Nikki Becich (Class of 2009) is our Alumni Spotlight this week. She is currently living in Ecuador working at the Bioparque Amaru Zoo. She has an amazing story and passion for conservation - and it all started here at Sewickley Academy!
As a student at Sewickley Academy I certainly couldn’t have imagined that I’d be pointing out birds to Italian tourists from a canoe in the Amazon Rainforest, rallying against Amazonian oil drilling in Quito, and helping design a vet clinic in the Andean Mountains. I can’t believe it myself, sometimes; but you can see for yourself here. Really.
It has been more than six years since I went on a Sewickley Academy trip to Yarina Lodge on the Napo River (one of the Amazon River’s largest tributaries), on the border of Yasunì National Park (the most biodiverse forest on our planet), with Tracy Wazzenegger and John Basinger of the Senior School. Our guide for that trip, a man named Ruben Proaño, told me as we were leaving the airport in 2007 that if I ever wanted to work in conservation where it matters most, all I had to do was come back. He was right.
Deforestation due to oil activity, rapid population growth, urbanization, and illegal animal trafficking are huge problems here in Ecuador, and they’re only getting worse. Thanks to my environmental education through the Academy, Pomona College, CIEE’s Tropical Ecology Program in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Shore (where I am currently employed as the field affiliate), I have the knowledge and skillsets I need to join the fight on the front lines of tropical conservation - now.
After spending a month learning about the oil crisis in the Amazon in Yasunì National Park, I trekked to the Southern Ecuadorian Andean Mountains for my current work at Bioparque Amaru Zoo. I am helping Amaru develop a preventative medicine program and veterinary facilities to accommodate the 400+ wildlife rescues presently in Amaru’s care. The biologists, zookeepers, and community members at Amaru are the conservation heroes I want to spend my life learning from and working with.
I decided before I graduated last May from Pomona that I wanted to take a year of work between university and vet school. I was looking for experiences that would place me in communities where the balance of human-animal-environmental conflict was particularly evident; like those presented to me during my 2012 study abroad experience in Costa Rica with CIEE (to see more about my experiences in Costa Rica, check out http://barefootbaybird.blogspot.com/ ).
Farm scenes were particularly memorable: streams of caramel-colored whey runoff fed into streams, sluggish flows down lower montane-forest slopes congealing in tadpole-heavy pools, coating the water’s edge and turning rancid in the tropic heat. The black-thick smoke of oil palm plantations near the coast and the workers’ tales of banana plant Fer-de-lance attacks. Ranchland in Santa Rosa National Park giving way to secondary growth and the re-colonizers within: Black Guans and White-faced Capuchins and scorpions with hundreds of diamond-eyed babies on their backs; meandering anteaters and Gladiator tree frogs in shower-drains.
These lessons, in addition to those given to me by veterinary researchers visiting my Oakland Zoo workplace in 2011 and the Aviary in 2013, are what magnetized me towards the growing field of conservation medicine. Conservation medicine is where my veterinary and field biology interests meet, and is what I am aiming to pursue in my next level of education.
So what exactly is conservation medicine? In 2004, a number of conservation-minded scientists, veterinarians, physicians, and other health professionals put forth the One Health Initiative: a proposal to increase interdisciplinary collaboration in studies of the relationship between human, animal, and environmental health. Conservation medicine can encompass any aspect of this relationship - be that ecosystem health, anthropogenic impacts on climate, wildlife disease ecology, zoonotic disease emergence and transmission, preventative veterinary medicine, public health, natural resource management, urban food and water safety...the list goes on. In this changing and ever-more interconnected world, the idea that the line between environmental and animal health lies on the same line as the health of our own species is an increasingly inescapable reality.
In the future, I am hoping to approach the world with this same broad-scale view as a veterinary researcher. In the interval, encompassing the admissions committee’s decision for veterinary classes of 2014, I will be traveling to Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Guatemala to investigate community projects in wildlife rehabilitation, biodiversity mapping, ecological health assessment, public health, and environmental education. I hope to foster connections between my past and (hopefully) future workplaces, such as the National Aviary’s Andean Condor breeding program and the Condor Program at Amaru.
I want to help develop future education opportunities (such as those offered by CIEE) for U.S. physicians, veterinarians, conservation biologists, and their accompanying graduate students or interns along the Napo River in Ecuador. Biologists from the states have a lot to learn about human communities and ecosystem health from local specialists, and have a lot to offer in furthering conservation efforts worldwide.
I hope more biology students coming out of Sewickley take the leap and work internationally in the near future! Remember, you can keep up with my adventures and progress at http://onehealth47.blogspot.com/, or read about my past adventures in Costa Rica at http://barefootbaybird.blogspot.com/.