It was an unlikely classroom for middle and high school students from the United States (U.S.), but within the lush, tropical gardens of Ardastra – The Bahamas’ only zoo and conservation center – American teens discovered whether their true life’s calling is to provide care for animals.
In Ardastra’s second year of collaboration with Broadreach, a unique program which combines global exploration with experiential learning opportunities, students gained exposure to the many sides of animal medicine and the different opportunities available to pursue their passion for birds, mammals, reptiles or marine mammals.
“When Broadreach first approached Ardastra in 2015 to discuss participating in an introduction to veterinary medicine program here in Nassau, we knew this was a great opportunity to showcase some of the incredible veterinary and animal science talent here in The Bahamas and hopefully impact the career paths of students from around the globe,” said Ardastra’s animal curator, Bonnie Young.
“As the host facility, the majority of the lessons take place at Ardastra Gardens, but we have been able to add so much more depth to the program by including lessons with the Bahamas Department of Agriculture veterinarians and staff at the Bahamas Humane Society, Dolphin Encounters and Baha Mar Beach Sanctuary. While most of the students come from the United States, it was important to us that all of the Broadreach programs are open to students from all over the world, so we hope to see Bahamian and more international students in future programs.”
From July 5–16, chaperoned middle school students aged 12 to 14 participated in the 12-day program. When they left, a group of high school students, aged 15 to 17, came for the start of their adventure, which ran July 19–30.
“Most of them know that they really like animals. They are in this program to gain exposure to different exotic species here at the zoo. They are using this experience to guide them as they figure out how to get to their ultimate career goal,” said chaperone Jessica Smith, a veterinarian from Raleigh, North Carolina. This is her third summer leading a vet med program for Broadreach.
“Broadreach uses locations outside of the United States to broaden students’ exposure to different cultures and different ways of doing things. The Bahamas is the perfect location. The weather is good. It’s fairly easy to get to and there are lots of different species here.”
Students from across the United States learned about animal care, nutrition, husbandry, wildlife and conservation. They collected data on Ardastra’s world-famous flamingo colony, and observed surgeries and lent a helping hand at the Bahamas Humane Society, demonstrating the skills they learned by catching goats for physical exams at the Maillis family farm.
A packed schedule featured hands-on lessons in anatomy, physiology, suturing and capture and restraint. Still, it wasn’t all work and no play. Memorable experiences included getting up close and personal with dolphins and stingrays at Dolphin Encounters, a kayaking excursion and a snorkeling adventure, among other fun-filled events.
“Twelve days can go by pretty quick and if you’re not challenging yourself, you’re not going to get the most out of the program,” said chaperone Brooke Fox, a California-based marine biology instructor who made her first trip to The Bahamas last summer, accompanying the inaugural Broadreach contingent.
Given unprecedented access to an exotic array of animal species including iguanas, monkeys, snakes and more at Ardastra, students learned not only how to interpret animal behavior but also how to properly handle a variety of different creatures.
“It has been actually one of the best times of my life. I can’t do any of this stuff where I live,” said Molly Louvau, a 17-year-old 12th-grade student from California.
“Here, there are so many different animals, so many learning opportunities, but Broadreach makes it fun. It’s not dry, sitting in classrooms. It’s totally hands-on. I’m learning stuff about the animals, veterinary medicine and marine biology, that I never would have been able to learn in a classroom setting.”
For Harper Carroll, a 16-year-old 10th-grade student from Maryland, the trip affirmed his career choice.
“I want to become an army vet and this experience confirmed this is the right thing for me to do,” he said.
Like Carroll, Ashleigh Provoost, 15, from New Jersey, embarked on the veterinary medicine adventure to discover whether she was truly interested in the field as a career.
“Before going into this program, I was uncertain about whether I wanted to do anything with animal science in the future, but taking this program reaffirmed me wanting to do veterinary studies in the future,” she said.
“I think it’s really great to have a program like this to expose you to what’s out there. It’s been really eye-opening to see all these different branches of veterinary science, really just scratching the surface but still exposing me to different types of animals and jobs that I could have.”
Meanwhile, Grace Beck, 15, of New York, knew she wanted to work with animals, but what stymied her was the setting.
“I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to work in a zoo or an aquarium environment. That’s what I really wanted help with, the final factors of what I want to do and how to go about it,” she explained.
“This entire experience pushed us out of our boundaries and brought us out of our comfort zone. We received a hands-on zookeeper experience and not just with land animals. We were exposed to aquatic animals as well. I feel like the marine aspect is what I’m most passionate about.”
Although it was an extraordinary educational journey for 14-year-old Kate Emerick from Connecticut, the one-of-a-kind Bahamas experience was also fun.
“I made a lot of new friends and made memories that I will never forget,” she said.