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Students and Animals Commune in Central America

Providing free veterinary services for animals in Belize.  Observing nocturnal animals in a zoo in the middle of the night. Snorkeling at night to see eel close-up and personal. Visiting a baboon sanctuary and ancient Mayan ruins. That was all part of the week-long adventure for 14 students in the “Wildlife Conservation and Veterinary Medicine in Belize” course, this past spring.

The students got a hands-on, once-in-a lifetime experience exploring the culture and wildlife of Belize, under the tutelage of Veterinary Technology Professors Dan Young, D.V.M. and Erin Spencer, C.V.T.

The trip, now in its fourth year, is a mutually-beneficial experience, says Dr. Young, who has put together, with the help of the Center for Engaged Learning Abroad (CELA) in Belize, an intensive visit that introduces Vet Tech students to the country and culture of Belize, the wildlife and the conservation efforts being undertaken there, and the practice of veterinary medicine in this Central American country.

After departing Mount Ida at 2 AM (yes, the middle of the night!) and arriving midday in Belize, the group settled in at the Tropical Education Center, their home for the first two days. “We have an orientation session, a siesta and dinner, and then it’s off to the Belize Zoo for a nighttime tour,” says Professor Spencer. The Zoo is comprised of 29 acres of tropical savanna and over 170 animals, representing over 45 species, all native to Belize.

“Most of the animals at the Zoo are rescued animals not suitable for reintroduction to the wild,” says Young.

Then, with a few hours of sleep and an adjustment to local time, the students went on a day tour of the zoo and met the founder, Sharon Matola. “She is an inspirational presence,” says Young. “Not only does she run the zoo, but she’s embarking on a fundraiser to buy land around the zoo to create a buffer zone for the animals and expand the Central Wildlife Corridor in Belize. She is a strong advocate for the conservation of wild animals and their habitats in Belize.”

The next day, it was off to San Ignacio, stopping along the way to trek through the jungle to visit the Community Baboon Sanctuary, a howler monkey refuge. The private landowners have agreed to preserve parts of their land along the area waterways so the monkeys can live in a protected area. “The refuge is a model for conservation, combining the needs of the animals and land owners while creating a source of eco-tourism and boosting the local economy,” says Young. “At times the monkeys were a mere 10 feet from the students. They’ve gotten used to visitors.”

Once in San Ignacio, the group met with Belizean veterinary professionals to plan the next day’s Animal Health Clinic, in which the Vet Tech student team would set up shop to administer wellness services to animals in the local Mayan village of San Antonio. These services, provided free of charge, included spay and neuter surgeries, vaccinations, treatments for external and internal parasites, vitamin injections, and general health examinations.

“Students are always impressed with the numbers of people who turn up for this health care,” says Young. “It’s a good learning experience for them to see that, even though the animals they treat in Belize may not be as well off as those in this country, the people of Belize want to do for them what they can. For some, it may come down to a choice between helping their pet or feeding their children,” he tells his students. “It’s an excellent way for our students to learn to understand and respect other cultures.”

Professor Spencer adds, “I’ve been impressed with the comments I hear from our students after the clinic. The students exhibit their learning through the rest of their trip as they speak about the local animals. ”

The next day the bus left for the Mayan ruins of Caracol, near the border of Guatemala. Tour groups into the area are accompanied by a military guard, and the journey into the jungle started uneventfully. Upon arrival, however, the clutch went out in the tour bus, stranding the group at the archaeological site. The tour guide radioed San Ignacio (no cell phone signal in the jungle!) to send a team of mechanics and a replacement bus on the three-hour trip to Caracol to pick the group up after their day in the ruins. The students returned none the worse for wear.

The following day was filled with more veterinary medical procedures, many of which would not be performed by veterinary technology students in the United States. “We vaccinated a herd of cattle and a flock of sheep, castrated several bulls, and did surgery on a horse. The students said it was a highlight for them,” said Young.

The last days in Belize were spent at the Tobacco Caye Marine Station on an island off the coast, where students learned how to snorkel both during the day and at night. “They saw the moray eel that are the Stars of Night Snorkeling, an octopus, squid, crabs, conch, sea urchins, and a plethora of tropical fish species while exploring the Mesoamerican Reef (the largest coral barrier reef in the western hemisphere)”, reports Dr. Young.

Then it was time to head back to the Tropical Education Center and prepare for the trip home.

“It is a wonderful experience on so many levels,” says Young. “ The most important aspect of the time spent in Belize, however, is the opportunity the trip provides students to experience the richness and diversity of a culture not their own, to gain an understanding and appreciation for those whose lives are at once very different and not so different at all from their own, and to learn the importance of using their skills and talents in service to do good in the world.” And be assured that the service these groups provide is greatly appreciated by the people and animals of Belize!

Professor Spencer adds, “The students on these trips are great representatives of the Mount Ida College community. They are inquisitive, appreciative, respectful, and friendly to all they encounter. This is a great way to spend a Spring Break!