Besides the initial shock of lions, cheetahs, jackals, and other wildlife, most people questioned why my first trip out of the United States would be to South Africa and why a marketing student was volunteering at a big cat sanctuary.
GoEco was the perfect opportunity to check an item off of my bucket list at the age of 21, regardless of my lack of previous travel and current career path. From my youth it was my dream to live alongside big cats, and as I grew older I felt a passion to work on conservation through a business lens. This trip gave me hands-on experience with wildlife that not many others can claim. A cousin of mine had volunteered in humanitarian efforts in South Africa the summer previous to my trip and told me of his worldly experience through GoEco.org. His experience led me to the website and, of course, to the filter of ‘wildlife’ projects. Out of them all, I chose the Wild Cat Sanctuary project in Kimberley, South Africa.
Daily activities included chores like feeding and cleaning, building, and spending quality time with the animals. The project we were most focused on during my stay was building an enclosure for the capuchin monkey Bobby who had just been taken in days before. He had been held as a pet previously and attacked by a dog, surrendered to a rescue organization, and relocated to the sanctuary.
The biggest shock for me was when one volunteer mentioned that we had the opportunity to spend the night with a cheetah—Zena was rescued from a family who kept her as a pet and therefore she is unable to regulate her own body temperature. At night, she either sleeps with the project leaders or two volunteers. Sleeping with Zena was like sleeping with a dog-sized cat; she purred, cuddled, and gave kisses. Although it was amazing being with her, it was sad to think that the whole reason why we had the chance was because she was taken from the wild.
We also were able to go in with two lions, Tao and Alex, with supervision from the project leaders. Almost all of the lions at the centre were rescued from canned hunting and captive breeding with no chance of being safely reintroduced to the wild. Alex and Tao were playful, magnificent creatures who enjoyed lazing around until being fed or played with.
In the end, I had accomplished my goal of spending time with lions and cheetahs, along with jackals, bat-eared foxed, capuchin monkeys, servals, caracals, and a wild African cat. I also met people from all over the world who taught me different aspects of their cultures, shared personal stories of their homes, and ultimately became friends of mine. If I could go back, the only thing I would change would be the amount of time I stayed for—two weeks was fun, but I could have stayed forever.