Monthly Archives: May 2015

Jane Goodall-ism and South African lesson for today: enter Santiago

mantid photo shoot

mantid photo shoot

In keeping with 15 Life Lessons of Jane Goodall, here’s another nugget of wisdom Dr Goodall drops on us, and one that is very relevant in my current situation – there are many teachers in life. My latest teacher has six legs and thousands of eyes. And his name is Santiago.

I love animals, but I can’t really have any pets in the bush. And to be honest, the longer I work with animals, the less I feel okay about having pets in general. However, I inadvertently became the ‘mom’ of a praying mantis several months ago when a stowaway nymph (baby mantid) came into my home tucked away on a flower. He was so small and well camouflaged, I didn’t even discover him for a whole week.

Not knowing where the flower came from, I had no idea where the mantid came from either, so I decided to keep the little guy. This was a very big step for me, as I have never been a fan of insects. Nor had I a clue how to raise one. Things did not look promising for the teeny invertebrate.

As a little girl, I spent a lot of time outside. But I was always told to NOT dig in the dirt, to NOT play with bugs. Bugs were dirty and gross.

And then I saw nature documentaries with really awful bugs that did really awful things to people. These bugs (which I later understood were actually parasites) were pretty much my worst nightmare.

So I stayed away from the insect world.

Then I spent a few months in Costa Rica as a university student. And I saw some REALLY big bugs. ‘Size of my hand’ big. Every morning I had to shake out my shoes, lest I put my foot into a dark, cosy space that had become home to a scorpion or tarantula overnight. Every evening I battled it out with my biggest nemesis, the mosquito. But having people around me who appreciated bugs (okay, not the mosquitoes – I’ve YET to meet anyone who appreciates mozzies) made me more tolerant. Also, being in such a wild place sort of weened me off of bug-free living. It was my initiation into what was to come many years later on the other side of the world.

Enter Africa. The insects here are not just plentiful in number. They are also plentiful EVERYWHERE. My initial reaction was to gently usher them out of my clothes, bags, shoes, house, wherever they might be congregating, and back into open spaces where we’d be less likely to conflict. I was happy to let them live, but I drew the line at having them share my space like miniature roommates.

However, when you live in the bush, you simply cannot avoid them getting into your stuff. So you can either learn to live with them, you can learn to live with them AND appreciate them, or you can be miserable. I chose the middle option, mostly because when I finally stopped and watched insects, I was hooked. They are fascinating, so completely alien to us (green blood, funky eyes, lots of legs, and all that), they could hold my attention for hours at a time. That in itself is impressive.

You know when people talk about watching grass grow? Watching insects is not like that (except in the case of watching a cocoon, since nothing happens there for a long time). Insects are alert. They are a whirring world of activity: little bulldozer spiders clearing out dens, little ant armies marching in formation, little artistic dung beetles rolling the most perfect ball of poo imaginable.

(I guess I should note that technically a spider is not an insect. While it IS an invertebrate, just like other insects, it falls into a different group called the arachnids. Scorpions are also part of that group. But for the purposes of this blog, all the creepy crawly invertebrates get lumped together as bugs.)

mantid and his grape

Santiago and dessert

And then there are the mantids.

Praying mantises get their names from their habit of sitting with their front arms folded, almost like they are in prayer. These ambush predators can sit still for hours, and the extreme patience with which they stalk their prey makes a person who DOES watch grass grow seem impatient.

When my little mantid arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Mantids eat live prey. Where was I going to get food? Believe it or not, my home does not teem with bugs, even though there are plenty outside of it. I would have to learn to wrangle crickets, flies and grasshoppers and lure them to their unpleasant death at the hands of my tiny ninja. So I was not only living with a bug, I also had to catch MORE bugs to feed him.

Praying mantises are also in the same family as cockroaches. So you KNOW I would have to have a serious change of heart about insects to be happily sharing my home with a roach’s cousin. It did not sound like a good plan. But I was up for the challenge; I was ready to start a new chapter of growth in my life – learning to love a bug.

Plus, I have to admit I felt an immense amount of guilt over displacing him. How could I not take care of him?

I shouldn’t have worried. He grew on me very quickly.

It was hard NOT to like him, honestly. He was so entertaining. When he was a baby, he hopped around on my hand, his little legs tickling like weightless feathers dancing over my skin. His little head would swivel around and watch the world, snapping to lock eyes on me whenever he heard my voice.

When I took him outside, he would get as low as possible on my hand and nuzzle his little face in my palm. And when I put him in the grass, he would freeze and look up at me, waiting for me to put my hand back to within bolting distance, and as soon as it was close enough, he’d come scurrying back into my palm. It was adorable.

It’s amazing, seven months later, how attached I have become to the mantid we eventually named Santiago (for no other reason than we liked the name). He sits on my computer when I work. At night he sleeps on the curtain in my room.

These days he only eats from my hand and is quite the discerning gourmand. He no longer hunts, refuses bugs, and instead insists on fish, chicken or some type of fruit. I worry if he hasn’t eaten in a while. And I make sure he doesn’t get too far out of my reach (because if I can’t get to him to feed him now, he will likely starve). And I have to make sure none of the other predators (birds, spiders, lizards) get to him, especially the female mantid that lives in the bush just outside my door. I’ve caught her checking him out now and again, and she has been informed that my ‘child’ is off limits; no eating him. She keeps her distance, but on occasion she does pop up on the window to say hello. He freaks out, rears up on his back legs, opens up his wings (the ONLY time I’ve even seen his wings since they sprouted, fyi) and puts on his best threat display. She is not phased in the slightest. He looks ridiculous, but he thinks he is protecting his family, so he gets points for trying.

mantises eyeing each other up

I hope that one day Santiago becomes a household name, an ambassador for the smaller, less attractive members of the animal kingdom that often get overlooked or demonised because they are so foreign to humans. A beacon for the creatures that aren’t traditionally cute and cuddly. (Santiago does NOT like to cuddle, fyi. You wouldn’t either if cuddling reminded you of being caught and eaten…)

So in going back to Jane’s life lesson, Santiago has shown me that teachers come in all shapes and sizes. And they don’t always teach you the lessons you think they will teach you. With Santiago, I have learned not just about bugs (particularly how to care for a mantid), but about my ability to see everything as valuable in the world. I have been reminded that we all must be more tolerant of what is so vastly different from ourselves. I have also been reminded that beauty is a feeling, not a face. And even the smallest, most unlikely bits in this world can steal your heart and make a lasting and profound impact in your life. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

#vivasantiago #onlyinafrica

Here are some choice shots of the little guy doing what he does, which is mostly preening, eating, and pretending to be a mantid model.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014-2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, Education, praying mantis, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African lessons and another Jane Goodall-ism: You can get more done together

baboon snuggles

hugging it out in the forest

baboon bosom buddies

sticking together

Given what is going on in the world, I thought it best to focus on this particular Jane Goodall life lesson (you can get more done together) in this post. South Africa is riddled with violence at the moment, xenophobia cropping up and challenging even the most balanced and tolerant people. Baltimore is on fire, racism rife and intolerance overpowering. Nepal is under rubble, thousands of people with no homes, missing loved ones, and doing everything in their power to retain a semblance of hope. And there’s plenty more.

Every day I read headline after headline of some kind of trauma or drama: heartache, disaster, war, death, you name it. So little is dedicated to the good in the world (and yes, it is certainly out there, though most media outlets would appear to be allergic to showing it). That’s why I felt the need to talk about togetherness. It is time to speak of Ubuntu.

For those of you who’ve never heard the word, ubuntu is a philosophy that embraces and espouses human kindness, tolerance, understanding and connectedness. It is the thread that connects each and every one of us, a kind of social pact that posits that because we exist, we all matter and, as such, we deserve the respect of our fellow beings.

The fact is, whether it’s in a small town, a big city, or the middle of the bush, we all need to know we can rely on someone other than ourselves to survive. We are social beings; we need each other. So why we build up walls and do our best to separate, segregate and dominate one another baffles me.

I do realise that deep down we are all animals. On a fundamental level, we exhibit many kinds of animal behaviours we often like to think we are above. But we aren’t. We can be the lowest of the low when we want to be. However, we always have the choice. And when we choose to be amoral, cruel, bigoted, sexist, take your pick, we drive a wedge between what we are and what we can be. We turn our back on our tremendous ability to do great things and to rise above and take responsibility for ourselves.

Living in the bush has taught me many things. One is that I tend to be happy alone. I can spend weeks on end just me, myself and I. But when I think about it, I’m not really alone. I’m actually surrounding by life. I’m just not necessarily around other people.

However, at some point I do need to get a dose of human life, and it is in those moments where the bush can be unforgiving or bountiful. When you are stuck in the middle of nowhere, you can’t be picky and choosy about with whom you socialise. You don’t have a choice. So you either learn to drop the pretense and dig in with everyone, or you lose out. And given the dangers out here (those literal and metaphorical, as getting lost in the wilderness can mean many things on many levels, after all), that can mean losing out on a grand scale.

I’ve seen people who started out in the bush with their nose held higher than the peak of Mt Kilimanjaro. After two weeks, that nose dropped back down into the stratosphere and then, in many cases, that nose was eventually rubbed in the dirt, not physically, but psychologically. If you think you are better than anyone, you have no business in the bush. It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially for people coming from cultures that traditionally seem to think they ARE better than the rest of the world (and my experience has been that Brits and Americans are two of the worst offenders there). But once the isolation hits, a lot of the holier-than-though attitude melts away and people fall off their pedestals. Hard. Sometimes it’s a very long drop, too, so it ain’t always pretty. But I’ve yet to meet a person who lived in the bush and didn’t come out changed for the better. Nature does that to you, the supreme equalizer that it is. And it’s yet another reason why I feel people need to spend more time in the great outdoors – to keep egos in check and priorities straight.

What it boils down to is that we are not islands, as much as many of us would like to think we are sometimes. Yes, there are many things we could each accomplish on our own, but it’s always so much faster (and often the results are better) when you have more hands, heads and hearts helping. And so I hope that this message spreads to the people of South Africa who are hurting (those targeted and those doing the targeting, because both sides are in pain at the moment), and to the people in Baltimore and the greater United States (because though often violence isn’t the answer, when you’ve been robbed of everything else, sometimes it seems to be the only thing you have at your disposal), and to the people of Nepal who are holding onto hope in the midst of such despair. In fact, I wish this message spreads to everyone out there in the world.

I hope we can all take a moment to look at ourselves in the mirror and remember that every one of us is fallible, and every one of us deserves love and understanding. There is nothing scary about a different accent or skin colour or sexual orientation or religion. And unless we are willing to work together and accept one another, we fail individually AND collectively.

As the amazing Dr. Goodall is fond of saying, ‘The best way to deal with your enemy is to make them your friend’. And when you do that, you no longer have any enemies. Which is a pretty nice way to live, if you ask me. We are all part of one big story. So perhaps it’s time we start acting like we all belong in that story.

Ubuntu. Thina simunye. We are together. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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