Student working with cheetahs during internship

Photo courtesy Erin Vargo
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Photo courtesy Erin Vargo
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A Grand Valley student is spending her summer taking a walk on the wild side by working with cheetahs in Otjiwarongo, Namibia. 

Erin Vargo, a senior biology major from Spring Lake, is currently an intern at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), which is the world's leading organization committed to preventing the extinction of cheetahs in the wild.

As an intern, Vargo wears many hats. A few of her daily responsibilities include the basic care of the animals at the facility, giving informational speeches to visiting tourists while feeding the more sociable "ambassador" cheetahs, or taking detection dogs into the reserve to search for cheetah scat, which geneticists analyze to see which species the cheetahs are eating.

Additionally once a month, Vargo and fellow student interns complete a waterhole count where they sit in a hidden spot near a waterhole for 12 hours and count all of the species that go to that particular area.

While all of the responsibilities may not be glamorous, Vargo said new opportunities are available at the facility if interns simply express interest.

"I talked to the veterinarians about helping with a surgery and got to assist with the autopsy of a sheep," Vargo said. "I also have been helping with 3 a.m. check-ins on one of our pregnant dogs, and if orphaned cubs were to come in, I would get to help monitor and bottle feed them."

Vargo's desire to work with cheetahs blossomed from her childhood.

"Ever since I can remember, I've had this expanding interest to, at first, play with cheetahs and make my parents purchase every cheetah stuffed animal in sight," Vargo said. "I knew eventually I wanted to work alongside them, not only as a zookeeper, but as a spokesperson for the conservation of their environment as well."

With grandiose dreams and aspirations to work hand-in-paw with cheetahs, Vargo said she had to look outside of the U.S. for her ideal experience.

"A vast majority of the internships I found in the United States were more generalized 'large carnivore' or 'big cat' internships," Vargo said. "I eventually came across the Cheetah Conservation Fund, located in Nambia—'the cheetah capital of the world.' I didn't feel the slightest compulsion to even finish reading the details of the internship. I applied right then."

This internship has thus far proven to be an enriching cultural exchange for Vargo as almost all of the staff members at the facility are from different countries, such as France, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany and South Africa. Vargo said about 80 percent of her fellow interns alone are from Namibia.

"One of the most valuable lessons I've learned on this trip is simply to make friends with the locals," Vargo said. "By chatting with the interns from Namibia, my mind has already been opened to new languages, cultures, styles of dance, plant and animal species and so much more. This experience would have felt like I never left my home country if I had not branched out."

Vargo said although she has only been in the trenches of her internship for a few weeks, the experience has the wheels turning in her mind about possible career paths.

"I'm not exactly sure if I want to do field research with cheetahs, head some breeding program of cheetahs in captivity, start a nonprofit for endangered animals, work in Walt Disney World's conservation department at Animal Kingdom, travel as a photojournalist for National Geographic, or have my own TV show, like Jack Hannah or Jeff Corwin," Vargo said. "I am a dreamer and dreamers believe that you cannot fail unless you stop trying. I will never stop trying."

After graduating from Grand Valley in 2017, she will be applying to the Exotic Animal Training and Management program and Moorpark College in California.