By Sue Moore
Seven students from the Kalamazoo RESA Veterinary Science class at Vicksburg High School learned what it’s like to work with wildlife when they traveled to South Africa this summer. Their job was to be extra hands with wildlife veterinarians and explore what it is like to work with different animals than those they see in this country, said their teacher, Dr. Noreen “Noni” Heikes.
“This trip was all student driven,” Heikes explained. “They asked for a major trip early in the fall of 2017. The students wanted to work with elephants, big cats and rhinos. That’s what focused them on going to South Africa.”
For 12 days, the students lived on a game preserve of more than 90,000 acres. They traveled and worked on various game preserves in the area. They arrived at Boulders Game Ranch in Hoedspruit, South Africa on August 6 and left on the 17th.
The land is not of much use for farming. It’s rocky, and not fit for cattle as few grasses grow in the arid soil. Ranch owners found that people would pay to come and hunt or just view wildlife, so they enclosed their acreage with 10-foot-high electrified fences to keep the wildlife in and the poachers out beginning in the 1950s in South Africa, Heikes said.
“The animals on these preserves are managed fairly intensively and taken care of by local veterinarians. Ours, Dr. Rita Piso, has her own practice and is a graduate of the University of Pretoria, South Africa. She was charismatic, very smart and so good to us,” Heikes said. The South Africa coordinator, Jessica Osmers, would drive the students to meet Rita, who had a plan for each day to capture and treat various animals. She was accurate and fast with the dart gun, a dead-on shot as to where to have the dart land to bring the animal down. Just to show how good she was, a landowner tried his hand and darted a couple of trees in the process,” Heikes said with a chuckle.
The students from Vicksburg included Hannah Flickinger and Summer Painter. Since the vet science class is open to students from the nine school districts in Kalamazoo County, the other travelers included Brooklyn Joslyn from Portage Central, Chloe O’Neal from Galesburg-Augusta, Kaitlyn Spellicy and James Porter from Gull Lake. All but James were seniors last year. James graduated several years ago but was quick to sign up to go when a place opened up. Three of the students are planning on a career in veterinary medicine, one in conservation biology and another in the natural sciences. One is undecided.
“Our meals were provided, and the owners of the ranch spoiled us completely rotten,” Heikes said. “Our rooms were cleaned each day, beds made, our laundry done and folded. We didn’t even have to clean up after dinner.” A typical day for the students would be breakfast with fresh muffins, pack a lunch, get in a van driven by Jessica, the guide, to meet Rita for a day of treating animals. She would lead a discussion, do health checks and even show the students how to shoot a dart gun. Heikes would return with the students at night and write of the day’s activities in her blog so families back home could then track their experiences at https://vetsciza18.blogspot.com.
Although the students from the Vicksburg class were younger than the usual ones coming to the ranch to work and learn, Heikes reported that Jessica said they were the best group she had ever had.
Besides learning about wildlife treatments, Heikes said they learned a lot about themselves and the real world.