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Northern Ireland woman on helping ill animals around the world - ‘it has taught me to be myself’

Veterinary nurse Nikki Cooke has moved around the globe for the past 10 years helping endangered and  mistreated animals. Currently in Peru, the 36-year-old from Belfast tells Heidi McAlpin about the inspirations behind her career

As the sun set over a stunning Thailand scene, Nikki Cooke clutched her incense stick and shed a tear as she witnessed the Buddhist burial ceremony of Lucy the elephant.

“It was one of the most beautiful rituals I have seen,” says the Belfast-born veterinary nurse, who has chosen a life less ordinary than that of her 30-something peers.

For the past decade, Nikki’s love of animals and travel has taken her to some of the world’s most spectacular destinations, working with a menagerie of magnificent and, sadly, endangered creatures.

With Lucy, problems arose with mistreatment at the hands of her owners. “She had been given amphetamines for most of her life to avoid sleep and make her work harder,” explains Nikki.

“Unsurprisingly, this led to massive problems with her ability to function normally. She swayed constantly and was never fully aware of her surroundings.

“Unfortunately, Lucy passed away a week later due to the cruelty she had endured. When she died, I cried my eyes out.”

Nikki’s incredible journey began at the age of 19 when she decided to face her shyness and dyslexia head-on and move to London to study veterinary nursing.

“I’ve always had the travel bug, but I was too shy when I was younger to really go exploring by myself,” she confesses. “Leaving home and meeting lots of people from around the world helped me overcome my fears.”

Soon, Nikki combined a job managing an animal hospital in London with travelling all over Europe with her Australian boyfriend.

“Luckily, I was able to adjust the rosters to enjoy long weekends off,” she recalls. “We had a rule that we always had a holiday booked.”

At 26, Nikki’s relationship took her on her first long-haul trip to Australia where, just two months later, the couple split up.

“The next six months were horrible”, she admits, “but I had met the most amazing people through friends and work.

“I think going through a heart-wrenching break-up in a new country gave me the confidence to do what I wanted. I had survived that and I wanted to explore everywhere.”

For the next two years, Nikki made Australia home, including working in a Melbourne sanctuary with exotic animals such as possums, wombats, koalas and even a crocodile.

“I made myself hold a snake for the first time, which is an experience I’ll not forget in a hurry,” she remembers with a shudder. “I also got to work with dolphins in Australia, which was an incredible experience.”

Australia’s epic landscape and indigenous animals gave Nikki a dream start to her career as she tended a captivating array of creatures, including Spud the wombat.

“Spud was found in a potato field. His brother Chips was healthy but Spud needed a urinary catheter,” explains Nikki.

“I spent my morning feeding him, checking his catheter and talking to the visiting public about this condition.”

Nikki also nursed a cuddly koala to health with the help of a trusty teddy bear. “After a bush fire, this guy was found alone and we had to treat his paws for burns,” she says. “The teddy bear represented his mum and helped him back to a full recovery.”

Belfast then seemed a world away for Nikki, whose sights were firmly fixed on exploring more countries.

“My version of travel is a little different to a week or fortnight in Spain,” she admits. “I prefer longer stays and becoming more immersed in the culture.”

It was after those two years in Australia that Nikki spent three months in Thailand working with elephants. Since then, her tireless wanderlust and career drive has seen her living and working in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, China, South Africa, practicing Spanish in Tenerife and basing herself in Argentina, then Bolivia for two years and counting.

“I am currently in Peru and heading back to Bolivia to work in an animal sanctuary,” says Nikki of her nomadic lifestyle.

When asked to describe her job, she replies: “It’s a funny question because I think as a vet nurse we are always a little on the defensive side. Most people tend to think we stand around stroking animals!

“The role is varied but normal duties can range from sedation and medication to radiography and minor surgery. I also provide advice and post-op care, as well as assisting the vet.”

As Nikki’s travels expanded her horizons, it also saw her extend her animal checklist. “In China, I was very lucky to work with moon bears, whose bile is extracted and sold as traditional medicine,” she explains.

“One particular bear, Rocky, needed an operation after he was rescued from the bile trade. The vet removed his gall bladder, which had become highly infected after a catheter had been left in for years to remove the bile.

“A sample of his liver was also taken for analysis along with blood, hair and skin scrape. Normally their canine teeth are broken from biting the bars of the cage, which is so sad.

“After six months’ quarantine, bears like Rocky are introduced into huge areas with other bears. Seeing them happy brings tears to your eyes every morning.”

Working with such big, wild beasts is a daunting task but, for Nikki, the job and its dangers have become second nature. “Fortunately, I’ve been very lucky,” she admits, even with a few elephant run-ins under her belt.

“I once got kicked by an elephant, but I don’t blame her— I had to clean an abscess on her rump every day and I knew she was getting more and more annoyed. And another poor collapsed elephant nearly broke my wrist when I was giving her water.”

Smaller animals, not to mention badly behaved humans, can also deliver quite the punch and cause problems for staff.

“Working in the clinic in Bolivia, I’ve had to deal with monkey attacks on people, applying first aid before a trip to hospital for a stitch-up,” says Nikki.

Away from the animals, she turns to her favourite hobby to unwind and get together with new people.

“I’m big into rollerblading and my skates come everywhere with me,” the veterinary nurse says.

“I used them all the time in Buenos Aires, which was one of the main reasons I stayed there. It’s an amazing way to keep fit, learn new tricks, meet people and practice a new language.”

Indeed, her dyslexia hasn’t stopped Nikki fulfilling another dream. “Spanish is my other passion,” she says. “I have always wanted to learn a language but never felt it was possible. Being dyslexic, English was never my strong point. But I started learning with YouTube and it has just continued from there.”

With a second language in the bag, it seems the world continues to be Nikki’s oyster. At 36, the only problem is where to visit next. “I want to go everywhere,” she admits. “The list gets longer, never shorter.

“I have always wanted to work with big cats, being a massive fan of our domestic moggy. And I did get to work with ocelots and a puma in Bolivia.”

It’s not just the big beasts that have captivated Nikki’s heart. “I would also travel anywhere in the world to work with tortoises and turtles, she adds. “I was lucky enough to live with marine biologists in Western Australia, where I helped record GPS co-ordinates of turtle nests.”

But it’s the world’s largest land animal that holds a special place in the Belfast girl’s affections. “I still have an incredible love and respect for elephants,” she says, “I would love to work with them again.”

Having spent the past decade travelling the world, and with no plans to return home, how has this incredible journey changed Nikki’s outlook on life?

“I think the most important thing for me is the confidence I have gained,” she says. “Travelling has taught me to be myself.

“I think sometimes we try to conform to what society wants us to be.

“For some people that’s not a problem, but not everyone fits that plan. I enjoy being a travelling 36-year-old, even though it’s not the norm.”

If you’re one of the many people out there who sees the new year as an opportunity to reassess your life, perhaps Nikki’s story will inspire.

“My advice to anyone thinking of making a change is do it,” she says. “The strangest thing I always hear is, ‘How do you do it?’ Well, you quit your job, buy a ticket and pack your stuff.

“This obviously isn’t possible for everyone, but for most people without kids or a mortgage, it is. Fear is the big stopper. I get that and I get scared sometimes, but you only get one life — it’s worth a few risks.”

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