Fall 2013 /Startups/

Caring in the Wild

Starting this June, Nikki Becich ’13 launched into a year-long journey to pursue her passion for conservation medicine. Over the summer, Becich cared for injured birds at the hospital of the National Aviary, before venturing out on a career-building trip to work and learn at wildlife centers throughout Latin America.

Becich had several jobs and internships in zoo and avian medicine under her belt by the time she graduated. She knew she wanted more experience, and found a great match in the National Aviary, an indoor zoo home to more than 500 birds in Pittsburgh, Penn., and where she first volunteered in middle school.

At the Aviary, Becich worked with the center’s two veterinarians as a hospital intern. She helped them with surgeries, medications and daily caretaking, looking after birds brought in from the wild along with the zoo’s regular residents on exhibit.

Becich went into the internship with a focus on treating captive animals, particularly species that are endangered or extinct in the wild. Looking back, she says the experience inspired her to consider the bigger issue of environmental protection.

Knowing she needed more hands-on training, Becich spent part of her senior year mapping out a trip to practice wildlife care at nature preserves in Central and South America. After graduation, she set off.

“I planned out the trip to apply for the Watson Fellowship, and when I didn`t get that, I decided to blow my savings and do it anyway, because it`s incredibly important for my future career to work and learn abroad,” she explains.

Becich started the first leg of her trek in September as a volunteer at an ecological center in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. She also is pitching in at Bioparque Amaru Zoo, developing preventative medicine protocols for a new veterinary clinic. In coming months she will intern at wildlife sanctuaries in Peru and Guatemala, helping to rehabilitate injured animals and promote local conservation projects. Becich says her connections from earlier programs were essential in helping her network and make contacts overseas.

She aims to learn first-hand how communities and organizations in the region are coping with threats like oil drilling, which, she says, can contribute to pollution and deforestation. “Meeting real people and seeing for myself what is happening has been extremely informative, but an emotional roller coaster,” Becich says, speaking from Ecuador. “What’s encouraging to see is how there is still protected forest here. We have time. We need serious action, though, and fast, if it`s going to survive.”

A biology major, Becich mentions Professor Nina Karnovsky as an important mentor who “encouraged me to pursue my love for birds and go after work in conservation.“ She also points to the influence of her semester abroad in a tropical ecology program in Costa Rica, which shifted her focus toward environmental protection.

At Pomona, Becich explored her interests in other parts of the community. She got involved in caring for chickens at the Organic Farm, even raising a few chicks in her dorm in Harwood one year until they were ready to join the flock.

Becich is already looking ahead to her vision of combining medical practice with international research in ecology, with plans to attend veterinary school in the U.S. “I really came into my life’s passion this summer. I am so excited to be here doing what I am doing, and I am so grateful to Pomona for helping to get me there.”