by Amy Vaerewyck
Bradley Larson knows what it feels like to hold a baby cheetah in his arms.
“It stops your heart completely,” he said. “I can put my face in their belly and start purring, and they’ll start purring back. I’ve never had an experience like that in my life.”
A psychology and biology major at CU Denver, Larson cared for baby cheetahs as part of his internship at Wildlife Safari, a zoological park in Winston, Ore., with 600 animals and more than 100 different species. During his adventurous internship, he also conducted behavioral training and socializing for adult cats, including a 400-pound Siberian tiger.
Larson—whom the Experiential Learning Center named “Outstanding 2011-2012 Undergraduate Intern of the Year”—started what was supposed to have been a three-month internship in March 2012, but after one month, he was offered an extension of the internship through late August. The decision to stay an additional three months was an easy one for Larson.
150 Applicants, 1 Internship
“It ended up being the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said of the wildlife internship. “I’ve been in love with animals since I was a little kid, but it’s only the past few years that I’ve realized that my career path aligns with them.”
Larson described his past academic career as “all over the place.” He majored in business, then changed to theater and then took a couple years off of school to work. When he came to CU Denver’s Department of Integrative Biology
, he met Cheri Jones, PhD
, a biology instructor with expertise in zoology. After taking her classes, Larson said, he knew he wanted a career working with animals—and started exploring how to begin one.
He found the Wildlife Safari internship on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums website. The position involved behavioral research that would fulfill some of his psych degree requirements, as well as concepts of animal care and species conservation that would cross over into his biology studies.
Selected from about 150 applicants, Larson was chosen for the coveted internship at what he says is the #1 captive cheetah breeding facility in the northern hemisphere.
An Animal’s Life in Your Hands
Right about the time Larson arrived at Wildlife Safari, a brand-new litter of cheetah cubs was born.
“I was lucky—my first night I was bottle-feeding a baby cheetah,” he said. The 550-gram infant, named Mchumba, fit in the palm of his hand and had yet to open her eyes. She needed to be fed every two hours. Enter the student intern.
“I’ve never felt more responsible for a life,” Larson said of his work with this endangered species. “They were these little, blind chirping animals that were utterly dependent on me for protection, safety, everything.”
The newborn cubs recognized Larson’s voice and, when they could open their eyes, his face, too.
“I’ll walk into a room, and they’ll run straight up to my leg and lick me,” he said. “It’s absolutely adorable.”
His work with the fastest land animal was part of a “species survival plan” at the zoological park, which involves not only animal husbandry but also genetic tracking to add diversity to the gene pool at the park.
In the past, Larson had also worked with elephants in the Indonesian jungle, but “this knocks that out of the park,” he said.
No 9-to-5 for Wildlife Conservation
During his internship, Larson put in 65- to 70-hour work weeks, caring for and training the animals, cleaning cages and educating the public at outreach events. There were times when he went an entire month without a full day off.
“You have to be willing to put the work in if you care about the animals,” he said. “You can never be afraid of really, really hard work.”
This fall, Larson will work another internship, this one training terrestrial species at Denver’s Downtown Aquarium. With plans to graduate in December 2012, he has his sights set on a career working with, and for, wildlife—perhaps with a tiger conservation project in Nepal or a cheetah organization in Namibia.
“My passion is field research,” he said. “Few people out there have a job they love as much as I do.”