Right now Starkville resident and Mississippi State University student Jake Read is just outside of Port Elizabeth, South Africa providing care to tiger and lion cubs.
His unique opportunity to take a two-week trip to the country was provided through GoEco, a volunteer organization established in 2005.
The organization frequently gives people the chance to travel to countries such as Thailand, Costa Rica and Zimbabwe to volunteer their services on various projects ranging from teaching to animal rehabilitation.
The animals Read is working with are located in Seaview Lion Park.
Read, a junior majoring in biological sciences at MSU, said he was informed about the opportunity through an email from his adviser. Once he read that message, he said, he immediately began planning for a trip.
He is on the second week of his trip and said being in South Africa has been a life-changing and memorable experience.
“South Africa is an amazing country. There’s so much to do and so many opportunities. There are volunteers all over the place doing awesome things here so it’s a great country to come to,” Read said. Getting to handle lions and tiger cubs is an opportunity you don’t get much. We have three hours each day where we go cage to cage and we just play with them.”
Read, who is planning on applying for medical school after he graduates from MSU, is also getting to interact with other native animals such as servals, caracals and hyenas.
He said a typical day at the park usually begins at 7 a.m., when volunteers start feeding the animals.
“We get up … feed the animals and clean their enclosures, and walk tiger and lion cubs. After that it’s project time, where we do anything that needs to be done around the park from changing enclosures to maintenance work. We’ll do that until lunch. After lunch is animal time where we go play with the animals and do that until 5 (p.m.) when it’s feeding time again,” Read said. “Anytime during the day people come view the animals walking through the sanctuary. People can pay to go in with the cubs and we do handlings and show them around how to act with the cubs.”
As Read was first arriving at Seaview, another MSU student was serving the last days of her own volunteering stint there. Ashley Reeves, a junior pre-veterinary major, was there from July 23 through Aug. 6. She said feeding the lions and tigers was one of the highlights of the trip.
“I would cut meat for the bigger lions. Being a butcher for two weeks was interesting,” Reeves said. “I got to help medicate baby tigers … and got to be face to face with huge tigers.”
Reeves also spent time with children in the Port Elizabeth area during her experience.
“Every Wednesday we would take a trip with volunteers to the middle of the city and worked with underprivileged kids who are orphaned or whose parents can’t afford to send them to school,” Reeves said. “They sang to us and read Bible verses. They were really friendly and it was a great experience meeting them.”
Read and Reeves also got a chance to bungee jump off the tallest bridge in the world. The Bloukrans River bridge is 216 meters (708.7 feet) tall.
“Jumping off the bridge was scary but awesome. Looking down was very frightful but there were ladies doing it too so I couldn’t be sacred. I had to jump,” Read said.
Both students described the experience as rewarding. Reeves said she is hoping to be able to save enough money to go again next year.
“South Africa was completely different than what I thought. You do really do feel like you’re at home. Everybody I talked to there felt like they were at home and loved it. (Taking care of the cubs) was hard work, but it’s more satisfying than anything because we were doing it for the animals. You can’t go interact with animals like that at a zoo,” Reeves said. “The people you meet are really great. If you go there you will fall in love with it and you want to stay. I didn’t want to come back home.”
“Interacting with the animals has been awesome. I’ve enjoyed getting to go in an enclosure and play with tigers like a regular old pet,” Read said. “Just seeing South Africa alone has been a rewarding experience.”