No monkey business: Blake Andrews gains hands-on experience with Malawi wildlife

Blake Andrews, a third-year veterinary student from Virginia Beach, Virginia, recently traveled to Lilongwe, Malawi for a veterinary externship at the Lilongwe Wildlife Center. The externship was partially funded by a one-time international scholarship opportunity, which assisted with costs associated with airfare, food, and lodging expenses.

Andrews assists with a health check on Simba, one of the resident lions at the Lilongwe Wildlife Center.

This past summer, I participated in a veterinary externship at the Lilongwe Wildlife Center (LWC) in Lilongwe, Malawi. As a public-corporate tracker, I am interested in pursuing a career in wildlife conservation medicine and when I came across this opportunity when searching the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) website, I thought it would be an amazing experience. I contacted the volunteer coordinator who provided me with additional information and consulted with a professor about the trip before committing to a month-long externship.

Andrews provides fluids to a baboon during a routine health check. Animals at the center received at least two health checks per day.

At LWC, my morning routine often consisted of feeding any orphans at the center and running rounds for the recent patients we had seen in the clinic as a part of their postoperative management. Whenever an orphan is dropped off at the center, they are quarantined to prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases to people or other animals. Mothering contact is really important, especially for the vervet monkeys, so the orphans must have someone sitting with them almost 24 hours a day.

Later in the morning, we would perform any procedures on the schedule that day. Some of the procedures I was able to assist with included routine health checks of the resident animals, wound management, and emergency traumas. African lions, vervet monkeys, olive and yellow baboons, and serval cats were just some of the residents of LWC. In addition to clinical services, I was able to work with and learn so much from the Animal Care Team that works with the animals at the center on a daily basis. The team is responsible for the diet, daily administration of any oral medications, and knowing about the general health and mental status of the animals.

Andrews “mothers” an orphaned vervet monkey, which is required 24 hours a day upon rescue. When on duty, staff must wear full gowns, hats, and masks, so the monkeys do not associate humans with nurturing behaviors upon their eventual release.

Our team also performed integrations to make new families or “troops” of vervet monkeys before they were re-released into the wild. We would start them with a monkey who had already been a part of a troop or we formed a brand new troop. Living in their natural social structure gives them a better chance of survival post-release. LWC has released more than 500 monkeys in the last year and their efforts have yielded great results.

Another aspect of the externship was being able to participate in community outreach programs. While some of the projects were about educating the public on proper animal welfare and care, other projects focused on providing the community a service such as teaching adult literacy classes.

The team at Lilongwe Wildlife Center as well as the local people were all a pleasure to be around and learn from. I was among a team of volunteers from all different parts of the world, and although we lived together in a crowded hut, we were able to find common ground and a bond in our love for animals and conservation. The experience reaffirmed that this is the route I want to go after I graduate, and it was interesting and helpful to apply what I’ve learned in school so far to exotic medicine.

I am grateful to my scholarship donors, faculty mentors at the college, and the LWC Animal Care Team for this unforgettable experience and once-in-a-lifetime trip that further fueled my passion for conservation medicine.