SIOUX CITY | Shaena Hanson, 24, has always been a risk taker, which means she was more than ready for her two-week adventure, caring for the big cats of South Africa.

"I was part of small group of volunteers studying the anatomy, behavior and conservation of cheetahs at the Feracare Wildlife Centre," the 2014 Morningside College biology graduate said. "Cheetahs are a vulnerable species because they lack genetic diversity. Feracare is breeding cheetahs to increase their genetic diversity while educating the public about conservation."

Through this hands-on learning project, Hanson built mounds, cleared brush and, yes, even fed the cheetahs at mealtime.

So, what does a cheetah eat for supper? 

"Zebra meat, mostly," Hanson said. "That was in abundance and it was what a cheetah would eat outside of breeding camp."

Which only makes sense because once a baby cheetah (or cub) is born, it is returned to the wild.

Hanson insisted she was never frightened by the cheetahs or the other wildlife she cared for in South Africa.

"Frightened isn't the right word for it," she said. "It was more like feeling exhilarated. My heart was racing but I didn't feel scared at all."

Not even when the cheetah would roar? Cheetahs do roar, don't they?

"That's a misconception many people have," Hanson said. "Cheetahs actually purr like a large, oversize cat would."

Actually, Hanson does have some experience working with king-sized wildlife.

Last year, she volunteered her time by working with rescue elephants in an animal sanctuary in Thailand.

Both of Hanson's overseas experiences were through Loop Abroad, an animal science program for students and young adults, ages 14 to 30, who are interested in a career as a veterinarian. 

Even though she'll soon be completing her master's degree in public health from South University, of Savannah, Georgia, Hanson is also looking into veterinary school.

"I've also been interested in health and science," she said. "It was just a matter of seeing if I wanted to work with people or with animals."

Well, it looks like the animals have won out.

"Animals are truly my soft spot," said Hanson, who has a purebred golden retriever named C.J. and a purebred teacup Yorkie named Bowe.

So is adventure. 

Even though her travel in South Africa was limited due to the secluded nature of the Feracare Nature Centre, Hanson's experience in Thailand included such extreme activities as zip-lining and cliff diving.

"I've been opportunities that have gotten me out of my comfort zone," she said. "If given a choice of trying something new, I've always gone for it. If I fail, hey, at least I gave it a shot."

Hanson glanced over at materials she received from her South African training.

"Right now, my goal is to someday open a small veterinary office," she said. "But, who knows? I may end up doing something, health-related, on a global level."

"I don't want any regrets," Hanson said, smiling. "If you're living life with regrets, you're not living life."

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Food and Lifestyles reporter

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