After spending sixteen hours on a plane and another five hours on a bus, I finally arrived at my destination in South Africa; the tiny, beautiful town of Hoedspruit located right next to the massive Kruger National Park and Drakensberg Mountain Range. I was a little nervous at first about meeting everyone and adjusting to my surroundings, but those fears were quickly alleviated once I met the Burns, who were my host family for my entire month stay in the country. The Burns owned a house on a 21 hectare portion of a small game farm, and had five dogs, four cats, sheep, geese, chickens, and other animals constantly around to play with. Everyone was ridiculously nice – Sheridan, the mother, her two grown kids, Ailsa and Murray, and Ailsa’s son Luke lived at the house,
and were constantly around to make us feel comfortable, make us amazing meals, and tease us for our American habits and not calling dessert “pudding.” Throughout the trip, they took us all over the area to various activities and tourist attractions, watched movies with us, and taught us how to play rugby. For the first week, I was also with one other student named Mia from Pennsylvania that was equally as nice. There was never a point on the trip where I did not feel at home.
Once I had settled in, the week began working with Dr. Rogers and his assistant Janelle, and we ended up working with dogs, cats, rhinos, nyalas, a waterbuck, buffalo, elephants, cheetahs, a leopard, and other animals; it was a busy week. Dr. Rogers owned a small animal practice in Hoedspruit, which acted as his base from which we operated out of and gathered drugs and supplies before travelling into the bush on private game farms and reserves each day. We shadowed and assisted Dr. Liesel, the small animal veterinarian, when there was no wildlife work. Otherwise, we were with Dr. Rogers in the field working with African wildlife. On my first day, I was immediately thrown into the action as we darted and treated a white rhino bull that had gotten in a fight with another rhino. I helped monitor respiration and shoved an oxygen tube up the bull’s nose as Dr. Rogers dressed the wounds and implanted a tracking transmitter in the horn. Not all veterinarians get to treat rhino due to the high profile nature of the cases and the confidentiality involved due to the prevalence of poaching, so it was a privilege to see Dr. Rogers, the best veterinarian in the country according to everyone we met, work with them. Unfortunately, I cannot post any pictures of the rhinos we worked with, since there has been multiple incidences where rhinos were poached based on information found on the internet.
On my second day, we went to a game farm so that Dr. Rogers could treat a waterbuck bull that was blind and extremely weak due to a massive ulcer in his eye. Dr. Rogers decided to sew the eye shut, since completely closing the eye could potentially allow capillaries in the eyelid to grow and provide the damaged eye with increased nutrients in order to help it heal. The bull was extremely weak though and had been suffering for a while, so Dr. Rogers made it clear that it was still most likely not going to survive. The thing with wildlife veterinary work is that it can be very emotional, since oftentimes not much can be done. The vets do whatever they can, but wildlife in South Africa is an industry; not all animals are valuable enough to save, and oftentimes sick animals are found too late. The waterbuck ended up dying a few days later.
On my first weekend in the country, the Burns family took Mia and I Elephant Whispers, a small reserve area where wild elephants are trained to interact with people and let them ride on them. The elephants are trained humanely using only positive reinforcement, and some knew up to 150 commands including shaking their head, turning, flapping their ears, and speaking to us. We had previously darted elephants with contraceptives with Dr. Rogers, but it was pretty awesome to get this close to some, especially since we got to feel and feed them. In the same day, we also went to Graskop up near the top of the mountain range, where we got to do a 68 meter free-fall jump into a gorge. It was ridiculously terrifying.
To close out the week, we ended up treating a leopard that had been hit by a car at the nearby Air Force Base. The leopard was in pain and had laid in the road before retreating slightly into the bush, causing panic because injured leopards have a history of being extremely dangerous. Dr. Rogers maneuvered through the brush to the leopard, where he darted it with a drug cocktail called BAM, which consists of butorphanol, azaperone, and medetomidine. BAM is extremely useful in predator species because it is fast acting and can quickly be reversed by administering antisedan and yohimbine to wake the animal up. In this case, it was also darted with a very powerful sedative to prevent it from waking up during tests. After darting the leopard, which weighed a massive 77 kg, we rode with it in the back of a pickup truck back to the hospital to take x-rays and provide treatment. Upon examination it had no broken bones and only muscle damage, so we gave it an anti-inflammatory and put it in a crate to be released back into the bush around the Air Force Base. It was awesome to see such a beautiful, powerful animal up close.