I found African Conservation Experience incredibly helpful from the get-go. As a newly graduated vet, I wanted to travel to South Africa to work on the many species I was interested in. Upon researching all of the different organisations that supported veterinary projects out there, I just loved the freedom that ACE provided when designing my very own experience. When they described over the phone to me the Shimongwe Veterinary Experience, I loved how it sounded geared more towards a graduated vet, rather than a student, and provided hands-on experience. I was incredibly grateful they provided me with all of the details of a project that really met my needs and what I was looking for.
So I jumped on the plane! I travelled alone and didn’t know anyone here, but I couldn’t have been happier with what I had and all the people greeting me. All of the other vet students, nurses, and graduated vets I met on the experience were such special people and it was so lovely to meet like-minded people from different corners of the earth. It was so much fun comparing the university experiences we’ve all had, the teaching experiences we’ve had, and where some people had time in practice, the knowledge that also came from that. We all benefited enormously from each other, learnt so much from one another, and hopefully will stay lifelong friends.
One of my very special experiences was with a Nyala, a type of antelope, which I had never heard of until I came to South Africa! They’re beautiful. They’re also unique because the bull and the ewe are so distinctly different in their appearance. One morning, we were doing game capture to relocate these Nyalas, as there were too many bulls in this one reserve, and the vet darted this bull – but he had gone! The sedation takes time as it’s intramuscularly, so it’s not an immediate effect. So during this time of the drug taking effect, the bull had gone into the deep, deep bush, so we had to find him quickly, as you want to reverse these sedatives as swiftly as possible, to minimise any negative effects. So the whole team of us, the volunteers, the vets, and everyone on the farm, created a line and moved parallel through the bush to find this Nyala. And it was deep bush! You had to go down onto your hands and knees at some points to get through. I was very lucky, though. I was the second person to find the Nyala bull, after the vet himself who had been dragging him through the bush as he was now fully sedated, and had been doing so for over five minutes. He was naturally exhausted, so I had the privilege of taking over! As tiring as it was, it was an amazing experience. I helped to take this bull out and onto the tracks where, after a few moments, he groggily got onto his feet and I led him by the antlers back to the trailer. We quickly treated the dark wounds and gave him parasite treatments, then reversed him and off he went in the trailer to his new home.
In my second placement at The Rhino Orphanage, I was immensely lucky and happened to be at the orphanage when none other than the Supervet himself, Noel Fitzpatrick, was coming to assess two of the rhino orphans who had orthopaedic issues and to see if he could contribute any of his own knowledge for the treatment of them.
As a vet myself and having grown up watching the Supervet, you can only imagine the excitement when I heard that I could be involved in this! The experience did not let us down. It was incredible. Noel himself was terrific and he very much involved all of the vet students and graduated vets who were there at the time. We were involved in helping with the anaesthesia, in particular to Impi, who is a young, one-year-old rhino. She suffered a lion attack to her right stifle at a very young age and has had serious orthopaedic issues ever since. So Noel assessed the brace that the company ani-motion developed for Impi, and the second rhino he assessed was Kolisi, a three-year-old male rhino, much older and larger, who had also had an attack when he was very young, from hyena. They tore off a piece of his right ear and damaged his right hindlimb, causing him extensive further damage to his phalanges, his digits. It resulted in his leg being six centimetres shorter than the other, which had secondary effects on his spine and caused sclerosis because of the asymmetry of his movements. Again, I was lucky and was involved in the radiographs, and then Noel took us aside and talked us through all of the x-rays and radiographs individually. Then, at the end of the day, lovely Jesse, The Rhino Orphanage’s dog, was assessed because she had a slightly abnormal gait. Being a 15-year-old German Shepherd, you do worry about underlying orthopaedic issues, so she was worked on at the clinic in Bela Bela and we were again, involved in positioning her for the epidural injections she had into her lumbosacral joint for her degenerative lumbosacral stenosis that had been diagnosed. Again, we got to assess all of the radiographs with Noel for cranial cruciate ligament disease. It was so, so special, and my timing was just incredible and both the orphanage and Noel were amazing throughout.
I’ve gained lots through this experience, and probably most importantly is the hands-on knowledge and understanding of how veterinary practices perform out in South Africa, and the difference with the different species. We all know that one species is not the same as the other – the drugs that are used, their metabolisms, even their characters are so different – but it’s been great for me as a graduate vet to gain more practical experience, as you are still very much in the learning phase. To go on a day of pregnancy diagnosing 150 cattle… that is just so much more hands-on experience which was immensely helpful, and I’ve loved every second of it. I’ve also gained experience of the culture – this was something I thought was really unique to the Shimongwe Veterinary Experience. We were taken to these amazing game lodges and beautiful farms – places you wouldn’t know to go to, and this insider knowledge really immersed me in South African culture.
The cherry on top is that this adventure doesn’t end here. Noel Fitzpatrick was very kind to us - not only with his time on the days working, but he has also given us his contact details and been really supportive of us getting in touch to gain experience in practice with him. And even though I don’t currently plan on heading into small animals and orthopaedics, such is his specialism, it will be the most incredible experience to go and spend a few days at his practice. I would hope I could do that this autumn, before I start a job myself, so fingers crossed I will be able to shadow him in his own referral clinic and gain more experience in surgery.