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February 24, 2012

SUNY Delhi students recall school trip to South Africa

SUNY Delhi student Krysta Scimeca met Trigger, a cheetah, during a study-abroad program in South Africa last month. Her classmate Julia Koncelik met a hippopotamus named Jessica.

The two veterinary science technician students enrolled in the first study-abroad program offered by the State University College of Technology at Delhi, and they agreed that the close encounters with wild animals were amazing experiences.

"It was the best experience of my life," Scimeca, 18, a first-year student, said Thursday.

SUNY Delhi associate professor Bret Meckel said he and 10 students spent much of the Jan. 2 to 24 trip camping in the bush, where students had close-up experiences with a variety of species.

"It was a great experience for all," veterinarian Meckel said.

Students, who ranged from first-year students to recent graduates of the two-year associate degree vet tech program, earned six SUNY Delhi college credits.

Of SUNY Delhi's enrollment of 3,430 students, 288 are in vet tech programs, college officials said.

The course was the result of ongoing partnership with EcoLife Expeditions and the University of Pretoria. Meckel said he and SUNY Delhi Provost John Nader worked with State University officials to formalize the program as an official study abroad course.

SUNY approval helps with transferable course credits and access to financial aid, Meckel said. The course costs about $6,000, which includes international airfare, room, board, tuition and other expenses, he said.

The course focused on wildlife conservation, a media release from the college said, and students were taught about the crucial role veterinary medical staff has in South Africa's growing wildlife industry.

Students visited facilities that related to endangered species breeding, wildlife rehabilitation and reptile conservation. At the Balule Nature Preserve, they honed their skills by tracking wildlife and learning how to immobilize animals in the wild to provide medical care, the release said.

EcoLife assigned two guides to serve as South African hosts because the SUNY Delhi group would be traveling throughout the country and camping in the bush.

"It was necessary to camp for easy access to the animals," Meckel said in a statement from the college. "A typical day started at 4 or 5 in the morning and mid-day was reserved for lecture since it was very hot. During the afternoon, we would visit a facility and work with the staff. At the end of the day, we would gather around the campfire for a discussion, and then close up camp by 9 or 10 at night."

The study-abroad program concluded with a graduation ceremony around a bonfire near Pretoria, the release said.

Meckel said some of the more exciting moments of the trip included taking a snare off a zebra, capturing an Eland to treat its tick disease and attempting to capture a pod of hippos. The group visited Kruger National Park during the area's 100-year flood, where the SUNY Delhi group had to remain for three days because travel was limited.

SUNY Delhi students assisted with a spay/neuter clinic of Community Led Animal Welfare, a non-profit organization that provides services to thousands of pets in disadvantaged communities.

Koncelik, 20, of East Islip, said she was impressed by the elephants and how their population numbers are putting a strain on national parks.

"I've always wanted to see wild animals in their natural environment," she said Thursday."It was one the most amazing experiences of my life."

Koncelik, who said she would move to Africa to work as a vet tech, said that on her birthday she had a chance to meet Jessica, a hippo with an international reputation.

According to Jessica's website,, she is a 10-year-old hippo who lives near Hoedspruit, South Africa. Hippos are considered some of "the most dangerous and fearsome creatures in Africa," the site said, and there are many accounts of hippos attacking and killing people who invade their space.

But Jessica "displays mind-boggling characteristics which makes us wonder about our approach towards wild animals," the site said, and "loves interaction with humans."

Koncelik said as "the birthday girl" on Jan. 15, she was invited to sit on Jessica, which was a thrill.

"Little me from Long Island was sitting on a hippo," Koncelik said. "It was an amazing birthday _ nothing is ever going to beat that birthday."

Scimeca, of Lincoln Park, N.J., recalled Thursday her close-up experience with a male cheetah.

Trigger was known to dislike men but gets along with women, according to Scimeca, who volunteered to be the first female to approach the animal after it had a negative experience with a male human. Trigger was fine for a minute, she said, but then put its paws around her leg in a "death grip." The pants she was wearing pants protected her, she said, and she got away without injury.

"That had to have been the most memorable _ and crazy _ experience," Scimeca said.

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