North Huntingdon woman gets first-hand knowledge in Belize
Amy Owens is no stranger to exotic animals and the environmental changes that affect their lives.
The 2009 Norwin High School graduate has a degree in environmental science from the University of Pittsburgh and works in the education department at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.
But spending several weeks in the jungles of Belize in Central America as part of her master’s degree program in biology at Miami University in Ohio was a chance to experience firsthand what she has been learning.
“I really didn’t have any predetermined expectations when I went to Belize this summer, I was just really excited to have the opportunity to go there,” said Owens, 24, of North Huntingdon, who spent 10 days in the tropical nation studying the coral reefs, manatees, jaguars and other wildlife.
Owens said the biggest surprise to her was experience what it is like to “live in the middle of nowhere.”
“Our base camp was the tropical education complex off the Belize Zoo, and there were very few people around,” she said. “We lived in huts built on stilts because of flooding, and there were very few conveniences.”
Electricity is scarce, and when it is available, there typically is only enough power to run a fan, she said.
“There were a couple of flush toilets around, but mostly we used outhouses,” Owens said. “And if we could take a shower, it was with cold water.”
Despite the primitive living conditions, Owens said, the people she encountered were generally unfazed by their lack of modern amenities.
“It was really neat to see how much respect they had for the environment and wildlife and how much they were involved in conservation,” she said. “For me, getting away from all the technology we have here really created a calming effect.”
The field work during Owens’ stay involved traveling deep into the rain forest, where students lived with local families while they studied the ecosystem, spending time at a rehabilitation center where orphaned or injured manatees are treated and reintroduced to the wild, and learning about the operation of a jaguar wilderness sanctuary.
While all of the activities provided Owens with a deeper insight into the subjects she is studying, diving to explore the delicate coral that makes up the Belize Barrier Reef stood out.
“It was amazing to be able explore such a beautiful, healthy ecosystem,” she said. “But right next to it, you can see some of the choral that has deteriorated,” she said.
Owens said she eventually would like to conduct research into “what drives people to not only learn about conservation, but what gets them involved in it.”
While many people experience a kind of “culture shock” when they travel to places where there is little or no technology available, Owens said the real shock came when she returned home.
“I was back working at the zoo doing a class with 10- and 11-year-olds, and one of the kids had a temper tantrum because he couldn’t get Wi-Fi,” Owens said. “It was such a contrast to being in a place where people have very little but are happy for what they do have. It made me take a step back and think about finding peace in what really matters.”
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer.