While most students reunited with friends and family over winter break, Dyanna Cooper, a third year UCR student, flew to South Africa. Cooper, who is double majoring in psychology and biology, was drawn to Port Elizabeth to live and work among lions and tigers at the Sea View Lion Park.This past winter break was Cooper’s second time at the wild animal sanctuary. Cooper first traveled there during summer of 2011. She said, “During the summer I was there for three weeks, and I loved it so much that I decided to go back. I even took my finals early so I could go during my finals week,” said Cooper.While her peers were finishing up final projects and taking exams, Cooper was halfway across the globe, surrounded by nature and wild animals. If Cooper was afraid, she did not show it. She was excited at the opportunity and shared what pulled her toward an experience others would find frightening.

“I always loved animals, especially tigers. They are my favorite animals,” said Cooper.

“I first heard of the park when I was researching for parks with tigers and lions. It’s a volunteer program that I found online.” said Cooper.

It became clear when speaking with Cooper that she is unbelievably independent and unstoppable when it comes pursuing her goals. After a few hours of researching volunteer opportunities, she decided that a wild animal park in South Africa was the perfect place for her. At first, her friends and family were concerned for her safety and were opposed to her traveling so far for such a risky task.

“People tried to discourage me from going to Africa, but I was going to go. I thought, ‘if something happens, oh well, it doesn’t matter.’”

“When I called the sanctuary, they said that I get to be hands on with the animals. When I heard that, I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go,’” said Cooper. Soon after, Cooper began planning for her trip.

“I bought a ticket the same day I talked to [the people at the sanctuary]. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t go with any particular program, so I was just hoping that they would be there to pick me up at the airport,” said Cooper.

Tigers and lions are arguably some of the worlds most feared and fierce creatures. But instead of outwardly displaying any fear she may have felt, Cooper said that she maintained tough presence when she was with the big cats. She noted the importance of a firm gaze, one that also emitted a calming effect.

Cooper had a strict schedule to abide by. On the first day, she went through intensive training. Every day that followed, she had to wake up early in the morning to prepare meals for the animals.

“I had to wake up every morning around 5 a.m. because I had to start work at 6 a.m. I had to feed the lions with a bottle because they were still young. When I first got there, they were seven weeks old,” said Cooper, who was able to watch the young cubs grow during her time there.

Aside from feeding the cubs, Cooper also had many other obligations. During the day, she had to take the big cats on a walk, clean the park and play with the animals. She recalled, “Lions follow the leader because they are pride animals. But tigers are more independent, so we had to harness them, put them on a leash, and take them on a walk before and after the park closes so no public is around.”

Despite the long hours she had to put in, Cooper was hardly aware of the amount of work because she considered it a part of living her dream.

Cooper’s love for animals has been a reoccurring theme throughout her life, and she has been exposed to animals from a very young age. Currently, she owns a pet snake at her apartment because she cannot keep dogs or cats. “I have always had a pet since I was younger. I used to go to Kansas every summer since we have a house there. We had a horse and all sorts of animals. I always wanted a horse, even though I had to cut up one at the sanctuary,” said Cooper. She has also worked with other exotic animals before; she was a dolphin trainer for a day at SeaWorld when she had just graduated from high school.

An interesting experience she remembers was “meat prep.” At the sanctuary she had to prepare meat to feed to the lions and tigers. “When I was on meat prep, I had to prepare the food with others so we had to go fetch an animal—an animal that needed to be put down or we would have to go hunt one. Then we had to cut up the meat ourselves. When I first got there the babies were only on bottles, but later they were on both bottles and meat. While there, I witnessed a horse getting shot and I even cut open a horse with my own two hands.”

When explaining how she came to terms with having to cut up or hunt animals for food, she explained, “I understand that it’s a circle of life. In the wild, the horse would’ve experienced a torturous death, but the horse dies instantly when shot down. So there’s less pain.”

Cooper’s cabin at the sanctuary was located inside the 300 acre gated park, and each morning she she woke to a view of zebras and other wild animals roaming right beneath her window.

“When you work with animals twice your weight, you realize that you can die. They can just kill you, but they don’t. Working with such risk and bonding with such big animals taught me to be fearless,” said Cooper. She admits that it was a struggle to get close to the bigger lions in the park, one that she overcame.

Overall, the experience has affected Cooper in many different ways. For one, it inspired her to become a biology major. Her fearless encounter with wild animals also taught her a lot about herself. She said, “Traveling by myself taught me a lot about myself and life. It gave me a new perspective on it all.”

She added, “I learned to be thankful for what you have. To do what you want to do, and to just go for it. I learned how strong I am as an individual, and I learned that I can do anything when put my mind to it.”

Cooper confessed, “There are no bonds like bonds with animals. It’s hard to explain. No one can understand the bond I had with the animals.”