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Animal admirer wild about avocation

Some people never know what they want to be when they grow up -- even after they've grown up -- but that never has been a problem for Samantha A. Wilber.

The 16-year-old Lewiston-Porter High School student recently finished 10th grade. She's been certain about her career path since she climbed out of her crib.

Samantha has been in love with all animals, domestic and wild, since she was a very little girl. Her whole life has centered around learning about animals, working with them and trying to help them.

She plans to be a veterinarian or zoologist -- maybe both. She's wanted that career since early childhood and has worked toward that goal for two years.

Samantha works weekends at the Lewiston Animal Hospital and volunteers during the summer at the Erie County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

She spent last week helping out at the Busch Gardens wild game preserve and park in Tampa, Fla.

Niagara Weekend caught up with her before she left on the trip.

>How long have you been interested in animals?

Ever since I was born. Everything that I did and still do pretty much has to do with animals. I just love them and care a lot about them. When I was a little kid, instead of playing with things like Barbie dolls or something, I'd play with little toy lions and tigers and things like that. I've always wanted to learn everything I can about different animals. It's just the way I am.

>Have you owned pets?

When I was born my parents had two cats, Tigger and Tabitha. The first pet I personally owned was a hamster I named Rex. That was my first experience with a pet, and I thought it was great. I was 5 or 6, and I loved taking care of him. We've only had one dog, a border collie I named Shiny. We got her when I was 6, and she's still here.

What's the most exciting thing you've done involving animals?

Last year, I went to Busch Gardens for a week and did a lot of work with wild animals, much like a zookeeper might do. It was amazing. [She went back for a week on June 23].

>What do you do there?

You pay to go there and help feed the animals, clean their exhibit areas, help the vets. . . . They have a big veld, a huge open area with tons of giraffes and zebras, and hippos and rhinos -- a lot of African herbivores. They take you out there, and you go around and help feed them. You go out there with the vet sometimes and see an animal that needs attention. We watch how they run the entire zoo. You learn a lot.

>Did you get to work with any giraffes?

Our first night there we went out into the veld and saw these 18-foot-tall giraffes. We got in this truck, which has a bed that rises up, so we could actually pet and feed them. The giraffes were wonderful. They're very tame, so you can be hands-on with them. I even held a large piece of lettuce in my mouth, and the giraffe took it from me with his tongue. It was a very wet experience, but how can you pass up opportunity like that?

>What were your favorite animals there?

I loved the tigers. I worked with them, but of course you can't pet them. There's a divide between you and their exhibit. We prepared their food and fed them. We'd weigh out the exact amount of meat for each one and mix in any medicine a particular tiger might need. Then we'd make bowling ball-sized meatballs and throw them out to them.

>How do you feed them so the right tiger gets the right meatball containing its medicine?

They are very intelligent. They know their names. So when you call out a name and throw out a meatball, the tiger knows that's his and the others don't touch it.

>How do you clean their exhibits? Isn't it dangerous?

Before they come out of the night house where they sleep, part of our job is to go into the exhibit area where people can see them before the park opens and clean up. We remove the plastic straws and cups and things people throw in there during the day. But we're not in danger because the tigers are locked in the night house before the park opens each morning.

>What are you doing there this summer?

I plan to spend most of my time working with the tigers -- Maki, Farri, Nepal, Sherie and Khana. That was my first choice, and I expect they'll let me do that. I worked with them for two days last year. I know them all by name. I know their personalities. I feel I developed relationships with them last year. They're all very different characters. I guess I want to work with them because I've always been interested in felines.

>Will you get to do anything else out of the ordinary at Busch Gardens?

I'll get to swim with dolphins and really learn about them, how they work together and interact with each other.

>Do you learn anything else besides specific information about different animals?

You learn a lot more. It's not just learning about the animals. It's learning about things like the worldwide situations they are in. Like the bush meat trade, which is a terrible thing going on that very few people know about. Because of food shortages and other problems in Africa, a lot of people in the rain forest areas are hunting animals like the great apes and other primates, whose numbers are dropping dramatically because of it. We research things like that and let people who come to Busch Gardens know about it. . . . It's hard to find a solution, but the first step is to let people knows it exists and that it is happening.

>What do you do for the SPCA and how long have you helped that agency?

I volunteer there in the summer. This will be my third year there. I've actually helped prepare cats for surgery there when people want to get their pets spayed and neutered. The SPCA provides that service because of overpopulation problems we have in this area with dogs and cats. I also help them wake up from surgery. I sit there and rub them and help them to relax afterwards. I also help foster kittens for the SPCA. A lot of people bring in a litter or people find abandoned litters, and I take the kittens home and care for them until they are 8 weeks old and can be adopted. I do that kind of thing year round.

>Have you ever lost a patient?

We did lose a kitten once. He was very sick when we got him. We were up all night trying to save him, but it didn't work out.

>How long have you worked at the Lewiston Animal Hospital?

I've been there a year. I work on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes I'll cover a shift for someone else here and there on other days. I get paid minimum wage. But the job is amazing.

>What are your responsibilities?

I'm technically kennel staff, so I come in early in the morning before anyone else and walk the dogs people board there while they are away on vacation and feed them, and I feed the cats; and I clean their cages. Things like that. Once the hospital opens, I help the vet with all the patients that come back to be examined. I do things like hold the animals still when they get their nails trimmed and make sure they stay calm. Or I'll help prep them for surgery.

>Why do you spend so much of your time doing these things?

Because I want to be a research zoologist at a zoo or a head veterinarian at a zoo, or both, and work with wild animals. That's my main goal, to make a living working with animals. If I could be anything, I'd love to be the next Jane Goodall or have my own animal television show. Anything like that would be my dream.

>Where do you want to go to college?

I eventually want to go to vet school. For undergraduate work, I want to go to the University of Florida, because they have an excellent vet program, or Columbia University, because they have an excellent program, too.

>What do your friends think about your single-mindedness about your career plans?

They think it's great that I know what I want to do.

>Do they ever consult you about pet-related problems?

If people have questions about a pet, I'm the one that gets asked. They might say, 'My cat has something in its ear. Do you know what that's supposed to be?' and I'll say, 'It sounds like mites or something.' I can help out with little things if the questions are mostly limited to general knowledge. I've just started to learn about the medical aspects of animals because I've just had the animal hospital job for a year.

>Can you stand some of the bad cases that come in, or having to put an animal to sleep?

I've seen some pretty bad things, like dogs who are trained to fight, and they come in all torn apart. Or kittens living in abandoned buildings that come in suffering from chemical burns. As for putting animals to sleep, I had to put one of my best friend's dogs to sleep. I was in the room for that. I mean it was hard, but I knew it was being done for a good reason because the dog was in pain.

>What is your reward for all this aside from a future?

We make them better, and I often find homes for a lot of abandoned animals.

>Has your experience and knowledge about how smart and what individuals animals are put you off from eating meat?

I am a vegetarian, minus chicken. That's the only meat I still eat. I tried to cut out all meat from my diet but actually got very sick because I play some intense sports. I do track and field and soccer year round, and it turned out I needed the protein. I picked chicken because its the least intelligent [animal] of the meat choices I have available to me.


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