My STEP Signature Project consisted of three volunteer experiences that were combined to create a holistic experience with exotic animals. My first portion was with Buck-I-Serv on a trip to Silver Springs, Florida volunteering with Forest Animal Rescue. At Forest Animal Rescue, I spent majority of my time building enclosure for red pandas and spider monkeys. My second portion dealt with volunteering with two organizations: the American Primate Education Sanctuary in Gahanna and the Ohio Wildlife Center Hospital in Powell. With the American Primate Educational Sanctuary (APES), I partook in general husbandry of capuchin monkeys and gibbons; I fed, cleaned, prepared meals, and engaged in enrichment with the animals. With the Ohio Wildlife Center Hospital, I provide necessary treatments to wildlife animals including: drenching medications, fluid injections, bandage replacements, and tube feeding. I also partook in general husbandry and handling of various wildlife including birds of prey, song birds, waterfowl, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, reptiles, rabbits, and other Ohio wildlife.
As an animal science major, I had many assumptions about working with exotic animals prior to my STEP project. I had taken classes educating me in the importance of the welfare and care of our exotics and insuring that we work as one to improve their lives. In class, I gained little knowledge on how exactly we can work to improve their lives. Upon engaging in my volunteer opportunities, I learned that a lot more goes on when it comes to improving the care of exotics. My view on exotic care completely changed. I now have a much larger appreciation to those who dedicate their time and money to the improvement of these animals’ lives. Understanding feeding habits, social behaviors, grooming, exercise behaviors, body language, and anatomy all play a huge role in insuring the welfare of these animals. This knowledge has helped me prepare for my adventure into veterinary school, by gaining knowledge on animals I may work with in the future.
All three locations and volunteer experiences played a role in transforming my knowledge on exotics and wildlife and better preparing me for my future endeavors. At Forest Animal Rescue, I learned about how much history and knowledge goes into building enclosures for wildlife. Forest Animal Rescue inhabits over 13 different species of exotics including: tigers, African servals, spider monkeys, capuchins, lemurs, wolves, black bears, bats, and tortoises. Understanding animals’ natural habitats, behaviors, and social rankings all goes into engineering the perfect enclosure for a given species. Each species has their own set of standards that need to be set in place to insure their safety and wellbeing. For instance, majority of my trip was spent building the red panda enclosures. For these enclosures, we had to ensure we were following specific guidelines. They had to be tall, over 50 feet, to ensure the pandas had opportunity to climb tall trees like they would in the wild. They needed to be welded together with steel bars, as red pandas are crafty with their hands and can easily open locks. The enclosure had to include natural plant life, native to their homeland. All this knowledge was critical in building the perfect home for these animals and I am thankful to now have gained this knowledge for future use.
At APES, I learned that primates require social interaction to remain healthy. They are very similar to humans and rely immensely on touch. To insure they receive the social touch they need, they are paired in groups and often get time to interact with volunteers. I spent a lot of time simply allowing them to play with my hair, as if I had bugs in it. It took time for me to gain a relationship with them and for them to trust me. Understanding that a relationship must be built between myself and primates can greatly impact my future veterinary work with them. Furthermore, I learned that primates are very intuitive to their surroundings. If you are upset or feeling down they tend to notice and will be calmer and more alert to your emotions. If you are angry or mad they tend to notice and will be very vocal and active. The most important thing I learned about their intuition is to always remain confident! They are very good at detecting if you fear them and will abuse that feeling. If you are scared they will take that time to enhance that and grab at you. Having confidence was the only way I could get them to gently touch me and comb my hair. Once you have confidence, that is when they establish a relationship. Lastly, in this volunteering experience I got to better understand their nutrition requirements. While volunteering, I had to create weekly meals consisting of proper fruits, vegetables, and supplements. This gained knowledge will help me when understanding their digestive system and nutrition in veterinary school.
At the Ohio Wildlife Center Hospital, I gained a lot of hand on experience with ill animals. The Ohio Wildlife Center Hospital is segmented into various wards including: song bird ward, birds of prey ward, flight ward, reptile ward, baby ward, and mammal ward. Each time I volunteered I got to experience a different ward. In these wards, I addressed each animal as diagnosed by the veterinarian and shown on their charts. Most of the time, my volunteering consisted of removing the animal, weighing the animal, cleaning the cage, feeding the animal, and placing the animal back. A couple of times a shift I got the opportunity to medicate or dress an animal. Using a drench gun, administering fluids, giving oral medications, and re-dressing a wound were all parts of my job. Learning how to do these things with various species really widened my knowledge on animal handling and care. These animals are meant to be returned to the wild and for this reason are to not gain relationships with humans. This meant that I had to handle animals who were fearful and flighty. Learning how to grab a red-tailed hawk, opossum, and pigeon out of a cage were all helpful to my future endeavors as a veterinarian.
My STEP Signature project directly correlates with my future academics and employment goals. As an animal sciences major, I plan to pursue veterinary medicine. It is my goal to one day volunteer my free-time to diagnose and perform surgeries for volunteer hospitals and sanctuaries. Gaining knowledge on the general behaviors, nutrition requirements, and handling procedures of these animals is something I will carry into my professional education and career. These experiences provided me with the ability to work with capuchins, gibbons, spider monkeys, opossums, song birds, red-hawks, owls, bats, and squirrels. I can honestly say that without these experiences I would not have gotten the opportunity to work with these animals before veterinary school. I feel that this project has given me the upper hand in my veterinary applications, providing me with extraordinary experiences. I would recommend a volunteer experience like this to anyone pursuing a career with exotic animals!