On the opposite side of the world Wildlife Biology students strengthen love for their field

In December, a group of more than 20 Wildlife Biology students took a month-long trip to New Zealand where they discovered new species, explored foreign landscapes, and gained a renewed sense of purpose in their work

Between shifts in the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, community wildlife presentations, and training with animal ambassadors, experiential learning is deeply ingrained in the Wildlife Biology and Wildlife Rehabilitation programs. Through hands-on learning and firsthand experiences students can better understand the community and global impacts of wildlife biology and rehabilitation work and witness the difference these fields have on both animal populations and the environment.

Expanding that perspective for students is one of the goals of the Wildlife Biology and Wildlife Rehabilitation programs at Lees-McRae, and international travel is one of the key ways that goal is accomplished. Over the month of December, a group of more than 20 Bobcats in the Wildlife Biology program traveled across the world to New Zealand, where they spent a month absorbing the island nation’s culture, exploring the beautiful landscapes, and learning more about the animal kingdom and how to protect it.

“This is just such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, being able to see both islands and all these different places,” sophomore Ben Werner, who is earning a degree in Wildlife Biology with a concentration in Conservation, said. “It’s an amazing experience being able to go somewhere like that with an open mind, and learning so much about what they have to offer, and how people live their lives differently.”

Understanding the differences in species, landscapes, biomes, rehabilitation techniques, and social customs was the primary mission of the trip, but the similarities between the wildlife rehabilitation scene in New Zealand and here at Lees-McRae are what initially drew the program to travel there.

Biologically, New Zealand is particularly interesting because of its variety of endemic native species. Because of the nation’s isolation and relatively small size, protecting these species is extremely important, and is the primary rehabilitation goal throughout the country. The nation has very few native mammals (bats and marine mammals such as sea lions are the only species), but a plethora of native birds, making avian rehabilitation the primary focus of many rehabbers in the country.

The May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center sees hundreds of patients each year, and birds are consistently the Center’s number one species. In 2022 for instance, almost 60% of the Center’s patients were birds, and the majority of the Center’s animal ambassadors are birds of different species, including a crow, an owl, and two red-tailed hawks. This made New Zealand a perfect place for the future rehabbers of Lees-McRae to gain a greater understanding of different bird-related rehabilitation techniques.

Senior Wildlife Biology major Madalynn Learman is earning her concentration in Wildlife Rehabilitation, and her love of one particular bird species drew her to the trip: penguins.

“They have about six species, three on the mainland, and the other three are on various smaller islands off the north and south island. The numbers aren’t doing well, and they are also really different from each other. You have the smallest species there and the most endangered species there too,” Learman said. “We wanted to learn more about how they do things over there so that we could bring some of their techniques for wildlife rehabilitation back here. All across the world rehabilitators do things differently.”

In addition to picking up some new techniques, the students also gained a new perspective on their chosen field. The group traveled both the north and south islands, visiting countless rehabilitation centers, zoos, hatcheries, breeding facilities, and sanctuaries for endangered species. For many of them, getting a taste of rehabilitation techniques outside of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center reenforced the importance of this kind of work, and made them feel connected with a global community of wildlife biologists and rehabilitators who are just as passionate about their patients as the students are.

Noah Hughes, a junior Wildlife Biology major with a concentration in Wildlife Rehabilitation, is in his second semester of wildlife clinicals at the Center, and said he is eager to integrate new feeding techniques, cleaning methods, and teamwork strategies that he gained while on the trip into his shifts. Hughes’ most valuable lesson, however, may have been an emotional one.

“The trip reminded me why I want to do what I’m doing here at the wildlife center,” Hughes said. “Seeing how much love and care the rehabbers in New Zealand had for their animals and the way they kept their facilities really made me want to stay in the program, because you can really see how far you can go with that, and the differences they make for their ecosystems.”

Werner agreed that the global perspective he gained from the trip was just as important as the hands-on skills he learned and could not have been replicated in a classroom. Part of what made the experience particularly special, Hughes said, was being able to spend an entire month soaking in every element of the country, exploring the environment’s different biomes, and becoming acquainted with the different struggles New Zealand’s wildlife biologists face.

“This trip has just resolidified my passion for wildlife biology, and really made me care about it more by seeing a different environment, how people think about it differently, and all the new things you can experience still,” Werner said. “Having the opportunity to stay there for a month really gave us the opportunity to take things in, and really learn about it rather than just experiencing it and moving on.”

Travelling and experiencing diverse perspectives is one of the best ways to develop a richer global understanding of a given field of study. Each of the Wildlife Biology students who traveled to New Zealand gained immeasurable skills and learned countless practical techniques, but the understanding of a different culture and ecosystem, the experiences traversing a foreign landscape, the revitalized passion for conservation, and the strong bonds formed between peers were just as integral to their education as future wildlife biologists.

By Maya JarrellJanuary 22, 2024