When Brittany Hutchinson first locked eyes with a cheetah looking for a meal, the Northeastern University history student on co-op at a Namibia conservation reserve, knew one thing: she could not show fear.
Despite the fact that she was never separated from these predators by more than a seven-foot wire barrier—which, she says, feels like no protection at all—she faced down big cats like the cheetah every time and never felt afraid. “I don’t know where I got the confidence,” she says now.
Last August to October, working through the international exchange education program Geovisions, Hutchinson traveled from Boston to Namibia to pursue a volunteer position at the Environmental and Cheetah Conservation in Namibia. Then from October to January, she worked at a smaller lion and baboon reserve in South Africa.
At first glance, it’s not clear why a person planning to become a history teacher would want to work so closely with big cats and other wild animals. For Hutchinson, though, it was all about leaving her comfort zone, throwing herself into something totally new, and traveling the world. “There’s so much I want to do in life. I want to suck everything I can out of the opportunities I encounter as a student,” she explains.
Hutchinson has no regrets, and says the experience changed her life immeasurably.
“A lot of my friends were getting big engineering and finance co-ops, and I thought it was great. But when I started to look into co-op and the idea of traveling and volunteering internationally, it felt like the sky was the limit,” she adds. “I determined that I had an opportunity in front of me to do something I will never get a chance in my life to do again.”
She embarked on her back-to-back international volunteer experiences last fall, arriving in Namibia disoriented after an exhausting two days of travel. She was also a little shell-shocked.
“You’re in the middle of nowhere. You don’t know anybody. There are no regular resources, like water and lights,” she says. “I was very unhappy for a couple of weeks, just trying to adjust and trying to feel good about my decision to go there.”
Soon, though, she learned to adapt to the unfamiliar conditions, including water and electricity shortages and evenings spent listening to the roar of the nearby felines.
Hutchinson spent her days rescuing cheetahs and leopards from nearby fields, where farmers trap them in an effort to protect their herds. Often, she says, her morning would start with a simple phone message: “I’ve got a cheetah and a leopard for you.”
On the reserve, she spent most of her day cleaning up after the animals, or helping to feed them. It was during the feedings where she learned to stand her ground against the aggressive cats.
“Forget what you’ve seen on TV. These animals are enormous. They never take their eyes off you. The males are incredibly territorial and they’re not a fan of people,” she recounts. “When you drag the meat up to their fenced-in area to feed them, they’ll rush the fence.”
Yet, Hutchinson maintains that the experience was inspirational. “The whole focus of sharing the planet and catering to animals was really important to me,” she says. “I learned to be confident and brave, and developed a greater respect and appreciation for our planet.”