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In the fall of 2019, while helping relocate a small seed population of giraffes to Uganda’s Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, I sprinted across the savannah with a crew of rangers, biologists, and other veterinarians to subdue a fifteen-hundred-pound semi-sedated giraffe. As the beautiful, graceful giant reached the ground, I moved in to administer a series of injections at the base of his neck. All around me, other members of the team were laser focused on their own jobs—covering the animal’s head to help calm him, injecting a reversal for the sedative, taking tissue samples, monitoring his heart rate, and securing a series of long lead lines that would help us guide the giraffe into a travel trailer. I’d watched the process once before, but this was my first hands-on participation, and I was mindful as I crouched down of the number one rule of giraffe wrangling: Stay away from the legs. A giraffe can kick with enough force to kill—and potentially decapitate—all but the hugest mammal. I glanced to my right, doing the math as I assessed his powerful body and all four legs. He was on his right side, not peaceful, but no longer wildly flailing. I turned my attention to the job at hand.
Seconds later, the giraffe struggled a bit. As I glanced up, I saw his right rear hoof—wide as a plate, dense as an anvil, and propelled by all the force this massive animal could muster—cannonballing toward my face. As I snapped my head back, my Ugandan adventure flashed by—how eager I’d been, how carefully I’d studied this process, how much this was gonna hurt (if I survived it). One second that hoof had been fifteen feet away; the next it was inches from my eyes.
Mercifully (because there was not a damn thing I could have done to stop it) the kick stopped just before crushing my head. My nerves reset, and I got back to work. After that, I reminded each person working in that general area that against all odds, a giraffe can reach you there.
This goes to show that no matter how much experience you have as a vet out in the wild, there’s always a learning curve, even if it gets a little less steep as time goes by.
My own learning curve to understanding and caring for wildlife started when I was just a kid. Growing up in Kansas, I spent my days flipping rocks in a creek, climbing trees, and constantly running my hands through leaves and dirt, always looking for wild animals in the woods near my house. I was hooked on the feeling of adventure, the sense that any minute could bring my next big find, and the fascination that came with each discovery. I guess I was easily amused back then, because even a giant earthworm sighting could make my day.
Over the years, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I developed a huge soft spot for creatures most of my peers found gross or scary. Spiders, lizards, snakes—the gnarlier, the better. I loved to study how they moved, to see what they ate, to understand how they sheltered and protected themselves. The more dangerous the creature, the closer I wanted to get to it.
* * *
The same boyhood passion that found me out in the woods every day after school led me to become a student of evolutionary and ecological biology. It gave me the ability to let excitement overrule any reservations as I traveled farther and farther afield: driving through the Australian outback, trekking the Tanzanian savannah, bushwhacking my way across the Amazon, and hiking the jungles of Southeast Asia. It led me to veterinary school, where I became a wildlife, exotics, and small-animal vet. And it helped me grow into the conservation-minded eco-traveler I am today. It’s been a long progression, and I’ve made a few mistakes along the way. Mostly, though, I’ve had amazing, inspiring experiences that make me want to reach more people with what I’ve learned, and step up as a voice for wildlife conservation.
* * *
Thanks to social media, I get to share my encounters with an audience of millions, but there are still things you don’t see in my feed, like the fact that a lot of my travel is really freaking uncomfortable—hot, cramped, smelly, and dangerous. It’s a simple equation for me, though: if I want to see the animals and the people and places and the cultures, I’ve got to do what it takes to get there. If that means a fourteen-hour ride on a sweltering bus with as many goats and chickens as humans, bring it on. If I have to fly through a lightning storm on a prop plane to a remote airport with one poorly lit, too-short runway, fine. I will walk, bike, row, swim, climb, or hitchhike. I’ll ford a river teeming with leeches—I’ve done it before—or slash my way through a jungle (even if it’s home to one of the most powerful drug cartels in the world).
I’ll do just about anything to get where I want to be: Nose-to-trunk with a once-abused temple elephant who’s finally found a peaceful home in Southeast Asia. Swimming beside a gentle thirty-five-foot behemoth of a whale shark along a pristine Australian coastline. Holding a gorgeous snake whose neck is as wide as my wrist at a South American serpentarium, watching its venom pour along the handle of my snake hook. Sitting on a rocky Rwandan cliff beside a silverback gorilla who has chosen the place right next to me to flop down, belly-up, and watch the world go by.
Those moments are the payoffs, and they’re worth every minute of being hungry, tired, blistered, sunburnt, dirty, or uncomfortable I’ve endured to get to them.
The very best part of my experience is that many times along the way, I’ve been entrusted to roll up my sleeves and help some of these animals. When I was in college, I got a volunteer opportunity as the official squirrel and raccoon intern at the Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Sanctuary in Colorado. That led me to take volunteer trips of my own across South America and Southeast Asia. With little to offer but enthusiasm and time, I’d show up at a place I’d found on the Internet and trekked to on my own, asking if there was anything I could do to help—and there always was. By the time I earned my veterinary degree, I’d gotten pretty good at figuring out ways to get invited (or at least to get in the front door) to wildlife rescues and preserves all over the world. I’ve done every job, from bottle-feeding bears and koalas to shoveling shit out of a tamandua’s enclosure; from standing guard over endangered sea turtles to performing delicate surgical procedures on monkeys, lizards, rhinos, turtles, and, of course, dogs and cats. At this writing, I’ve volunteered my services on six continents and in dozens of countries, and every year brings new opportunities and challenges.
This book is the story of how a guy from Kansas ended up getting to do all the things that would make his curious, overenthusiastic boyhood self proud. Thank you for taking the time to share it with me.
Copyright © 2020 by Evan Antin