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Bethel Park graduate works with big cats in South Africa

By Katherine Mansfield staff Writer mansfield@observer-Reporter.Com 6 min read
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Courtesy of Emily Feliciano

Emily Feliciano has a hootin’ good time with a couple owls at Lory Park Animal and Owl Sanctuary in South Africa, where she spent two weeks in June caring for the animals and learning veterinary skills. Feliciano is a 2020 Bethel Park graduate studying pre-veterinary medicine at Ohio State University.

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Photos: Courtesy of Emily Feliciano

Nina the lemur befriends Emily Feliciano, a 2020 Bethel Park graduate who spent two weeks at South Africa’s Lory Park Animal and Owl Sanctuary in June. Feliciano organized the trip for her Ohio State University pre-veterinary classmates through the organization Loop Abroad.

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Courtesy of Emily Feliciano

In a trip filled with highlights, including learning South African history and seeing the big five on safari, petting a cheetah was the moment for Emily Feliciano, a Bethel Park grad and Ohio State University pre-veterinary student who spent two weeks this summer at Lory Park Animal and Owl Sanctuary in South Africa.

For Emily Feliciano, the highlight of a trip filled with highlights was working with big cats.

“I got to pet a cheetah,” said Feliciano, a 2020 Bethel Park High School graduate who is studying animal sciences as part of pre-veterinary undergrad at Ohio State University. “It’s pretty cool.”

Feliciano and several OSU classmates returned June 25 from two weeks in South Africa, where they learned and honed veterinary skills at Lory Park Animal and Owl Sanctuary, thanks to an opportunity through the study abroad organization Loop Abroad.

“I heard about them in high school, because they do high school programs, and I actually saved up all throughout high school to go on my first trip, which ended up being in Panama two years ago. And I loved it,” said Feliciano. “It was so awesome getting to work with wildlife over in the rainforest and then also at an exotics clinic.”

Loop Abroad alum are invited to organize their own trips, and for the last two years Feliciano has arranged private trips for Ohio State University students. Last year, she planned a trip to Thailand, which she didn’t attend, and also organized the two-week South Africa excursion.

“It’s really important to just get the hands-on experience, but also to get the world experience,” she said.

During their stay at the sanctuary, OSU students had the opportunity to work with big cats, including lions, tigers and jaguars, and shadow veterinarians as they administered vaccines.

“It was really exciting because we got to go behind the scenes while they were darting the cats,” Feliciano said, explaining that to reduce stress in the animals, vets used dart guns to shoot vaccines into the cats. “I got to go behind the scenes and there’s a tiger roaring in my face and I’m just like, oh, my gosh, this is insane. It was so exciting and my heart was racing. I was like, I can’t wait to do this one day.”

She and her classmates also worked with primates, like lemurs, and reptiles, and practiced clinical skills, including drawing blood, which offered important hands-on learning to many OSU students.

“There were a lot of other students who had never drawn blood before, or just get to watch at their clinics even though they’ve been there for years. We even had one of the students on my trip who was like, ‘I realized I don’t want to be a vet.’ And that’s really important to find out before you pay $200,000 to be a vet,” Feliciano laughed.

The Lory Park facilities were nice, Feliciano said, but working with animals abroad opened her eyes to the differences between U.S. and oversees zoos and sanctuaries. Unlike most U.S. zoos and sanctuaries, many of which are government funded, Loop Abroad tuition and other grants and donations keep Lory Park Animal and Owl Sanctuary open and staff salaries covered.

“They have a lot less to work with, they just have to be creative,” Feliciano said. “My clinic, we just send fecal samples to a lab, they test it, they give us the results. We had to do the fecal test by hand over in South Africa and I was like, wow, this is an important skill and something I’m going to learn in vet school, but we never do this anymore because most clinics just send it out nowadays.”

OSU students and students from around the globe spent their mornings working with animals and their afternoons sitting in on lectures by Lory Park staff and world-renowned veterinarians.

“A lecture I really liked was reptile care. We got to learn about, what are the biggest diseases that affect reptiles, how can we prevent that? A lot of it has to do with husbandry, and then just, you know, basic techniques, like how do we restrain a reptile, how do we draw blood from a reptile?” Feliciano said.

She also enjoyed lectures on big cat care, she said, and learning about vets’ experiences outside of lectures.

“It’s really nice because on these trips you also get to network,” Feliciano said.

While the trip was all about learning, working and connecting, Feliciano and her group did have the chance to explore South African history and cuisine – Feliciano described bobotie, a minced meat, curry and egg-topped dish, as South African shepherd’s pie – and go on safari, where they saw the big five: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and African buffalo.

“I was not expecting to see (the big five) at all,” she smiled.

The best part of the trip was, of course, working with the animals.

“I just love animals. I always did. I couldn’t really see myself being a human doctor, so then I reached out to (A Step Up Veterinary Clinic) and was like, can I shadow you guys? I ended up really loving it. This is what I’m going to do,” said Feliciano, who has worked at the clinic for five years.

After completing undergrad at OSU, she’s hoping to be accepted into veterinary school – it’s a competitive process, and school is an additional four years – and then Feliciano has her sights set on opening her own practice or serving as a travel vet, an aspiration inspired by her time with animals in other countries.

Or both.

“I’ve seen underserved communities that don’t have access to veterinary care. To me, it’s like really fulfilling to be able to help those communities. Yeah, you can do that in America, and I do plan to, through shelter medicine, but there’s just something so different about being able to go to a remote village and give (animals) veterinary care that they might not have access to for a long time. I just really like being able to give back,” Feliciano said.

“I always knew I wanted to help animals, but I also wanted to help people. Being a vet you … get to help people too, during sometimes some of their worst days. It’s just really nice to be there both for your pets and for people.”

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