For my STEP signature project I traveled abroad to Ireland to study Human and Animal Interactions. I participated in a variety of opportunities including a behind the scenes keeper talk at the Dublin Zoo, a visit to a local falconry, a donkey sanctuary, multiple farms, and various colleges and research organizations. Along with animal themed activities, we also had a lot of time dedicated to exploring the history and culture of Ireland. We had multiple culturally themed dinners, and visited places like Blarney Castle and the cliffs of Moher.
My main goal prior to the trip was to have a meaningful experience full of learning and adventure. That goal was met over and over again. I was able to have unique animal interactions that I could not find in a classroom. It was particularly interesting to learn about the perspectives of the Irish people and how they view animals. The Irish people were so kind and welcoming. I learned many things about myself as well. I learned to appreciate the hard work and dedication it takes to work with agricultural animals, something I previously had no experience with. I learned how to branch out and make lasting connections with people from different backgrounds from myself. I also showed myself that I am capable of making it on my own in an unfamiliar country with little supervision or guidance. I even prevailed against a touch of the flu halfway through the trip and was able to take care of myself.
Participating in this Human and Animal Interactions trip to Ireland allowed me to discover another country and a topic I am passionate about while also discovering myself. I was nervous going into the trip because my major is Zoology, but nearly everyone else on the trip was an animal sciences major. They all came from agriculture backgrounds, and since we were visiting many farms I was nervous. Even though I was unfamiliar with much of the typical protocol or behaviors, everyone was eager and willing to explain them to me and did not treat me poorly because of it. Many of the people who taught me about the agricultural side of things, ended up becoming my friends too. Overall, it was interesting because I was basically learning about the practices in Ireland and the United States at the same time.
For instance, when we were at Sean Hayes’ Beef Farm, it seemed like there were a lot of cows in a very small space and they looked very dirty. Not knowing if this was normal or not, I asked around about it and found out that it would be unusual to see conditions like that back here in the States. This bothered me ethically, and it seemed hard to justify keeping them in this condition to me. It was also pointed out to me that his farm had slits in the walls and ceilings used for ventilation in order to keep the barn fresh and dry. I thought this was cool and wish it could be implemented in more places both in Ireland and the US. Experiences like these taught me to look at situations objectively, and consider all points of view before making a conclusion.
I also loved the companion animal side of the trip. We visited Dog’s Trust, which is a rehoming center for dogs. What I liked the most about them was that their long term goal is preventative maintenance through education. This aligns with my core beliefs and career goals. I want to be a zoo veterinarian because not only can you help an individual animal, but they can be an ambassador for their entire species through education. While there, they said it takes two generations to change a culture. Dog’s trust is taking the time to teach children how to be responsible pet owners, which inspires me to work hard alongside them to achieve these and similar goals. It was so interesting to me to see them taking programs to schools because I’ve never seen something like that here in America.
Someone had an interesting question about breeds available for adoption. In the US our shelters are over run with breeds like pit bulls. In Ireland, however, they have a big problem placing greyhounds and lurchers as a result of the high volume of retired animals coming from the racing industry. We had the opportunity to visit the Shelbourne Greyhound Racetrack. In the United States, dog racing is often seen as abusive, but in Ireland, greyhound racing is a social norm that enriches their culture. Understanding the role of the dogs in the culture is important, but I still think it is important to always consider the lifetime welfare of any animal we have interactions with.
Aside from the class aspects of the study abroad, I enjoyed the cultural events as well. We were given a decent amount of free time where we could make friends and go explore major cities by ourselves. What we did with our free time was completely up to us, and we had to figure out how to navigate the country and fit in with their culture. I tried as many new and traditional foods as I possibly could, and ended up enjoying almost all of them. We also had cultural dinners. My favorite was when we learned about the folklore of fairies in Ireland. The moral of most of the stories stuck with me, which is to be respectful of nature and one another.
This trip has helped me transform into the person I want to be both personally and professionally. I learned to step outside of my comfort zone. I met new people, experienced activities and subjects I had never been exposed to before. I also felt a sense of connection because there are people all over the world that are concerned and passionate about the same issues as I am. This is a relief because I want to work in conservation, which will ultimately require a global effort. This trip has prepared me for that by exposing me to new ideas and teaching me how to be a traveler in a new place. I am so appreciative that I was able to experience this opportunity to help prepare myself for what lies ahead of me!