Wildlife Medicine & Conservation Program in Belize!

This is a guest post by Price Dickson, a first-year veterinary student at the University of Illinois. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or comment below with any questions.

Price-Dickson-veterinary-student-Belize-crocodileI participated in the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic’s Wildlife Medicine and Conservation Program this past January. The program is taught by Dr. Isabel Paquet-Durand, a veterinarian who started the clinic as the country’s only animal hospital for native wildlife.

The program is well-rounded in the types of animals you get to interact with, as the clinic sees a wide range of pets and native wildlife. It also provides a great way to experience a side of the country tourists do not often get to see.

Daily Activities

The program provides a packed schedule. Clinic days usually begin early at the hospital, when we learned about their current patients. Students get to perform all the necessary treatments, with supervision as needed.

Each day tries to follow a theme with trips and labs being related to the major topic being covered: reptile medicine, conservation issues, wildlife capture and restraint, etc.

Information is presented in both lectures and interactive labs. The labs are sometimes activities to familiarize students with local wildlife, such as assessing x-rays or identifying species based on skeletons or photographs. Often they are opportunities to assist with performing clinical procedures such as necropsies, blood work, or parasite screenings on patients.

Morning treatments.

Morning treatments.

Everyone is able to participate in activities to their comfort level. I did a complete necropsy on a parrot and reported my findings, while students who had already been through surgery classes were given the opportunity to complete spays during the clinic’s spay and neuter day.

The schedule is subject to change based on the clinic’s caseload, but I wasn’t going to complain about a lecture being cut short due to a new patient’s arrival!

Field Trips

Most days include some kind of field trip. We visited and were given tours of the Belize Zoo, the Green Iguana Project, the Belize Bird Rescue, and the Community Baboon Sanctuary.

Cleaning shed skin off young iguana.

Cleaning shed skin off young iguana.

The day trips were very interactive, and the facility we were visiting usually had some kind of project that needed to be done. These ranged from moving wild parrots between enclosures to soaking shed skin off of baby iguanas.

There were trips to places that were less medically relevant as well, such as the Belize Botanical Gardens, which let us get out of the vet mindset and enjoy the real beauty of this country.

Our last two days were spent on Ambergris Caye, a resort town with excellent beaches. Here we were able to go snorkeling, go on a crocodile spotting and tagging trip, and visit WildTracks Manatee and Primate Rescue.

The trips provided a really good overview of everything Belize has to see in terms of their native wildlife and the work being done to preserve it. They also provided opportunities for hands-on experience.

A recurring theme during the trip was the importance of working with local people to conserve wildlife. I learned nearly as much about Belizean culture, history, and livelihood as I did about medicine.

I learned lot about not only the challenges facing wildlife conservation in Belize, but also the challenges facing the people that live alongside these threatened and endangered species.

Belize-wildlife-veterinary-tamadua-skeleton

Tamadua skeleton.

Logistics

This is a good trip for inexperienced travelers. All of the housing and transport between activities is included; as soon as you get in the country you are taken care of. The accommodations are dorm-style and are located in Santa Elena. This is a residential area a short walk across the river from San Ignacio, which is the more commercial town with stores and restaurants.

The towns are in rural Belize near the border with Guatemala, so you’re far from the typical tourist traps. Evenings are considered free time. We were free to either cook dinner with food from the local fresh market or one of the small dry-goods grocers in town, or go out to dinner at a local restaurant and explore the area.

The food was amazing, with a large amount of fresh fruit available at all times and plenty of unique local dishes. (Be sure to ask about the difference between beans and rice, and rice and beans!) The official language of the country is English (although many locals speak Kriol at home) so communication is never a problem.

All of the people I met there were friendly and inviting. The driver became our guide and part of the group, and he was with us for our whole time in Belize. The people working in the rescues and zoo were very welcoming and accommodating, and there were plenty of opportunities to ask questions and have in-depth conversations about issues in Belizean wildlife conservation. By the time we left, we all considered the people we were working with to be friends.

Costs

Probably the only downside to this trip was the cost. The whole program cost me around three thousand dollars, including airfare and evening meals. I spent ten days there, but they do offer longer programs during the summer that are more cost-effective. Every rescue visited is paid for their time, which helps fund the work of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife. The Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC) itself is partially funded by this course.

So while expensive, the program helps to maintain the wildlife of the most pristine forests in Central America. Organized directly through BWRC, there is no middle-man or internship planning service to pay; all of the money goes directly to the people working to rehabilitate Belizean wildlife.

If you want to see just about everything Belize has to offer, gain some valuable experience working with tropical wildlife at a non-profit animal hospital, and also help to fund the tireless efforts of people working to preserve the country’s natural resources, this is an excellent experience.

Applying is easy, and the deadlines are clearly marked on the BWRC website. You’ll also find a really good summary of the planned activities for each course session. Justin Ford (the course coordinator) is easy to contact by e-mail and is happy to answer any questions.

Elliott here again: Thanks very much to Price for sharing about her experience in Belize! I’ve been a fan of the BWRC on Facebook for a long time. I know that it can be tough to make decisions about which programs to apply for and how much to spend, so I think these personal accounts are really helpful. Please get in touch if you would like to write a guest post about an experience you’ve had.

So what do you think? Does this sound like a worthwhile program for veterinary students?

Have any of you participated in something similar elsewhere in Central America or around the world?

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10 Responses to “Wildlife Medicine & Conservation Program in Belize!”

  1. daninicole14 April 9, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

    I will be participating in the Wildlife and Conservation course this summer as well. After reading about your experience, I am more excited than ever about this course!
    Thank you for sharing your experiences!

    • Elliott April 11, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

      That’s so cool that you’re going to Belize too! Do you get a full summer off at SGU?

      • Daninicole14 April 25, 2014 at 12:56 am #

        We sure do! We have the same sort of breaks as the US schools minus an actual spring break (and I’m not sure if vet schools get a spring break).
        Yes definitely looking forward to Belize. I’m taking full advantage of our summers off!

  2. Miranda April 12, 2014 at 12:36 am #

    This sounds like a phenomenal experience, Price! Because this is possibly the only place I can admit to such things, I was salivating over those tamandua bones… so cool. What sorts of spays & neuters were performed at the clinic while you were there?

    • Price April 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

      Hi! We performed spays and neuters on local dogs and cats. Since the wildlife rehab is done entirely non-profit, there is one day a week devoted to surgery for local pets. It was a really good experience! You can do anything you know how to do, so I monitored surgery and put in catheters and gave drugs.

      • Ashley August 18, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

        This makes me so happy!! I did my internship in Belize for my Bachelors in Public Health for 3 months in 2007. There were so many dogs running around that we devised a future plan to go back with a neuter van and swoop them all up! Thank you for all that you did there! It is an amazing place with such a rich culture. I hope you got to travel the area while you were there as well 🙂

  3. Colleen May 23, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

    This is awesome!! I came across this while searching for wildlife rehabilitation programs I could do. I eventually decided on one at the Lilongwe Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Malawi, Africa which was completely worth it. But I’m happy to hear a first-hand experience, and I will definitely try to get there in the future!

    Also, Elliot I am loving this blog! I graduated last year from college and I am currently taking a year or two to travel and gain more experience before applying to vet school. One of the crippling factors to what I want to do with my degree was the debt, so I began researching my options. And your blog as well as the Veterinary Corps popped up!
    So thank you for giving me an amazing option to consider!
    Colleen

    • Colleen May 23, 2014 at 8:23 pm #

      Haha, I meant to also include the link to the Lilongwe Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. I would highly highly recommend volunteering there to anyone who wants experience with african wildlife, working with and educating both tourists and locals, and a wonderful time in a truly amazing country. I was there for 3 months and I wish I could have stayed longer.
      http://www.lilongwewildlife.org/

  4. Allison June 3, 2014 at 12:35 am #

    What an awesome experience! I really enjoy reading your blog. I am currently in a veterinary technician program. I am going to get my BS in biology after I am done with my current program, and will eventually apply to vet school. Do you have any advice for bettering your chances of acceptance or just general advice for an aspiring veterinarian?

  5. Brittany McCauslin August 22, 2014 at 2:34 am #

    Hi Price!

    It is so wonderful that you were able to experience BWRC! I participated during the summer of 2009, and found it to be a wonderful opportunity. The program was a bit different then (for example 4 weeks). Regardless, Dr. Paquet-Durand is so great, and I highly suggest this program.

    Thanks again, Elliott, for this blog.

    Brittany

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