International Programs

Lea Mehrkens

Costa Rica

I spent the summer of 2011 in Monteverde, Costa Rica thanks to the grant I received from International Programs and STAR. I had lived there in 2007, when I studied abroad as an undergraduate, and had always wanted to return. I maintained contact with my professors in Costa Rica, and began brainstorming new research ideas after being accepted into veterinary school. It was with their help, along with my advisors in the Wildlife Health Center here at UCD, that I designed a research project investigating the prevalence of a zoonotic blood parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, in the white-nosed coati population of Monteverde.

My living experience this summer was something I’ll always remember. I stayed with a homestay family for two weeks and then was able to rent a “house” in the jungle from one of my professors. I use the term “house” loosely, because she called it the “Casa de Higueron”, or house of the fig tree. The house was located underneath a giant fig tree, so when it rained or there was a breeze, stone-like figs pelted the tin roof, making it impossible to make phone calls, watch movies, or even talk to my research assistant. We also had several scorpions, tarantulas, wolf-spiders, cockroaches, and rats as roommates. The fruit from this tree enticed countless butterflies and even some monkeys to pay us visits, so we couldn’t complain too much. My homestay was amazing as well; my “mom” ran a bed and breakfast, so I benefited from the fresh-baked bread and delicious gallo pinto she made every morning.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the challenge of living in a non-English-speaking country. I had taken Spanish throughout all of high school and much of college, but living here this summer has made me feel very confident in my abilities to communicate in almost any situation. I’ve had to explain to multiple taxi drivers why they were transporting between 6 and 10 coati-sized traps from one place to the next, I’ve had to ask tourists to not reach in the cages to touch my study subjects, I’ve had to explain to the national electricity company that lightning hit our house and that we would need someone to come out and fix our internet, and of course, I’ve had to explain the premise of my project inside and out to government officials, students, ecoutourism employees, and neighbors.

While in Monteverde, I worked alongside a local veterinarian, learning anesthesia techniques and how to perform blood draws and take fecal samples. I am pleased to say that no one was bitten; the only human injuries that occurred during the trapping process were bruises my assistant and I gave ourselves while carrying our traps up and down trails. I also shadowed the local veterinarian at his practice and assisted in several castrations, tumor removals, and other basic procedures. It was eye-opening to see how differently veterinary medicine can be practiced across the world. Basic things like record-keeping, staff training, and safety practices differ drastically between the two countries. I learned to do surgical knots, remove masses, and perform castrations using plastic zip-ties. I also learned how to give fluid treatments and treat basic injuries while working alongside this veterinarian in the field with anesthetized coatis.

Besides the practical veterinary skills, I learned about what goes into executing an international wildlife research project. Despite months of planning and communicating with liaisons within country and in Costa Rica, I still encountered unexpected bureaucratic delays, became the subject of local gossip (a rumor started that there was an epidemic sweeping through the local coati population and I was the international vet that was called in to save them), and only got my last export permit the morning of my actual departure. I collaborated with biologists in Costa Rica, with veterinary parasitologists both at Davis and at the University of Georgia, and collected enough samples for multiple investigations. I learned how to jump through additional international regulatory hoops upon discovering that my study species was recently CITES-listed. I also learned that when you explain to airline workers that you’re carrying blood samples, they treat you like you’re carrying anthrax.

This summer I learned more about a country and culture that I loved all while developing skills (jerry-rigging IV bags, making make-shift sharps containers, navigating the international permit labyrinth) that will serve me in the future as a veterinarian. Thanks, International Student Programs! I would also like to thank the colony of fire ants that lived beneath our house for cleaning our counters every night. Thanks, ants. “Thants”.