My STEP signature project was an exotic animal welfare and behavior study abroad in South Africa. Over the course of two weeks we visited many different environments where we were able to interact with and observe exotic animals in order to learn and understand them from all perspectives. We did so in both captive and conservation settings, as well as in their wild and natural settings which allowed us to compare the various behaviors and conditions we observed. This experience is one which helped me to grow personally, academically and professionally.
Prior to this trip I assumed that animals in zoos were not always an accurate display of the behaviors and characteristics that would be seen in a natural environment which I can now say is definitely accurate. Just as I expected, I got to observe many various behaviors and characteristics of exotic animals that I have never seen simply from watching them for a few minutes at the zoo. I also got to see how certain species interacted with each other, with their young, with their environment, and even with us at times. I expected the conservation and management setting aspect to look very different than the zoos that I am used to due to the difference in culture and society, and although there were some definite differences, it was not as drastic as I was imagining. The biggest difference I saw was just in the level of passion of the caretakers. I felt it was much stronger in South Africa than I have seen in zoos, which shows just how important conservation and management of these species is and should be regarded as.
I imagined the animals would be regarded much differently in most aspects of life, but especially in their management practices. This was correct in the way that animals are not appreciated very much by the people of South Africa, because of all the issues that arise from them being a part of their everyday lives. This was validated in the management settings as we saw that the people visiting the facilities along with us were also tourists and not the general public, which is very different when you compare it to the zoos of America which is largely supported by the general public. Before the trip it was difficult for me to characterize the challenges faced regarding management of exotic animals, but I now realize the plentiful challenges faced, including poaching, poisoning, snares, lack of funding, lack of public support, criticism of the media, and government interference to name a few. My expectations of the potential opportunities created by management of these animals however was further validated. It is obvious to me now that management is crucial to conservation of species, we saw this prove true time and again during our visits to John Hume’s rhino farm, the Moholoholo rehab center and the Hoedspruit endangered species facility. It is also very important for educational purposes, as we have witnessed firsthand through this class and the interactions and experiences we encountered.
I expected the animals we saw to have very different health care and welfare standards than I am used to which I think is pretty accurate. Exotics face many more unknowns and variable factors in their environments which a lot of times contributes to their health issues and overall welfare. Some of the factors that we saw that have an impact on the lives of these animals include food and water availability, the habitat they live in, and the threats from hunting and poaching practices. In an elephant museum we attended at Letaba in Kruger National Park, we read of many unfortunate poaching stories against elephants and as we know, they are not the only species that faces these threats. Rhinos for example are at very high endangerment from the illegal poaching of their horns. As I anticipated, we did get to see many various management strategies and systems. Each one has its own values and goals, but they are all usually striving towards a similar end goal of animal prosperity and preservation. I do realize that each practice is also very complex and calculated. One thing I did not expect was just how passionate the people are about these animals and their wellbeing. Everyone we encountered was incredibly passionate in their own ways and you could tell it was more than simply a job to them, which I was very pleasantly surprised to see and much of their passion and determination was contagious, and we learned to share in it.
I expected that I would gain a new insight that would allow me to form my own educated opinions and develop a personalized standpoint about exotic animal welfare and behavior which is probably the one that is the truest after the trip. I think overall my expectations of the trip were pretty accurate, however they were also mostly expanded on and I was able to learn a lot more than I anticipated. I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to go on this study abroad and it is an experience I will definitely carry with me for the rest of my life and through my career, and I hope to take what I have learned and observed and go on to encourage and educate others on the importance of exotic animal welfare and conservation.
This trip brought me many new insights and perspectives that have transformed my view and understanding of exotic animal welfare and behavior. With a goal of pursuing a career in veterinary medicine, it is crucial for me to have an in depth and comprehensive understanding of the animals I could potentially be treating and working with. It is beneficial to both my current and future academic and professional endeavors involving exotic animals. This is a personal experience that will set me apart from others in my field, and allow me to share my experiences with others who are less informed. Overall, this study abroad experience that I was able to pursue thanks to the STEP program, will allow me to make an individual difference in the world of exotic animal welfare and behavior, and it is an experience I will never forget.