Looking back at her childhood, Sonia Perry knew that she wanted to work with animals.
Growing up, the Astoria resident discovered her deep passion for them through watching the late Steve Irwin work with majestic creatures. His “courageous” nature inspired her to try pursuing a similar career when she got older.
On the weekends, Perry and her father would frequent Queens County Farm, where they spent hours “admiring and interacting” with animals. She would also watch educational programs on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and Wildlife Planet.
“I realized there was something special [about animals]. I couldn’t really own pets at the time so being able to have that opportunity every weekend was amazing,” Perry said.
Thus began her journey to working wild animals at African reserves. As she continued learning about animals, Perry began to realize how many of them actually lived in captivity as opposed to being able to wander freely.
“It shattered my heart into pieces. I knew I had a calling to raise awareness to people all over the world on how crucial wildlife are,” she recalled.
Perry’s father died in 2017, which she described as a “tumultuous” time in her life. But she decided to turn her pain into a chance to follow her lifelong passion to Africa. After some research, she reached out to people about “hands-on opportunities” she could take part in.
“That’s how I found Zimbabwe. They had a private reserve which was about 10,000 hectares of land and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to be living without light and warm water for a really long time. I’ll be living like I’m on Gilligan’s Island.’ But it was so worth it,” said Perry.
So she hopped on a plane and set out for Zimbabwe, where she would spend the next eight months working on reserves, cleaning enclosures and shadowing caregivers who devoted their lives to protecting endangered creatures including lions, cheetahs, hyenas, zebras and African wild dogs.
“Working with animals [and] going into an enclosure, you really don’t know what to expect. It really is an adrenaline rush. Maybe one day that lion or that elephant I’m working with is grumpy; I don’t know how he will react. Every day is a new challenge and it’s full of surprises, which you kind of really don’t get by just working every day and doing the same routine. I love that. I love that experience where you get different surprises every day,” said Perry.
Following her eight months in Zimbabwe, Perry traveled to South Africa from 2018 to 2019 to do similar work with animals. In between those trips, she also visited Kenya and Tanzania to track and research the wildlife that are native to those countries.
She considers herself a self-taught wildlife behaviorist, animal photographer and activist and has dreams to open a wildlife reserve of her own in the future. She shared that Zimbabwe or South Africa would be her ideal countries to place an animal sanctuary.
“People really put their lives in danger just to protect [these animals] and I kind of felt that I could relate because that’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. They’re not understanding that unscrupulous hunting and poachers are causing [animals’] numbers to decline drastically,” Perry said. I hope to one day fulfill my biggest dream by preserving the conservation of species and spread positivity to the world. There’s remarkable beauty in the animal kingdom and if animals become extinct there won’t be anything left to show.”
She added that she hopes to teach others the lessons she’s learned in her work and inspire people the way that Steve Irwin inspired her as a child.
For those with similar aspirations to her own, Perry said that a good place to start researching opportunities is online at sites like gooverseas.com or volunteerforever.com.
“There’s a lot of sanctuaries that are not for profit or places that are just opening up now, so they’re just starting to get that stability where they would need people to come there and access. There are programs where you don’t have to pay and they do pay you with meals and accommodations. Then there’s reserves where you can volunteer [and there are] incentive of getting to work hands on with veterinarians and do some externships. You get accommodations and meals and tours,” she said.