this rehabilitation center to treat, love and give these animals a second chance at life. The feeling of contributing to that mission was the best reward I could ever receive.