I am so thankful and blessed to have had the incredible opportunity to spend my summer in a place I could call home, Armenia. Through an organization called the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGB), I was able to spend six weeks in the land of my ancestors with 28 other interns where we lived together, took Armenian language lessons together, danced, sang, ate and experienced our culture together in a way we hadn’t before. We stayed in the city of Yerevan where we each were placed by AGBU to intern during the week. I am so grateful to have been placed to intern at the Yerevan Zoo, as I realized it is very special in the way that it is not like other zoos.
Before the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC) was established in 2002, the zoo was instituted in 1940 by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Armenia. Unfortunately at this time, the animals were not well taken care of. When the FPWC took over, a lot of work was done to make changes for the animals’ well being with the aim to raise local and international awareness for the preservation of Armenia’s unique natural heritage. It implements environmental projects with the help of professionals in the fields of ecology, environmental law, film making as well tourism and regional development.
Armenia is part of the Caucasus Biodiversity Hotspot, making it one of 34 regions worldwide defined by Conservation International as outstandingly important for the protection of the globe’s biodiversity. These 34 hotspots have lost at least 70% of its original natural vegetation and are under threat to lose what is left. Over 50 percent of the world’s plant species and 42 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate species are endemic to these hotspots, therefore, the protection of Armenia’s nature is of vital importance (FPWC).
When the hands of the zoo were left to the FPWC, the animals were in poor condition and could neither be given to other zoos for care, because no paperwork had been kept, nor be sent back to their natural habitats because they would not survive. The FPWC kept the zoo, making major adjustments in order to provide the animals with appropriate enclosures and habitats, as well as providing them with proper medical care needed. The FPWC also changed the overall atmosphere of the zoo from looking down on the animals and treating them as disposable to educating visitors about how to properly care for them and of their importance to human life and to the Earth. The FPWC provides this through environmental education to children and youth, organizing environmental festivals and campaigns as well as other projects such as the production of documentaries on nature.
I was very proud to work in a place where it was evident that everyone was doing their best to meet each animal’s needs and make a big impact in their lives. My job was simple, but a powerful experience. Each morning I cut up a variety of fruits and vegetables in order to make feeding rounds later in the day. I had the opportunity to feed llamas, alpacas, camels, a variety of goats, deer, horses, ponies, and the zebra. These animals helped me realize how close we are to them by allowing me to enter into their space, feed and even pet them! I will never forget the first time I walked into the llama enclosure. They all ran to me! At first I felt a little overwhelmed because I had never experienced being with non-domesticated animals like this, but my partner gave me the O.K. and I suddenly dropped any fear I had and was filled with excitement and happiness. They were happy to see me! They brushed up against me and curiously looked at me, brushing up against my face. After this, I was on a mission to pet every animal I could, which I did! I was able to pet every animal I fed, except the zebra, who was a little more timid and shy. However, towards the end of the six weeks, he would come up closer to me as I filled his food bowl and I have to say, I am extremely proud of his courage! I know if I had been able to stay a little longer, he would have opened up to me and let me pet him. The act of petting animals, for me, is extremely special. The animals know we are very different and don’t necessarily know my intentions; however, through patience, persistence, and kindness, they become open to me and allow me to connect with them in a very personal way. This is incredible. I can’t say I fully understand my friends at the zoo, but I can say we connected and certainly built a kind of friendship, the way I think God intended for His creation to have.
I hope to incorporate some of what I learned through this wonderful experience in my Animal Lover Activist club and I am excited to see what we can learn, the changes we can make, and hopefully, impacts we can make as well.