My Introduction to the World of Wildlife Conservation

My Introduction to the World of Wildlife Conservation

Brice Cooper

Thai Elephant Conservation Project and The Amazing Thailand Adventure, Thailand 2015 | Turtle Conservation Project, Costa Rica 2016

Hi everyone! My name is Brice; I went on two different Rustic Pathways trips! The first was to Thailand where I learned how to work with Asian elephants in the way that traditional mahouts (elephant caretakers) do as well as explore a country that has such an amazing history and scenery.

The second was to Costa Rica where I aided in the conservation of Olive Ridley sea turtles. I graduated in May 2021 from Cornell University where I obtained a bachelor’s degree after completing a major in Environment and Sustainability with a concentration in Wildlife Conservation.

I grew up in New York City but now live and work in Boston. During my free time I am an avid yoga practitioner which I plan to continue throughout my life of working with animals. My end goal is to continue to enhance my knowledge of wildlife, in regards to both their behavior, rehabilitation and habitat protection, and facilitate their well being through global outreach.

All photos have been provided by Brice. Read her story below!

Bottomline: the two programs that I did through Rustic Pathways during two consecutive summers in high school completely altered and defined my career trajectory and here’s why.

When I was young I was always fascinated by animals and nature. I watched any Nature documentary that I could, read books about anything and everything from Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees to The Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds by Dr. Caroline Coile.

It wasn’t long before I knew that I wanted to be a veterinarian especially since my early childhood interest was strengthened when being around animals, horses in particular, helped me get through an extremely painful stage of my life.

That being said, I also knew that long hours in a veterinary clinic, with limited vacation time, was an aspect of becoming a veterinarian that I was not so keen on. Nevertheless, my passion for working with animals overshadowed that so I never put much more thought into it because I thought that decision had been made already.

That remained unchanged until one day during my sophomore year in high school that was honestly just like any other day, but it wasn’t. On that day, while I was sitting in my school’s cafeteria eating lunch I noticed a display table with a representative from Rustic Pathways standing behind it who was talking to students and handing out these big catalog-style books that contained information on the company itself and all of the programs that were offered.

I went up to the table and talked to the rep for a bit who, after telling him about my interest in animals, told me about programs in places like Thailand and Costa Rica. Lo and behold, those were the two countries that I visited.

For three weeks during the summer of 2015 I was in Thailand where I spent the first half at an elephant sanctuary in Lampang and the latter half exploring northern Thailand, Bangkok, and the ancient capital, Ayutthaya.

Throughout our time at the elephant sanctuary we were paired up with a mahout and an elephant for the entirety of our stay there. The elephant that I was paired with was named Mo J and while we were there we learned how to tell her to do different things, fed her and took her into the nearby river to give her a bath.

Most importantly, we learned about the significance that elephants have to the people of Thailand and how vital it is that there are robust conservation efforts to work towards saving them. Mo J was gentle and loving, but with that was a strength and power that was magnificent to behold.

Throughout my time at this sanctuary I kept wondering how could one ever bring themselves to harm such a beautiful creature? Especially at a rate to where 96 elephants are killed every day in Africa. The stories of these elephants, and countless other animals around the world, need to be spread by people because we have the voice that they need to persevere.

During that trip it was as though a switch was flipped in my mind. That trip opened up a world to me in which I was working with animals while being in nature rather than a clinic or a zoo. It sparked the change from wanting to be a veterinarian to becoming a wildlife conservationist, and the next trip that I took only helped solidify that change.

The other Rustic Pathways program that I did was the Turtle Conservation Project in Costa Rica. That trip was nine days of learning about turtle conservation as well as carrying out various tasks, day and night, to actively work towards conserving these turtles.

We did this by walking up and down the beach for hours to find nests that we could relocate before raccoons or other animals found them, dug them up, and ate the eggs inside; by cleaning the beaches that were littered with trash and other debris, and reinforcing the hatchery and other parts of the beach with sand bags.

On more than one occasion we were lucky enough to actually see a female turtle who was in the process of laying her eggs. We watched her trek from the ocean to then go through the careful process of digging a nest that was just right, lay roughly 50 to 100 eggs, diligently cover the nest and then make the journey all the way back to the ocean.

It was amazing, especially considering that so much can go wrong. The moon is her guide yet she cannot differentiate between the moon and a large bright light on shore so she is in danger of becoming lost on her way back to the sea.

The same danger falls onto her offspring who, after not being dug up by raccoon and crocodiles, dig their way through sand after they hatch, then have to follow the real moon and not an artificial one so that they can get to the ocean where they are then at the mercy of another fate–potentially being caught in fishing nets, straws, plastic soda can rings, etc.

It is almost heart-wrenching to think about all that these animals go through and have to be wary of in order to survive to see another day. The fact that we as humans are responsible for the lion’s share of the struggles that these animals face is deeply saddening.

These two trips, with the experiences I had and the animals that I met, helped led me to take a class at Cornell University during the same summer as my trip to Costa Rica called Conservation Medicine. The class was from a Veterinary Perspective which was taught by renowned wildlife conservationist, who primarily focuses on rhinoceroses, Dr. Robin Radcliffe.

Through that class I learned about other endangered species such as pangolins and sage grouse as well as the efforts that people are putting in to aid them. That led to a strong conviction that this is what I wanted to focus on during my four years at college which, as of 2 months ago, I fulfilled by earning my bachelor’s degree from Cornell University after pursuing an Environment and Sustainability major with a concentration in wildlife conservation.

My next steps are to take what I have learned about conservation through these trips along with the classes I have taken and apply it in real life to jobs across the United States and around the world.

There are so many opportunities to give a voice to the voiceless animals around the world from working with seals in Ireland and big cats in South Africa to wolves in New Mexico and birds in New Zealand. Animals have been a constant for me throughout my life and now it’s time for me to pay it forward by being their advocate all while working to rehabilitate those who are sick and injured and learning more about their intraspecific and interspecific behaviors.


Learn more about Rustic Pathways programs in Costa Rica and Thailand, or view more Alumni Stories here