“Now, I know who I am and I just keep feeding the fire. It’s sick.” #P2P Vol. 3: Courtney Fraley
I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Courtney Fraley, a 24-year-old animal activist pursuing a career as a veterinary technician. I’ve known Courtney for years — we met years ago in the Metro-Detroit area. She and I have hung out plenty of times, but I’ve never really sat down and talked with her about her exciting perspective on life until recently.
Courtney spent the summer of 2013 in Africa, interning as a veterinary technician student at two different camps. The first camp she worked in is a vervet monkey rehabilitation farm and the second camp is a research conservation. Courtney spent a month at each camp before returning to Michigan, but what she learned while she was away changed her forever.
Jumping across the pond.
What made you decide to go to Africa?
“I went to Africa on an internship for school. I’m going to school to be a veterinary technician, but I want a wildlife biology degree or a wildlife conservation degree.”
Why Africa for your internship, though?
“One of the doctors who teaches at my school. We’re on the same page. He does a lot of conservation work, he did all of his schooling internationally, he loves to travel so he’s a really great mentor to me. He told me that I should do my internship out of the states.”
Was it hard making it happen?
“I wasn’t even sure it was possible. At my school, they’re not actively trying to get us to pursue our internships out of the state, let alone out of the country. If you want it, you have to make it happen. You have to be the one to be like ‘Listen, I’m going to Africa and you guys just have to get on board with this.’ I’m lucky that I have really supportive teachers who wanted to help me figure it out and make it happen.”
Yeah, seriously. Did you fly straight to Africa?
“I flew to Amsterdam first, where I lost my purse. It was the absolute worst, yet totally normal because I tend to lose everything. I left my purse there so I didn’t have anything on me the entire time I lived in Africa — which was actually kind of liberating. I really didn’t need anything. I had my clothes and my passport; that was it. The entire time. I had no money. None.”
How did you make that work with no money?
“With some help from my friends. I had a little bit of cash on me and that lasted a little while. But I’m the type of person that doesn’t ever really need money, if that makes sense. I can get by without it. We had a place to sleep and two meals provided to us a day. Any money that I needed would be mostly for transportation from one place to another. That’s pretty much all I needed.”
Oh, I see. That’s pretty neat. So, you left Amsterdam with no money. Where to? Africa?
“We flew to Paris on our layover. We looked at a bunch of layovers, like one in London which was 9 hours. We tried to find the one with the absolute longest wait time. I didn’t care where it was as long as I was able to experience a new city. We found Paris for 14 hours and we were like ‘Done. Sold. That’s where we going and maybe we’ll actually be there long enough to get a feel of the city.’ So, we did that. We slept in the park all day, we walked around, we people watched.”
I want to go to Paris so bad! It’s on my bucket list. How was it?
“It was the most amazing thing. Every single person was pretty much kissing someone. Everyone was so in love, just like you imagine when you think Paris. We grabbed a bottle of wine and laid under the Eiffel Tower for the entire day. That’s all we did. We were all poor, so we just slept under the Tower which was one of the most amazing days in my entire life.”
How did you find your way around?
“We found this one French lady who said she’d tell us exactly what to do. We had three stops we wanted to make all day — Arc de Triumph, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower — so she drew on a map for us. She showed us how to get to all of them. Then, she waved her hands forward and said ‘Now, go! Go see Paris!’ and sent us on our way. I looked at my friend and I’m like ‘I literally feel like I’m in a movie, because this can’t be normal.'”
Arrived at your destination.
When you finally got to Africa, what was it like?
“My first impression was like ‘Wow.’ I was over the moon! I’m thinking to myself that this is the best, most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my entire life. However, within a few days, I remember sitting in the bathroom bawling my eyes out because I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I wanted to go home. It was the worst.”
“The way they run the country over there is so overwhelming. Their medical standards are so low.”
How long were you there for?
“We were at that camp for a month, but then we went to the second camp.”
Was the second camp better?
“The second camp was like the complete opposite of the first camp. The first camp was definitely a learning experience. It made me feel extremely privileged to live in America. It made me appreciate my life in general. The second camp made me want to move to South Africa. They do so much conservation research and everyone I worked with was so smart. They’re all in tune with nature and the world.”
Wow, that’s definitely a 180. What was it like?
“We spent the entire day traveling to get to that camp. Our boss shows up and he picks us up. He’s like ‘Okay, get in the car. We’re going.’ So he takes us another two hours in an open safari car. So he slams on the brakes at one point and says ‘Everyone be quiet.’ And like, not too far away from the car there was an elephant next to us. In the wild. Just kind of hanging out there looking at us. And I’m like holding onto my friend’s hand wondering what the hell we’ve gotten ourselves into. I’m like ‘we’re going to die out here!'”
Sounds like you had a crazy first experience with the camp.
“That’s not even all of it. We ended up having to camp out later in the trip, so we slept outside surrounded by hyenas and lions in an open field. We had one rifle. We had to take sleeping shifts because two people always had to be up at night with the light to check for predators.”
There were hyenas surrounding you?
“Yes! There’s a way to tell by the placement of their eyes whether they’re a herbivore or a carnivore. You have to check for red eyes. If the eyes are looking at you straight on, it’s a predator and a carnivore. So, we ended up seeing two red eyes looking at us straight on so we knew it was a hyena or a lion.”
Whoa. Just whoa.
“It was crazy. We weren’t sure what to do. We didn’t know if we should wake up the ranger or let him sleep. He told us hyenas would circle us, so we weren’t sure. But it was really scary.”
A changed person.
What sort of tasks were you doing in your internships?
“At the first camp of my internship I did wildlife rehabilitation. So, we were all assigned animals. I had a monkey that had epilepsy, so I had to make sure it had its medication every day. Another monkey had a spider bite and its tail was necrotic, so it was breaking off like every day. I had to give him medicine, injections, do regular bandaging, watch him 24/7.”
You worked directly with the animals then.
“Pretty much. We had another monkey, Macy, who died. We never diagnosed why she died, but we think it was kidney failure. She was so ill, though, that we had to drive her two hours to the vet hospital in Johannesburg to euthanize her. My friend Kayla was the one tasked to do it and she said it was the worst experience of her entire life.”
Why is that?
“After they finally gave the injection, they didn’t check her temperature, pulse or respiration to see if she was still alive. They just went straight through her chest and cut her open. Kayla said the doctor had blood on his hands when he walked in from the surgery prior. So, he kept that blood on his hands, went to Macy and got more blood on his hands from her, and then went to the next surgery. He didn’t even wash his hands.”
Wow. That’s disgusting! And this was the camp you didn’t really enjoy.
“Right. But at the second camp, I did all research conservation. We were doing game drive, so data collection. We would drive around and every time we see an animal, we needed to identify it. Animals were being darted so that the medical team could match their ears and change their collars so we could track them. They’re tracked for immunocontraception, which is basically birth control. They’re shot up with this vaccine so they can’t have babies.”
You prevent the animals from having children?
“You actually don’t want them to have babies because they’re in a confined area. So, for example, too many elephants will destroy the area.”
I thought they were out in the wild.
“People think that there are wild animals just running around Africa and that’s a preconceived notion. It’s all enclosed. It might be an ginormous enclosure, one that is so big they could run around forever and not reach the end of it. But it’s enclosed.”
And you track them in the area? How does that work?
“We know where they are because we know their habits. We know where they migrate, where they’re sleeping. We have to identify them, see who they’re hanging out with and breeding with, check them for medical problems, things like that. So we were doing all of that data collection and they use it for research purposes.”
Did you do any work against poachers?
“Yes, we did anti-poaching work. We would wake up at midnight and patrol the ground for poachers. Sometimes, poachers might cut through the fences and try to take a camp’s rhinos. People are f**ked up. But our camp always takes precautions to make sure all of the animals are safe.”
How do you feel about that scandal with the photo of that hunter and the lion from a little while ago?
“Before I went to Africa, I was completely against hunting. Then, I went there and I realized that upward of 90 percent of revenue into conservations is provided by hunters.”
“Conservation management will sell you the rights to a specific animal. You don’t get to kill whatever animal you want — you get one. They pick out this animal because they can lose it in order to strengthen the blood line of its species. So, hunting has to exist to strengthen the reservation and create stronger species. They’ll sell the rights to a lion: guess how much they sell it for.”
Uh … a couple of thousand?
“$100,000 for one lion. There’s a difference between hunters and poachers. Poachers have no respect for the biodiversity of the land. They don’t care. They will kill anything to make a game. Hunters understand why they’re killing this one lion. They respect the land, they understand the land and they know what they’re doing. They know where their money is going.”
Oh, wow. I didn’t really know that.
“Most of the time, the hunters are activists for animals as well. They know that their money is going into conservation efforts. So, it’s going toward breeding projects, medical treatments, anti-poaching efforts, whatever it may be. Hunters are providing revenue to stop the poachers. Without that, there’d be no conservations.”
And without conservations …
“Without conservations, poachers would be poaching everything just to make a gain. Human-induced evolution would wipe out entire species. The concrete jungles we’ve created would wipe out everything. I support hunting 100 percent. The animals in Africa are precious, they’re majestic and beautiful. But you need to realize that selling the right to kill one animal will provide so many breeding efforts and medical treatment for hundreds of other animals. That’s so much money!”
So, hunters pretty much pay for conservations?
“Right. No one’s giving the conservations money. No one’s blindly writing them checks. People are spending their money on the animals. They won’t just donate $100,000. You have to give them something. This is what we give.”
The difference abroad.
So, how were all of these internship experiences different than what you might have gotten if you interned in Michigan?
“Well, comparing my experience to what I might have done in an internship in Michigan is different because I literally lived with the animals. Other people get to go home from work and go to the bar, go to the movies, watch a movie, or something like that. You get to separate yourself. I literally lived with the animals. My roommate was a monkey for the first three weeks. She would bite me in the face for a while.”
You really have to love animals to do something like this, don’t you?
“Yeah. Absolutely. I wouldn’t mind never making a dollar in my entire life. I want to do something that I’m really passionate about. I want to combine veterinarian medicine with travel. They have to go together.”
How can you do that?
“There’s places you can go, like HelpExchange.net, where you can find people who are looking for veterinarian professionals. They’ll provide you with a place to sleep, all of your food and you work for like two months or something. I think that’s a good thing. Then, I can travel and feel like I’m a part of the culture. I can use my license to actually do something.”
So you want to make a living out of traveling and helping animals?
“Yeah, I do. My dad gets really sick and tired of me wanting to leave all the time. I’m being adventurous, but he’s always telling me that I need to do something and not sleep on a beach for the rest of my life. So, that’s when I found this field. I knew in my first day of class, when my professor asked us to write down what we wanted to do, that I want to take veterinarian medicine and I want to travel around doing it.”
And you’ve been working to make that happen since.
“Yep! I’m not going to be a bum. I’m not going to just be couch surfing for a living. I’ll actually be doing something. I’ll be contributing to society.”
What is it about travel that motivates you so much?
“I don’t know. I get like a high off of a new city. I can’t sit in the same place for too long. I’ve never seen anything like Paris. I’ve never seen anything like Africa. They’re so in touch with nature and it’s so different than the way we think. I remember coming back and listening to my coworkers chat. I love my coworkers, but I wanted to blow my brains out because of the things they were talking about.”
What were they talking about?
“It was the most superficial garbage I had ever heard in my entire life. Some of them couldn’t stop talking about the person next to them, or bitching about the customer who only tipped $8 instead of the $10 they thought they deserved. I’m thinking to myself ‘You guys need to step out of your bubble and see what else is out there.’ My boss in Africa made $100 in a month. That’s what I make on a bad Friday night in tips. Get your priorities straight, because you’re lucky as f**k to make that kind of money here.”
On love and traveling.
“Combining love and travel is deadly. I dated this guy for two or three years. He was visiting Michigan and says to me ‘I want you to move to North Carolina with me.’ I moved the next day with him. We packed everything in the car and I called my friend Lindsay. She answered and I’m like ‘You are going to be so mad at me.’ She’s asking why, and I’m telling her I’m moving to North Carolina in 13 hours. She’s like ‘Are you kidding me!? What is wrong with you!’ I ended up being gone for a year and some change until we broke up.”
“The thing that sucks is that if I ever want to get married or something, I can’t. If I did, I would need to work at a practice with dogs and cats or something because I need to be confined to a city. The only experience I have in that is what I learn in school. I won’t let myself get a job doing that because I want to do wildlife. I’m trying to stay really focused on that so that I don’t have to conform to something else.”
On spreading her passion for travel to others.
“I would never try to convince someone to not be who they are. I just want people to understand who I am and open up their minds to it. There’s a lot of things that I haven’t believed in. But, I went through them and suddenly I understand them. Maybe I don’t believe them, but I get why you do. Just open up your minds. That’s all I ask.”
So, you think traveling changed your perception on things?
“I don’t think it’s changed it, I think it’s reiterated it. I’ve always been who I am. It’s not for some people, but it’s for me.”
You’ve always wanted to travel?
“I have. I’ll look back at the things I wrote when I was 17 or 18 when I hadn’t gone anywhere. I wasn’t on an airplane until I was 18, but reading these little things I wrote shows me that I still had travel in my blood even then. I hadn’t been anywhere yet. So, why was my mind like that when I was 17 when I hadn’t gone anywhere? It’s just kind of who I am. Now, I know who I am and I just keep feeding the fire. It’s sick.”
Courtney’s story is a part of #P2P, a recently launched blog series that profiles the choices, risks and lifestyles of influential people I come across. For more on my personal journey with #P2P, subscribe to my blog, follow me on Twitter or subscribe to me on Facebook.