Student Features

PA Cyber grad volunteers at rhino sanctuary in Africa

Jan 12, 2017

PA Cyber graduate Morgan Grinpas feeds a baby rhinocerous at an animal sanctuary in Africa.

PA Cyber graduate Morgan Grinpas feeds a baby rhinoceros at an animal sanctuary in Africa.

Morgan Grinpas never imagined she would spend a month in South Africa taking care of wildlife.

But that's exactly what happened when she arrived on Oct. 31 in Johannesburg. Morgan spent the next four weeks working at an animal reserve, overseeing the care of 28 rhinoceroses — eight adult white rhinos, 18 white rhino calves and two juvenile black rhinos.

Morgan was only 15 when she applied to the African Conservation Experience, or ACE, program. She was accepted.

"I just got so excited that there was even something out there like that that I signed up instantly," said Morgan, now 18, of Cambridge Springs.

Being accepted at 15 is rare, according to her mother, TJ Casper, who didn't want her daughter traveling to another continent alone at such a young age. She insisted Morgan wait until she was 18.

Because Morgan didn't want to prolong her trip, she fit her junior and senior year of high school at PA Cyber Charter School into one year and graduated in 2016. Two days after graduation, she left for Africa.

"She was very set in her mind to go. I'm so glad she went," Casper said. "It's the best thing she's done yet."

Morgan said the experience was life-changing. When her arriving airplane was low enough to land, she saw herds of animals down below and became so overwhelmed with emotion, she cried.
"It was was beautiful and it was very hot," Morgan said.

Temperatures hovered around 110 degrees, and working in the heat was especially tough. Morgan woke every day to make morning rounds around 5 a.m., when the coolest weather is just around 75 degrees.

Her first two weeks were spent in the wilds of Nelspruit, South Africa, at the largest rhino orphanage in the world. Volunteers essentially run the rhino sanctuary, she said, because regular staff are busy preparing for incoming animals, taking vitals, and doing other necessary work.

Volunteers fed the rhinos dry feed of hay and alfalfa, put them out during the day, gave mud baths and cleaned their enclosures, or boma, which took the majority of the day. They bottle-fed baby rhinos and learned to protect themselves, even around the smallest ones.

Morgan said rhinos can be dangerous because they don't understand their own strength, particularly the babies. An 8-month-old rhino calf weighs 500 pounds, she said.

"They're very big. They don't realize how big they are. They think they're dogs."

Morgan hurt her hand while working with a baby rhino. She said her hand was up against a wooden fence and a baby leaned its head against her. She tried to pull her hand out from under the rhino, who was oblivious that her hand was there.

"It left a big dent and a bruise around it. It's all scabbed up. They don't even realize they're touching you," Morgan said.

She also learned to discern their temperaments. She said the black rhinos are a lot more aggressive than the white rhinos. She got trampled by one of them, but wasn't seriously injured.

"You have to be really careful when you're feeding them not to go too fast or stand up too quick because it will scare them and they will charge you. That's just kind of what happened to me," Morgan said.

Casper said she was at first terrified for her daughter to go, but also ecstatic.

"I knew in my heart if anyone could pull it off, it would be my Morgan," Casper said. "I could go on for days about all of her accomplishments and her sheer love of animals — great and small. Morgan loves every creature from worms to rhinos. Her heart is very tough, but very sensitive to animals."

Morgan stayed in a cabin her first two weeks at the sanctuary. In addition to 28 rhinos, she worked with other animals — two lions, two hippopotamuses, a serval cat, impalas, nyala, bush babies, meerkats, a couple breeds of antelope, several tortoises and a massive herd of goats.

Her second two weeks were spent at the Hanchi Horseback Conservation in South Africa, where she did border patrols with the horses, looking for snares in the bush. She also cared for a baby zebra and several wild bush babies at a much smaller rhino sanctuary there. Her nights were spent sleeping in a stable in a room next to the horses.

"I would just literally roll out of bed and they would be right there," Morgan said.

During her time there, she had a chance to pet a friendly adult male lion that would often wander up to the fence so she could pet its mane through the chain links. She encountered monkeys in the wild—baboons the size of dogs that came around if they sensed food. She also met people from all over the world and remains in contact through social media.

"It was absolutely amazing," Morgan said. "Even just aside from the animals."

Morgan visited an African village and got the chance to see how the locals live. There were areas considered wealthy, and also villages where people lived with less. Morgan recalled passing a village where people lived in straw huts, and pieces of road signs had fallen down.

"It was major culture shock," she said. "It was really eye-opening."

Volunteers pay thousands of dollars to participate in the program, which covers the cost of travel, support and the conservation project. Morgan said she worked weekends and saved for about three years throughout high school to raise the $8,000. For her 18th birthday, her father paid the last $700.

Morgan returned home Dec. 1 and enjoyed the experience so much, she plans to volunteer again. She hopes to make South Africa a yearly voyage. She'll return for four weeks in August and September.

Her future plans are to work toward an online degree and obtain a master's degree in zoology and animal husbandry. She also wants to join the Peace Corps.

Her parents are TJ Casper and stepfather Tom Casper, and her dad Dave Grinpas.

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About PA Cyber

Serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) is one of the largest, most experienced, and most successful online public schools in the nation. PA Cyber's online learning environments, personalized instructional methods, and choices of curricula connect Pennsylvania students and their families with state-certified and highly-qualified teachers, and rich academic content that is aligned to state standards. Founded in 2000, PA Cyber is headquartered in Midland (Beaver County) and maintains a network of support offices throughout the state. As a public school, PA Cyber is open for enrollment by any school-age child residing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and does not charge tuition to students or families.