In one of the photos from his summer internship, Izaiah Burgos ’24 kneels, his hand pressed against a chain link fence that separates him from some quite literal beasts of the wild—cheetahs, leopards, and pumas among them.
In another photo, creatures lay down, looking up at him inquisitively, while others feature animals standing on their hind legs, mouths pressed against his hand.
Some internships require students to learn software, file papers, or make phone calls.
Hand-feeding these majestic creatures was just one of the responsibilities Burgos was charged with during his five-week internship with ZA Cheetah Conservation Cheetah Experience in South Africa.
The facility is home to a variety of endangered and threatened species, including cheetahs, leopards, wolves, male non-breeding lions, African wildcats, meerkats, and even a Siberian tiger.
Its mission is to raise awareness of the vulnerability of South African species through educational experiences, while also ethically breeding cheetahs in captivity and releasing them into protected reserves.
“It was surreal,” said Burgos, who also prepared their food, cleaned enclosures, monitored camera traps, and did perimeter checks. “To be around them and care for them was rewarding and never felt like a chore, no matter how hard the work was. You fall in love with them so quickly. You learn their behaviors and come to know the animal.”
Cheetahs have always been his favorite animal, but he was also charmed by the leopards at the facility.
“They’re beautiful and always seem to be thinking through everything,” he said. “One of the leopards I’d train wouldn’t break eye contact with me while I was feeding her and leading her through the behaviors. It was humbling, to be in front of a predator and know I had its willful cooperation–a bond of sorts.”
For Burgos, a biology major, the experience was the culmination of a lifelong passion for animals he has pursued since coming to Randolph.
He stayed closer to home during the summer of 2022, completing an international externship with the National Geographic Society and The Nature Conservancy focused on marine conservation, while still making plans to head to South Africa before his senior year.
“Exploring the natural world, and the animals in it, was always a dream of mine,” said Burgos, who used a RISE grant to pay the fees associated with ZA Conservation’s internship program.
“Having the RISE grant means opportunities and learning,” he added. “Without RISE, I wouldn’t have been able to travel to Africa this year. I wouldn’t have been able to undertake a training project or learn how to care for such spectacular animals. I’m glad RISE is something I was able to use, but also that other students can also utilize this for any opportunities they want to pursue.”
Burgos is still deciding what his next steps will be after graduation. He eventually wants to pursue graduate school, but might work a few seasons as a wildlife technician or try to go abroad again.
His ultimate goal, though, is to continue what he started this summer in South Africa.
“There are amazing animals all over the world, but there’s something special about big cats,” he said. “I love working and being around them. I hope to work in both their care and their conservation someday.”Tags: biology, randolph innovative student experience, RISE grant, Vita Fall 2023