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Sonya Prosser was one of 13 students who took part in the first SIT-Telford GoDairy course at the South Otago campus near Balclutha, which began on August 24.
Before the pandemic, she had been working in Laos for three years, where her partner, Maddie, had got a job with the world’s largest sun bear sanctuary, Free the Bears, in Laos and where Ms Prosser was doing freelance wildlife work.
This included Project Anoulak, in Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area in central-eastern Laos, which is home to nine species of primates.
"I was raising baby monkeys and doing field work, and a tiger farm audit, doing research into farms," Ms Prosser said.
In an attempt to stamp out illegal trade, in 2018 the Government of Laos issued an order allowing the conversion of existing tiger farms to safaris and zoos for conservation, tourism and scientific purposes.
She has a zoo-keeping background. As a school-leaver, she went to work at Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch and stayed there for three years, before moving to Australia and working at the Melbourne Zoo for 17 years.
"I knew a lot about primates, so when I left Melbourne, I went to work in Indonesia, and I was there for three years doing eco-wildlife tours to see the orangutans."
With her Cook Island heritage, people often mistook her for a local.
"I was talking to someone once, and he said ‘Your English is so good’. I said, ‘I’m from New Zealand!’ I could blend in quite well."
After that, she went to work at the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre in Vietnam, which is where she met Maddie, who is from the Netherlands. Then they went to Laos.
Her partner recently started a cafe in the Luang Prabang Province in the north of Laos. They have ambitions to make it into a cat cafe where people could cuddle domesticated rescue cats.
From Christchurch originally and with family in Dunedin, Ms Prosser came home to visit in February. When the borders closed, she could not return.
With her plans on hold, she cast around for something to do and saw SIT-Telford’s GoDairy and agricultural contractor training courses advertised.
Working with Orana stock (rhinos and giraffes) was about as close as she had got to anything like a cow, or the back end of one.
Learning to milk was a revelation.
"When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is it’.
"I kept an eye on the hole to make sure it didn’t explode or anything. But then, it’s just a matter of feel, and being gentle, and you feel safe, so long as you do what the tutor tells you to do. I love it, it’s great. I like cows. I want to get to know them a bit better."
Dairying would suit her, working six months of the year in New Zealand, and the rest in Laos, she said.
"I didn’t want to do a management course, because I didn’t want to do work that I couldn’t commit to."
She thought her new dairying skills could also be useful with buffalo back in Laos.
Mary Jo Tohill