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International Programs Student Trip Reports
In keeping with Texas A&M’s Vision 2020 objective of graduating students with a global perspective based on global experiences, the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences provides a limited number of travel stipends to students to help them gain international work/study experiences. The following travel reports give an overview of what our students learned while living, working, and studying abroad.
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Belize - Erin Binagia

I fell in love with the country of Belize after I twice traveled there for a tropical ecology research project during my Bachelors and Masters in Biology. Belize is absolutely beautiful, and with its lush rainforests, gushing waterfalls, and high species diversity, it is rightly nicknamed "Mother Nature's best kept secret."  During my trip, I visited the zoo of only native Belize animals, and I discovered that Belize has just one wildlife veterinarian in the entire country! From that moment, I knew that I wanted to come back to Belize as a vet student intern with that wildlife veterinarian. I thought it would be amazing to work with tapirs, kinkajous, and coatimundis, but never did I believe I was going to experience Belize in a whole new way.

As I was traveling from the Belize City airport, the air was so thick with smoke that it was difficult to breathe or even to see the road. My driver pointed out it was slash-and-burn farming: an old practice done by Belizeans during the dry season that had become out of control, but no one had the power to stop it. I wondered why the power was lacking. It seemed so simple just to outlaw the practice, but unfortunately nothing is ever easy. Belize's lush forests would provide a great source of income if used in a conservation-minded approach, but as a developing country full of poverty, there is a strong pressure for rapid economic development and with that comes growing pollution and government corruption. Belizeans and their government realize there is a need for conservation, but with limited finances and almost non-existent law enforcement, private organizations must step up to the plate to form "partnerships" and fill in the gap that the government simply cannot.  While it seems a lost cause, these organizations have an advantage: Belize had a late start in ecotourism, so the country is still covered by almost 70% of its native rainforest, and now they have the opportunity to be conscious of their environment and conserve it before they lose their forest and wildlife to tourism, deforestation, and gravel mining. Gaining their independence from Great Britain in 1981, 2/5 of Belize's new established laws are related to environment conservation, and these organizations are working diligently to "enforce the laws" and protect Belizean forests and wildlife.

The Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic is one of those non-profit organizations working towards conservation of Belize. Founded by Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand in 2011 in Central Farm, this clinic provides free 24 hour care for the country's wildlife. Dr. Isabelle works year round for grants and donations, and her diligence paid off after winning the Heska Inspiration in Action contest. With the award, she brought an x-ray machine and gas anesthesia to her clinic, which was once just a truck bed with basic medical equipment. Realizing that BWRC was now the only clinic in Belize with an x-ray machine and film developer in the same building, Dr. Isabelle opened her clinic to domestics as a referral clinic. Good-hearted Belizeans now travel from across the country to BWRC with orphaned, injured, and rescued wildlife, where they get free care and are later sent to rescue centers for rehabilitation and release.

As an intern, I was able to be very interactive with both wildlife and domestic animals along with their owners. Some days were quiet, where all I had to do was read articles or work on my internship assignment "collecting and identifying the ticks of Belize." Other days were full of emergencies: a green heron with broken leg flown in from the island of San Pedro, an anteater with head trauma, a magnificent frigate bird with a wing fracture, and many hit-by-car dogs. We had many orphaned patients due the fires from Belizean farming, including a young howler monkey and spider monkey. I developed many new necessary skills when working in a small clinic in Belize, such as: developing radiographic film manually, radiographing anteaters without anesthesia, putting in IV catheters in howler monkeys, syringe-feeding baby hummingbirds, and catching and bathing green iguanas. Before my internship, I was not a big fan of birds, but after working with orphaned, injured, and rescued parrots and sea birds, I realized they are quite amazing to work with! An orphaned blue-grey tanager became my friend after we spent the weekend together with feedings every hour, and 3 baby white fronted parrots were very thankful for their rescue after I discovered their cages at a restaurant and reported them to Belize Forest Department. I did many necropsies on bird specimens, and those most memorable were a brown pelican and a Northern Potoo, a very rare bird that mimics a tree stump. Although BWRC offers a place for wildlife to come for medical help, some species like the Scarlett Macaw need help to go to them. The largest parrot species in Belize is nearly endangered, as breeding grounds were flooded after construction of a dam, and the only nests left in the Chiquibul forest are being poached every year by poor farmers from across the river in Guatemala. Dr. Isabelle has been partnering with the Belize Forest Department to offer protection. While local volunteers live in the forest for weeks guarding nests, she offers monthly "chick checks" to ensure the babies are well-fed and free of mites. The job is dangerous because the poachers in Guatemala are desperate for money, but it takes brave people like Dr. Isabelle and the volunteers to ensure there is no "last flight" of the Scarlett Macaw.

Conservation is not just about treating wildlife, but it also includes educating the country's people. I took the local bus every morning to get to the clinic, 4 miles away from my house (which was once a bar called "Snooty Fox" in Santa Elena), and there I would talk to the local Belizeans. Many times on my way to work, I listened to the locals talk in Creole and "brag" to me (the red-headed white girl) about their pet parrots, and right there on the bus seat I had the chance to bring education to local Belizeans on the laws of pet wildlife. The pet trade is a huge problem in Belize. While in most cases it seems wildlife would have a longer lifespan in captivity, it is opposite in Belize because the locals like to capture birds like red-lored and yellow-headed parrots, clip their wings, put them in very small cages in the hot sun, and feed them tortillas.  With this knowledge, it was no surprise when I learned that a pet parrot in Belize can have a life span as short as only 6 months! A Belizeans return to the forest for a new pet every six months, these birds are at risk for extinction. Once species, the yellow-headed parrots, are now endangered in Belize because they are the most wanted due to their talking abilities. After explaining the problems of pet parrots to locals, they looked at me as if I was going to steal their birds, but then I explained they could get a wildlife license for free, all they had to do was apply. I handed out pamphlets BWRC had made about "caring for your pet parrot," and most of them took it with an open mind. While Belizeans may not listen to a soapbox on "why you shouldn't own a parrot," the government is still making an impact by taking small steps by offering licenses so they can ensure good care, and BWRC is doing all they can to educate on proper care of these beautiful birds.

My 7 week internship in Belize was an experience that will never leave me. I had the great opportunity to truly see the "best kept secret" every day I was there: waking up to the grunt of a toucan in the morning, bird watching on a hike to the pre-release catch of an orphaned fox, snorkeling on the reef to see a manatee at Caye Caulker, and working with good-hearted Belizeans to help the wildlife of their country. This internship has opened my eyes to the hardships that the environment of a developing country can face, and I have witnessed the leaps people will take for their beliefs. My work with the wildlife, Dr. Isabelle and her interns, and the locals and has transformed my concept of wildlife medicine. I knew that the career path I have chosen has many opportunities, but this experience showed me that with the ability to heal animals and at the same time educate humans, veterinarians have the perfect role in the goal towards conservation.



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