TRU student travels to South Africa to work with cheetahs

TRU biology major Brittney Hein given the chance to work with exotic animals through Loop Abroad

While the Feracare Wildlife Centre specializes in cheetahs, they are a safe haven for many animals including zebras, giraffes and even ostriches. (Submitted)

There likely aren’t too many students here at TRU who can say that they’ve seen a cheetah. There are probably even fewer that can say that they’ve fed one, but Brittney Hein, a first-year biology major in TRU’s science program, is one of them.

Hein, who describes herself as an animal lover, has always been interested in the field of animal health. As such, volunteering to work with animals is simply something that made sense to her.

“I was really interested in doing a career in medicine and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do people or animals. I really love animals, so I decided to go with animals,” she said. “I also find animals more interesting and you get more of a variety, you can do so much and work with so many different kinds of species.”

Earlier this summer, Hein signed up with study-abroad organization Loop Abroad to travel to South Africa and volunteer at the Feracare Wildlife Centre. There, Hein and a small group of other students cared for cheetahs, as well as other African wildlife.

While Hein’s trip to South Africa is her most recent adventure with this veterinary-focused study-abroad organization, it isn’t her first. Last year Hein travelled to Thailand to work with both elephants at a nature park, as well as dogs at an animal rescue shelter.

“I travelled with them last year as well,” she said. “I went to Thailand with them and volunteered at the animal nature park and the ARK (Animal Rescue Kingdom) dog shelter for two weeks. That was really cool, we got to help with some neuters and spays and help do treatments on the dogs there.”

Hein enjoyed her stay in Thailand so much that after she came back home she immediately followed Loop Abroad on Facebook and kept an eye out for future opportunities. When she saw the opening for a program in South Africa, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

At the Feracare Wildlife Centre, Hein’s time was split between caring for the animals and lectures on conservation rules, knowledge, animal anatomy, animal behaviour and animal welfare.

Hein and her fellow volunteers also performed enrichment projects on Feracare’s various animals, as well as performing genetic testing on the cheetahs, something the wildlife centre specializes in.

“We got to help with some cheetah genetic testing. Feracare is required to do it yearly because they need to make sure they aren’t taking cheetahs from the wild, it’s their regulations,” Hein said. “They are trying to maintain the cheetah population because farmers kill them off. They are trying to educate the farmers around South Africa that they can call places to rescue cheetahs instead of just killing them.”

Here, Hein is seen feeding a cheetah. Hein says in order to feed the big cats you must walk to them with your arm behind your back. Then you get the cheetah to sit and look away. Finally, you put the bowl down and back away. (Submitted)

While most people would be scared to be around big cats, Hein marked the experience as “surreal.”

“We got to go in the enclosures and feed them. Because they are wild, you have to be careful, you have to hold your arm a certain way or they would attack you,” she said. “That was a really cool experience.”

Though Feracare specializes in the care and maintenance of South Africa’s cheetah population, they do have other big cats on site. Hein helped with one lion named Halo who was paralyzed after pinching a nerve in her spine.

While cheetahs and lions may seem intimidating, Hein says what she was most afraid of was in fact, poachers.

“It’s kind of scary being around with the lions because there are so many poachers in South Africa,” Hein said. “Kim, who runs Feracare, has bars set up all around her house, she has video surveillance all around her house and the lions are right beside the house because of the poachers.”

While in South Africa, Hein also went on a safari in Kruger National Park, one of her favourite parts of the trip. However, she adds that being able to work with veterinarians who work with African wildlife regularly was highly beneficial to her studies and a learning experience like no other.

Hein is even thinking about travelling with Loop Abroad next year.

“I really enjoyed it and I would do it again,” she said. “I’m really interested in their Galapagos Island one.”

Unique among study-abroad organizations, Loop Abroad brings students who love animals on adventures to exotic locales to see the world and experience animal care and conservation in a new way. Started by Addam and Jane Stine in 2009, Loop Abroad has since expanded to offer multiple two-week programs and even an entire 14-week veterinary semester abroad.

If you yourself are interested in taking a trip with Loop Abroad or want to learn more about the organization, you can visit them on their site at https://www.loopabroad.com/.