One day in 2018, while Vicksburg teacher and veterinarian Noreen Heikes and some of her students were out horseback riding in Africa, they came across what for them was an extraordinary sight: three giraffes eating from a tree. This experience was surreal, to say the least, says Heikes, a Vicksburg Community Schools agri-science teacher.
“Are we really in Africa standing on this red dirt in the bush nose-to-nose with giraffe knees?” Heikes says she remembers thinking. They were. In the town of Hoedspruit, South Africa, to be precise.
Their journey was sparked in the fall of 2017 when Heikes posted a message on her class’s website floating the idea of taking a trip abroad. Her students — part of the KRESA Education for Employment (EFE) veterinary science program for high school students — latched onto the idea. Of the suggested locations, they chose Africa, and told Heikes they wanted to work on large animals such as elephants and rhinos, says one of those students, Brooklyn Joslyn, now 20.
“I was definitely one of the students who was like, ‘We need to do this one (Africa),’” says Joslyn.
Heikes was surprised by their choice, but she jumped in to support it.
“My first reaction was: ‘That’s a big want,’” Heikes admits. “But I tell them, ‘You need to have big dreams and work hard enough to make them come true’ — which they did.”
The 55-year-old, who is also a veterinarian at Denney Veterinary Services in Vicksburg, says she became a teacher because she knew Chris Rohwer, who in 1999 established the EFE veterinary science program. When Rohwer decided to retire from heading the program, he approached Heikes about taking over.
“I have a strong suspicion I was the only applicant,” Heikes admits. She grins and then adds, “But that turned out to be fine because I loved it from the beginning.”
Learning life skills
From the start, the class’s two-week South Africa trip was about more than working with animals. Heikes made it a lesson in life skills, acting as an adviser while the students researched programs and options and encouraging them “to find their own answers.”
“‘She’ll never answer your question with an answer; she’ll always ask you another question,’” Heikes says, imitating her students. She laughs and adds, “But eventually they’ll get it (the answer). My goal is to make them able to solve problems. So if the problem is ‘How do I get to Africa?’ it’s a big one, but it can be solved.”
It took Joslyn and the other students nearly an entire school year to plan the trip, as they met with Heikes monthly to discuss logistics. “About the planes, where we were staying, who we were working with, so it was a lot,” Joslyn says, but “it was worth it.”
“These are high school seniors,” Heikes says. “We’re going to throw them out in a year and ask them to function in the big world, so I think they need a little practice.”
So far, there have been two South Africa journeys — Heikes took six EFE students there in July 2018 and another six in June 2019. This summer Heikes will take a group of 10 to Africa.
For the first two trips, Heikes met her students at Chicago O’Hare International Airport and, rather than direct them where to go, let them figure it out. “‘If you’re about to do something dangerous or stupid, I would tell you — loudly,’” Heikes says she assured them. “”But you can figure this out. Airports are made for people who don’t know where they’re going.’
“They need to know how to do it for themselves, and my biggest thing they know is they can do it for themselves,” Heikes says.
Joslyn says the trip definitely built her confidence. “If you’re going to go on a trip and you’re hoping to be more well-rounded at the end, this is the one for you,” she says.
In 2019, the group landed at Dubai International Airport for a layover, and Heikes urged the students to sit back and observe what she describes as “a place where Europe, Africa and Asia all meet.”
“‘What’s that dome thing with an arrow?’” Heikes says they asked. “I said ‘That tells you what way Mecca is.’ “Minds blown,” she says, describing their reactions.
Finding a different world
In 2018, when the students landed in Hoedspruit, South Africa, the group immediately saw that things were a bit different there. The Hoedspruit Airport was the size of a small classroom, and a driver on a Kubota farm tractor pulling a hay wagon rolled up to the plane to retrieve the luggage. But the real kicker came as they were riding out of the airport.
“Jessica (Osmers, their on-site coordinator with Selati Wildlife Experience) met us and picked us up, and we’re like 20 feet out of the gate and there’s an elephant standing next to the road,” Heikes says. A few more feet and they saw elephants and giraffe. “That could be the end for us, and that would be amazing,” she says. “And it was the beginning instead.”
Working with animals
For 12 days, Heikes and her students stayed in a bush lodge at the 3,000-acre Boulders Game Ranch while traveling to and working on area reserves with veterinarian Rita Piso. The students worked with many animals, including giraffe, zebra, rhinos, hippos, nyala, sable antelope, impala, kudu and wildebeest.
They observed how to tranquilize and transport giraffe, which involves ensuring that a giraffe falls in the right place and then getting it up quickly and into a giraffe trailer. Blindfolds and ear mufflers are placed on the animals to keep them calm. “That makes them more submissive for going into the trailer, which makes it safer for everybody,” Joslyn says.
On the 2019 trip, the students moved a tsessebe antelope herd to another reserve for breeding. The males can weigh up to 300 pounds and have horns up to 15 inches long. Piso went up in a helicopter with a tranquilizer gun while the students split into two groups in trucks on the ground. After Piso would tranquilize a tsessebe, the helicopter would hover and wait for one of the trucks to arrive.
“Depending on protocol, we might be giving antibiotics, we might be giving dewormers, we might be giving vitamins, we might be micro-chipping, we might be putting ear tags in,” Heikes says, noting that they had to make sure to keep each tsessebe’s head up while administering the treatment. “If their heads go too low, the fluid from their rumen (their first stomach) comes up and they suck it into their lungs.”
The students also did this work with 30 buffalo, which Heikes says taught the students “situational awareness.”
“When we’re out there working with buffalo, (if) you lay one of them down and the herd comes back, that’s a problem,” she says. “You need to know where everybody is all the time. You need to know how deeply asleep this animal is and what drug you have in your hand.”
Gaining another skill
Besides working with animals, the students learned how to use tranquilizer guns by shooting at targets. The instructors started them 20 feet away from the target, Joslyn says, and then progressively moved them farther away.
“And then they were like, ‘OK, let’s go up in a helicopter,’” says Joslyn.
Heikes says her kids were “all over it” about this training, but she had reservations. “I don’t know,” she says she remembers thinking. “And then I was like, ‘No, you tell your students they need to push themselves so you don’t get to just step back on this.’ So I didn’t.”
Through all of their experiences Heikes enjoyed watching her students make decisions — and cut their ties to technology. “It’s fun getting them off that screen and taking charge of themselves and having the backs of their teammates,” she says.
Knowing what they want
For some of the students, the trip solidified their choice of occupation. Joslyn is currently a second-year biological sciences major at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, with plans to attend veterinary school. She says she had an epiphany on the South Africa trip while they were working at a farm for sable antelope, a species in which males weigh up to 518 pounds with horns that can be up to 65 inches long. When she looked around at everyone working together, measuring horns and giving vaccinations and vitamins, it “felt normal,” she says.
“If this can feel normal, then this is definitely what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life,” Joslyn says. “That was the moment I was like, ‘I don’t care what it takes. I’m going to be a vet.’”
Joslyn says Heikes’ students talk about how much they loved her classes and attributed that fondness to the hands-on experiences, as well as other opportunities such as competitions and leadership conferences, that the teacher provides.
Since graduating, Joslyn has traveled to Honduras with a Christian veterinary mission to work with dogs, cats, pigs, cattle and horses. While there, she observed and assisted with many surgeries. After she had watched seven surgeries, a vet looked at her and said, “You’ve seen it seven times now. Do one.”
“I was like, ‘You know this is a live animal, right’?” she remembers asking. But with all of the hands-on experiences with Heikes under her belt, Joslyn jumped in and performed the surgery with no hand shaking or queasiness.
“I’ve learned that I am a very kinesthetic learner, and I think most of the people in my generation are,” Joslyn says. “Doing things is so much different than reading out of the textbook. Dr. Heikes is so good at finding what people like and then applying it. She’ll bring out the best in anybody.”