Graduate student Sarah Smith has touched a total of six leopards. She sat down with the Collegian this week to talk about this unique opportunity she had during an internship with The Cape Leopard Trust in the Cederberg Mountains in South Africa. While she was there, Smith studied the food source of leopards, the declining dassie population and found a rare form of tuberculoses. The research she did will be published in the journal Tuberculoses.
Q. What is your status at CSU?
A. I’m a first year veterinary student, and I went here for undergraduate as well as an environmental health major.
Q. What made you want to go to vet school?
A. I wanted to be a vet for a really long time, since I was a little kid. That’s partly how I chose CSU, because I’d never been to Colorado before that.
During my undergrad I thought I wasn’t going to do it anymore, but medicine and getting to work with animals all day is the perfect career. And CSU has a great vet school.
Q. Where are you from originally?
A. Originally New Jersey. Then Dallas, Texas for a little while. And now
Colorado. Fort Collins is really my home.
Q. What’s your favorite food?
A. Cheese. And pizza because it has cheese on it. And cheese and crackers. I could never go vegan.
Q. Are you a vegetarian?
Q. What do you want to do in the future?
A. I don’t know for sure. I plan to go into public health at some point. I like the idea of saving the world. I want to work on zoonotic diseases (diseases that transmit from animals to people). That’s where a lot of the major diseases that we are concerned about in the human population are coming from. For example, bird flu and mad cow disease. Those are things that veterinarians are on the front line for.
Q. What do you do in your free time?
A. Free time? I don’t have much free time, but I joined a bunch of clubs for school and I started Tae Kwon Do because my roommate got me into it and it’s really fun, so I’ve been doing that a couple times a week. It’s a great stress relief. And this winter, I will be snowboarding in all my free time.
Q. Have you ever peed your pants while doing Tae Kwon Do like Visual Editor Aaron Montoya did when he was younger?
A. That’s a good story! I did not, but I wish I knew that before I met Aaron
Montoya! I haven’t been in it long enough – we should ask my roommate. Did he do that because he was scared? I have not done that yet, but I’ll make it a point to let you know when I do – not that I’m planning on it.
Q. What’s your most embarrassing moment?
A. I’m a klutzy person so there are a lot, but I’m not sure one sticks out. I broke my foot walking across my front lawn.
Q. How did you do that?
A. I don’t know, and I was sober. I had people in my house, too, so I walked in laughing because I knew how embarrassing it was.
Q. You did an internship in Africa. Can you tell me about that?
A. I had such a good time. We needed to do an internship for environmental health, and I really wanted to leave the country. I’ve always wanted to go to
Africa, so I was looking at programs in Tanzania and Kenya but they involved working with people. I started to think, I’d like to do something with animals, so I began researching different organizations and found one that seemed really centered on research and education (called The Cape Leopard Trust).Cederberg (where the trust is located) is a beautiful wilderness area up in the mountains about five hours north east of cape town. It was pretty amazing to get there and see the place. Fort Collins is the smallest place I’ve ever lived, and in this area when I left, the population dropped dramatically so it was a really different experience.
Q. Tell me about the research you did in Africa.
A. I was supposed to be working on the dassie project . (Dassie is the South
African term for rock hyrax, an important prey species for leopards.) They kind of look like big guinea pigs or large rabbits without ears, and they’re the closest relative to the African elephant. They are thought to be really common, so it was really discouraging not capturing one.
Q. You didn’t capture any of them?
A. Not at first. I didn’t even see one for the first part I was there, which is really bad. But part of the reason they were having me do this (research) is because (dassies) used to be all over the place. Farmers talked about how they would step outside of their door and would be squishing dassies. That was an exaggeration, but that’s what they told me. In the 80s they started noticing the population started dying off but they didn’t really know why and people hadn’t done much research on it. Quinton, the head of The Cape Leopard Trust, was curious if maybe it was because of a disease.
Q. So how did you get samples for your research?
A. One of the rangers from Cape Nature (a group that deals with environmental issues) went out and shot a couple dassies. It was destructive sampling (though it followed protocol). I felt awful because I don’t really like killing animals . When we opened the first one up I felt awful because the first thing I see is that it is a pregnant female . Then I realized that the placenta was covered in all these dots and the lungs were almost completely destroyed. It probably wouldn’t have lived to give birth the way it looked. Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad. The other (dassie) was a young female, but she had a lesion on its lungs. So we took samples and sent them to a lab and it turned out to be a weird form of tuberculoses. That raised some interesting issues.
Q. Why is this research important?
A. Now we are wondering if (tuberculoses) is contributing to the population loss.
Then there are the concerns like if it is transmittable to humans. They don’t believe that it is. But it could be kind of a big deal ecologically. It was really neat because I found this in a sample of only two.
Q. Do you have a lot of pets?
A. I do. Between me and my roommate, we have four cats, two dogs, a beta fish and a duck and a chicken. I am really allergic to cats, though, so I have to take lots of medicine.
Q. What is your biggest pet peeve?
A. When someone is being a “downer.” When people are all negative. But I like sarcasm. Sarcasm is wonderful.
Q. And do you have a hero or someone who inspires you?
A. Spiderman. Actually I like batman better because he didn’t have a weird spider bite give him powers. He’s just good.
Q. Anything else you’d like to add?
A. I want to give a shout out to the Pre-Vet club.