Expanding Horizons Journal: Zack, Pt. 2

Zack with a Livestock Guard Dog Project puppy.

Zack with a Livestock Guard Dog Project puppy.

My name is Zachary Dvornicky-Raymond, I am a member of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s class of 2019. This is my second Expanding Horizons post. You can read my first post here.

Looking back on this summer, specifically to the very beginning, I realize that I had high aspirations for the outcome of my trip to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Otjiwarongo, Namibia. I am beyond pleased to write that my expectations were far exceeded. Seeing the research center and meeting the staff for the first time was fantastic. Although I had seen plenty of photos and read extensively about the work being done there, it paled in comparison to the reality. I quickly came to realize that the Livestock Guard Dog staff and the veterinarians were as excited for my project as I was, and that we had so much to teach each other. So we did.

Much of my time in the first few weeks was spent learning the ins and outs of the operations at CCF. I worked extensively with the veterinarians on all of the animals at the center, from big cats to guard dogs; from goat kids to horses. The Livestock Guard Dog manager and I spent hours together discussing the history of the program, the setbacks they had encountered, the improvements that have been made to the program, and what we needed to accomplish. It was a big task, but we were up to the challenge.

Zack performing a physical exam on a cheetah.

I can say confidently that we truly made a difference this summer, and that alone makes my experience worthwhile. I came in expecting to strictly find medical anomalies as the causes of infertility, but what I quickly realized is that we also had to make management adjustments and improve communication to truly benefit the program. We not only pinpointed the root of many of the medical problems that they were encountering, but through a collaborative effort, we created new protocols and improved means of managing the breeding colony that will have effects that far outlast this summer.

One of my favorite lessons from this experience was the role of a veterinarian within a team. All of the care provided to the animals (whether goats, dogs, or cheetahs) required collaboration between husbandry staff, veterinarians, and administration. As someone with some experience in canine reproduction, I often took on the role of an educator and spent much of my time guiding our approach based on communication between myself and the husbandry staff/management.

Even more importantly, I listened. The husbandry staff knew these animals more than anyone else at the center. Similarly, when I visited local farms where human-wildlife conflict was a true problem, my primary role was to listen and learn. By doing so, I had a much better idea of how to approach these issues than I would have if I had just gone in and tried to fix them alone. Even then, it took creativity and persistence to find answers and every person played a part, which was especially important when theory did not match practice.

This is perhaps the most important thing that I took from my experience: that any initiative in conservation, community outreach, conflict-remediation, or whatever the task may be, requires full buy-in, understanding, and effort from everyone involved. A program achieves the greatest success only through the combined expertise of the farmers, the researchers/staff, the management, and the veterinarians.

I had an incredible summer. I had a first-hand experience working in conservation; I worked and talked with local farmers to learn about their lives, experiences, and concerns; I observed, assisted with, and conducted veterinary procedures on numerous wild and domestic species; I learned about aspects of the veterinary medical profession that I had no idea even existed; and, as part of a team, produced results that will truly make a difference.

Zack with Firat, a trained Livestock Guard Dog.

Zack with Firat, a trained Livestock Guard Dog.

This is without a doubt the path that I will pursue as a lifelong career. I want to go into conservation medicine now more than ever and will do whatever it takes to do so. There are many problems that face the world and few of them can be easily solved, but I believe that many can be solved through collaboration and multifaceted approaches aimed at improving the lives of humans and animals together. I definitely grew this summer, and now have an appreciation for many things that I had no idea I would encounter. Thank you to the Expanding Horizons program, to Cornell University, to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and to everyone who supported me in making this trip possible. I look forward to my next three years in veterinary school, and to the long journey that follows thereafter.

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