About a year ago I started looking for internships for the summer of 2017. Because I am a student in Animal Sciences and Industry, Pre-Veterinary Medicine at K-State I really wanted to find an internship where I could work with animals. I had worked with companion animals before and though I am appreciative and understanding of the work of the production agriculture industry, I don’t have a great interest in working with livestock in my future. This being said, I have always been very intrigued by zoo and exotic animals. I never thought of my interest in exotics as a career path option, but when I came across an internship listing on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums intern page, things began to change. The International Exotic Animal Sanctuary of Boyd, Texas was looking for interns for a three-month session and after exploring their website and the experiences others had during the internship, I was eager to apply. I was so lucky to have been accepted into the internship position and was ready to begin my adventure that summer.
When I first arrived, I knew little about the work I’d be doing and the impact it would have on me. I knew the sanctuary was a non-profit organization, but I wasn’t fully aware of why that was or what was affected by that. I lived on site and learned my first night, before I met any of the animals there, that I slept about 100 yards from a lion as the interns could hear him every night, roaring before bed. The next day I found out that the work was very hard. We worked long days for the first couple weeks while all the interns were training and not only were these days long, but the days were hot and humid, too. Soon I would realize that these long days were worth it.
Some daily activities I completed included diet preparation, feeding of the animals, leading educational public tours, and habitat construction and upkeep. Learning nutrition basics of all the animals housed at the sanctuary was incredible. It was crazy to see just how much it took to feed these animals. Diet preparation for large carnivores also taught me a lot about the importance of being precise. As a non-profit, IEAS was grateful to have all food for the nearly 70 residents donated. This being said, making sure no food was wasted was VERY important. When adding in medications to food for the animals it was also prudent to make sure the amount and type of medication was correct. This not only prevented waste of food contaminated with medication we couldn’t use for other animals, but also made sure the medications were put in the correct food pan and would not have adverse effects on another animal who the medications were not intended for. These are some basic things I will deal with a lot in my future career, so I am glad I have learned the value of reducing waste and the importance of being precise now.
IEAS did not only have food supplied by donation dollars, but nearly everything within the 55-acre perimeter was supplied by generous donors. The sanctuary found a way to use just about anything. Did you know you can make comfortable beds for exotic cats, white-nosed coatimundis, and lemurs from old firehoses? It was super cool to see that and to see how non-profits make things work. Resourcefulness was the key to success while working this internship and was another quality I was thankful to fully utilize this summer. In this day and age it is easy to take things for granted, but sometimes supplies are limited and things are not always so accessible so it is important to learn to be resourceful and use that skill whenever possible.
My favorite activity I got to participate in as an intern this summer at the sanctuary was leading educational tours. The first few weeks all the new interns would walk along in tours where more experienced interns would lead. This was our chance to absorb as many facts about species, habitats, conservational statuses, and personalities of all the animals as possible. Once we became comfortable leading a tour by ourselves, we were set free. I have always been a people-person and have enjoyed my public speaking opportunities while I was in debate and forensics in high school and in some classes throughout college, so leading tours for groups ranging from about five to twenty people in size for people of ages seven and above was very enjoyable. It was amazing to see the change in understanding of a tour group from start to finish. When most people arrived at the sanctuary, they didn’t expect much but to come in and see some lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). Throughout the tour, conservational status of the animals is a dominant topic. In addition to this, because this was a sanctuary and not a zoo, all the animals had a backstory of why they were there. The animals at IEAS had either been neglected, abused, or abandoned at a young age. This sanctuary became the forever-home of these amazing animals. An overwhelming point of the tours was to make clear the idea that exotic animals of this type should never be kept as pets or abused/neglected in the ways they were. Though the staff and interns at IEAS loved helping provide for these animals and enjoyed creating the forever-homes of all the amazing species there, our hearts ached (and still ache) at the fact that none of the animals there should have to be living in captivity as they are. Photos for profit organizations which allow people to take pictures with lion and tiger cubs, people who try to keep servals or lemurs as pets, and those who keep bears in unsheltered concrete pits in the ground in the steaming sun for spectators to watch- that is what is ripping these animals away from their natural habitats. Not to mention the already endangered state of many of the species involved. Teaching others about conservation of everything, from water to endangered species, was by far the most emotional, important, and rewarding part of my internship.
All the animals I got the chance to work with this summer had different personalities. To get to see their daily lives and to learn how to carry out tasks around certain animals caused me to gain respect for all they had been through before making it to the sanctuary. Before this internship I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do once I complete undergrad and veterinary school. I still want to focus on small and companion animal care and hopefully own a clinic someday, however after veterinary school I want to specialize in zoology. With this specialization I hope to land a spot as an emergency veterinarian for a sanctuary somewhere, this way I can still run a small animal clinic. In addition to this I want to find a local animal shelter where I can volunteer to do triage and possibly serve on the board. Eventually I hope my degree, DVM, and specialization will allow me to travel and give me the opportunity to speak and continue to educate others about conservation as it is such an important topic.
Though my internship wasn’t particularly in an agriculture-related area, I am still so happy to share the values I learned with my sisters in Sigma Alpha and all those reading. While the agricultural industry is an important part of my life I am very glad that I branched out and tried something new and highly encourage others to find something that makes them “do good” in this world, too. If you read this and found yourself interested in helping out this sanctuary, you can find more info at bigcat.org!