Falling asleep while listening to lions roar, waking up within reach of a giraffe and riding high atop an elephant was all part of an exotic learning experience for Chelsea Lee.
The 21-year-old Minot woman returned home early last week following three weeks of volunteer work and hands-on learning at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center in South Africa.
Lee works as a part-time zookeeper at Minot's Roosevelt Park Zoo, a position she has held for three years. She enjoys birds and animals, particularly raptors and big cats. While in South Africa she got plenty of exposure to the latter where big cats are often subject to trapping to poaching.
Submitted Photo • Chelsea Lee and cheetah at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center in South Africa.
"Their main focus is cheetahs, trying to release some of them back into the wild," said Lee. "A lot of the cats at HESC are still wild. Some are there because they were caught in a trap or something. Sometimes they'll raise cubs at the center, but they keep them wild so they can release them and help get the numbers up."
Lee describes the center as "obviously an enclosure but more of a wild habitat." In addition to caring for injured cats, the center focuses on educating the public about the problems created by poaching.
"They bring in school groups and teach the kids not to poach," said Lee. "The hope is that they'll learn about cheetahs so they'll tell their parents all about it. There is a lot of poaching in South Africa, mainly rhinos."
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Rhinos are considered dangerous game, one of Africa's famed "Big 5." The other four species lion, cape buffalo, leopard and elephant can all be found in South Africa.
"One morning we went on an elephant safari," said Lee. "It was really cool."
Among the highlites of Lee's time in South Africa was encountering two male cheetahs that had just taken down an impala and were feeding on it. One evening she witnessed hyenas finishing off a zebra carcass.
"We stayed in huts, a lot like camping. When you got up the birds were singing to you," said Lee. "We had campfires before we went to bed and cooked outside on a fire stove. One morning we woke up and there was a giraffe just hanging out and eating leaves. We could have reached out and touched him. One day we took a cheetah to the vet. We went to rural communities and schools. They do a lot with conservation. It makes you want to do more."
Prior to her experience in South Africa, Lee attended Cat Tales zookeeper school in Spokane, Wash. Cat Tales is billed as the only school of its kind to teach students all aspects of zookeeping. It was there that Lee was able to do hands-on work with animals, especially big cats.
"Many of them were purchased by people as pets and they realized it doesn't work that way. Sometimes they actually had to take them from people," said Lee. "I really want to work with big cats. That's kind of my thing. I like raptors, hawks and eagles, too."
In Minot Lee is staying busy at Roosevelt Park Zoo. The zoo remains closed due the flood of 2011. The animals are being cared for at other facilities. The daily work now is mostly cleaning up and getting everything ready for when the animals can return. When they do, Lee will be more prepared than ever to help with their care.