Exotic Animal Behavior and Welfare

Natalie Prischak

Exotic Animal Behavior and Welfare Study Abroad in South Africa

A two and a half week tour of South Africa; during my time in country, we visited wildlife sanctuaries, Kruger National Park, a private game reserve, and Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.  This trip afforded me the chance to learn about exotic animal conservation at the source – South Africa.  I learned a great deal about current challenges to conservation and ways they can be overcome in the future.

How was this a Transformational Experience?

Prior to my participation in this study abroad, I had never traveled outside of the country.  Therefore, my knowledge of exotic animals was limited to what I have learned in the classroom and at local zoos.  The moment I stepped on the plane to Johannesburg, that began to change.  While on this trip, I had the privilege of meeting several people on the frontlines of animal conservation.  Hearing their stories firsthand was surreal, it is hard to describe the impact they had on me.  As the fight for conservation is based in South Africa, it is important to understand the problem from the natives’ point of view.  During this trip, we visited many natives South Africans and I can know see the issue from their point of view.  Putting myself into the shoes of the South African people allowed me to comprehend the big picture of conservation, not just what is known in America.  This study abroad transformed me because it taught me the importance of seeing someone else’s point of view and hearing all sides of the story.  Living in South Africa for almost three weeks drove that point home like nothing else I have done in my entire life.


What caused this transformation?

If my views of the world expanded while on this study abroad, it was because of the many people I met and experiences I had in South Africa.  On our first day in country, we visited a rhino breeding project.  John Hume is a retired man who has poured his entire life saving into protecting the endangered rhino from the poachers who would brutally kill them for their prized horns.  Recently, Hume has been organizing the first ever rhino horn auction in an effort to bring in more money to manage his breeding project.  The media often paints Hume and a greedy man who simply wants to profit off the rhinos.  After spending time with him on his farm, I can say with complete confidence that this is simply not the case.  John Hume loves the rhino and is one hundred percent committed to their protection.  He makes no profit from his work and, in fact, has lost countless fortunes providing for those who help run his facility.  It just goes to show the importance of finding out information for yourself, rather than always trusting what other people have to say.

One of John Hume’s employees is wildlife veterinarian Michelle Otto.  Meeting this woman had an enormous impact on my life.  She joined us for dinner one night and spent the entire time regaling us with stories about the work she has done with rhino over the years.  This woman developed a vaccine for a certain toxin that afflicts rhino – she designed the vaccine herself and had it ready to use within one year.  This is certainly no small feat.  Otto has also performed countless innovative surgeries and procedures over the years, including constructing an artificial anus for one rhino.  Hearing what she had done was truly awe inspiring.  But through it all, Otto acted as if it was no big deal and continually urged us to follow our dreams and never doubt our abilities.  I am glad to have had the chance to meet her and feel truly transformed by the meeting.

While in South Africa, we spent five days driving through the Kruger National Park.  This was the first time in my entire life that I was able to observe exotic animals up close, without any fences or barrier.  Due to space limitations, zoos must exhibit animals in enclosures.  But in Kruger, the animals have free reign of a territory the size of Israel.  Just watching these animals run and move freely in the sunlight was transformation.  We saw interactions between animals of all ages, something rarely seen in a zoo.  One day, we happened upon a small herd of wild dogs, basking in the sunlight.  A little farther down the road, was a herd of zebra heading our way.  Knowing that zebra are natural prey of wild dogs, we became excited at the prospect of viewing a chase.  As the zebra got closer, they started to shy away a little, sensing the dogs presence.  We waited with bated breath, unsure of what would come next.  Unfortunately, the dogs were not interested in the zebra and the scene remained peaceful.  But seeing these animals in their natural habitat, interacting with each other, is a feeling I will never forget.

Why is this transformation relevant to me?

It is my deepest dream to become a veterinarian.  In veterinary work, you often have to advocate to owners on behalf of their animals.  In order to reach the owners, it is important to understand their personal beliefs and feelings.  This is a lesson I learned in South Africa.  Just as we must consider the South Africans point of view when it comes to conservation, a good veterinarian will consider the owners point of view when it comes to a pet.  In addition, it is easy to forget that animals are living beings and can feel pain and loneliness.  Especially when it comes to zoo animals, we must always remember that they form connections with each other and exist in a greater hierarchy in the world.  Seeing these animals interact freely in the wild really hit home for me – it showed that these animals all have their own personalities and place in this world.  No one animals is more important than another.  They are all necessary in the world and must all be protected.  This is a lesson that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

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