Conservation

South African Interlude #1 – Animals I’ve Neglected

Okay, so after two weeks of avoiding the baboons (yes, I actually HAVE been avoiding them as much as I can), I’ve realised I need to get back to some of the other wildlife out here. And there’s so much of it. Considering we haven’t covered the Big Five in depth yet – and that’s what most people want to see when they come here – I’ll begin there, starting with….Trunk and toes Elephants! elephants29

Some notes on Loxondonta africana (also known as ellies) – they live in matriarchal herds, with males splintering off when they hit puberty (somewhere between 7-15 years old) to sow their oats. You will often find bull elephants puttering around in twosomes, an older male mentoring a younger male (and also keeping the younger male in check). In fact, if you come across a solo male, odds are there’s another male somewhere in the area, which is useful to know when you have to drive around blind corners and in dense vegetation.

You’d think you couldn’t possibly miss seeing an elephant, but even a several ton being blends into the bushes in a matter of seconds. However, you certainly won’t miss smelling them, and doubtful you’ll miss hearing them. An elephant, much like a rhino, has a very earthy smell, not surprising since they eat nothing but greenery. They are the largest vegetarians you will come across on this fine planet of ours. And their digestive systems aren’t exactly the most sophisticated, meaning they leave a lot of undigested their food behind in their dung. In fact, when you come across elephant dung that’s been sitting around for a few months, you might be inclined to dismiss it as a hay bale that simply fell off a truck a while back.

Like rhino (who also leave behind piles of undigested goodies), elephant are hindgut fermentors, which means they don’t digest cellulose. When you eat nothing but plants, that means you don’t digest a LOT of what you eat. Rabbits and horses are the same. In fact, some of our hindgut fermentors even practice coprophagia, which means they eat their poop. No joke. But not elephants. They just keep eating and eating. In fact, they eat for about 20 hours a day. According to the African Elephant Specialist Group (http://www.african-elephant.org), these heavyweights eat somewhere between 100-300kg a day (220-600lbs), and they drink a small river system’s worth of water, somewhere around 200 litres (or 50 gallons) a day. They can drink this all in one sitting as well, which is pretty impressive, considering they could also probably mow down a city immediately afterwards if they got sufficiently pissed off. In fact, a single trunkful measures somewhere in the 4-8 litre category. It would appear that unlike me, who might as well hibernate because I’m so bloated after drinking a measly 1.5 litre bottle of water, elephants could theoretically go out clubbing after one of their slurps and not have a single cramp.

While I’ve fallen in love with many of the sounds of the bush, I have to admit, the elephants make one of my all-time favourites. No, not the trumpeting. While that’s nice to hear when you’re trying to track them, it’s also a little disconcerting when they’re close by and running straight at you, ears flapping madly and eyes burning like little copper fire bolts. Nope, the sound I love is the low-pitched rumbling sound they make, an almost therapeutic baseline that literally reverberates through your body when you’re in close proximity to them. They make a whole range of noises even lower than the rumble, but it’s so low as to be out of our range of hearing, which is pretty common with animals, I’ve found. We miss a LOT of their communication because our ears are simply not as fine-tuned as theirs. In fact, their ears are so fine-tuned, they can hear each other rumbling up to 20 miles away. The rumbles travel is seismic waves, and the elephants can actually hear them with their feet.

Elephants are probably my favourite large animal to sit and watch, mainly because their level of social interaction is fascinating to me. And the little ones are so playful and funny, especially before they’ve mastered the use of their trunks (which takes a few years to get under control, considering there are a few thousand different muscles in there to control). Of course, when you have one appendage that acts as hand, arm, nose, straw and vocalization device, you need it to be a highly developed body part, essentially a well-oiled machine of versatility. So it’s not surprising it takes a while for them to get every part of it to work together. Once they get it down, though, they are capable of lifting items as heavy as 250+kgs (or 600lbs).

On top of that, elephants actually play with each other. They knock each other over, they whack each other with their trunks, they nudge each other and roll over each other. And they shoot water at each other, their trunks a modified version of water pistols. In fact, elephants in water are a joy to watch. You can actually see the change in their behaviour when they encounter a waterhole, even if it’s a small puddle. They LOVE water! And considering the babies can suffer from sunburn, water is also a nice opportunity for them to cool off from the sun’s intense rays.

I had the privilege on many occasions to sit and watch elephants, both in giant herds, in duos and trios, and solo. After a while, you learn to read certain behaviours about them and can get a good sense of when they’re happy, when they’re aggravated and when they mean business. Of course, you are never right 100% of time, which is why they (as well as any other animal) should be respected. Keeping a healthy distance and letting the animal come to you as opposed to you coming to it is always the rule of the day.

Oh, and don’t try to outrun one. They’ll trump you every time. No pun intended.

Learning how to drive a manual transmission is also a joy when elephants are a potential road obstacle. Unlike potholes and tree branches, elephants aren’t easy to avoid, and they move (often towards you) when you try to get by them. My fiance and I almost had to ram a car behind us once when we were driving through Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve and we came upon two bull elephants. (By the way, like cattle, ellies are bulls for males and cows for females.)  The elephants were casually chowing on some trees on the side of the road, minding their own business. We stopped the car and watched, my fiance filming and me just enjoying the moment. Eventually we realised that a pile of cars had lined up behind us. We were blocked in.

The bulls started to tussle, the larger one asserting his dominance as only an elephant can – slapping the crap out of the younger one with his trunk and tusks. The younger one started moving backwards down the road straight for us. And no one in the other cars thought it might be a good idea to reverse. We slowly started moving backwards, hoping the car behind us would get the hint. But nothing. And the elephants were closing fast. They were now both facing us and running straight at our front bumper.

I was getting a little worried, since not only was I new to the whole ‘driving a manual’ thing, I was new to driving around elephants. My fiance waved frantically to the car behind us, signaling them to move. With the gap between us and the now pissed-off elephants closing more quickly than I imagined possible, my fiancé turned to me and said, “Put the car in reverse and just go. If you hit these idiots behind us, they’ll get the hell out of the way.” They finally got the memo and, probably realising that the elephants were now a mere meters away, gunned it out of there.

As a side note, if you are ever driving around elephants, you shouldn’t gun the car. Ever. Not in reverse; not in drive. They will chase you, and for such giants, they’re lightning fast. Better that you try to get out of the way, not run away.  And if you’re going to drive in areas where they roam, do yourself a favour and learn a bit about their behaviour before you do, such as their warning signs. It might save your life. Really. Several tons can do a lot of damage to a car, and even more to you.

Incidentally, I should mention that poaching of elephants has increased significantly in the last decade. Numbers are going down quickly. Once again, it appears ivory is on the menu, and in spades. I hope one day all humans learn to respect our natural resources…which include the rest of the animal kingdom….and prefer those resources intact and alive instead of dead and in pieces on a mantle somewhere, or bedecking someone’s wrist as an ivory bangle.

Okay, off the soapbox now. If you have a hankering for all things elephant, check out some more information at: http://www.elephantconservation.org/elephants/african-elephants/ http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/html/elephant_conservation.html http://www.elephantcenter.com http://www.elephanttrust.org

Here’s a little gallery of some pachyderms I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my journeys thus far. Enjoy!

Song for the day: It’s a tie between ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ by Henry Mancini and ‘Nelly the Elephant’ by Toy Dolls

At attention

At attention

shielding baby Bull elephant coming to say hello peanut sniffing the air

Looking out my front door

Looking out my front door

Optical illusion of ellies

Optical illusion of ellies

This is my waterhole!

This is my waterhole!

Just about to fade into the scenery

Just about to fade into the scenery

tying the knot

Sharing a laugh

Sharing a laugh

tapping heads, elephant-style

tapping heads, elephant-style

Little ellie showing who's boss

Little ellie showing who’s boss

Look at how nice they look!

Look at how nice they look!

elephant at the riverside dust bathing

any way you can get it

any way you can get it

Baby close-up

Too many years in the sun with no sunscreen

Too many years in the sun with no sunscreen

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Conservation, Education, poaching, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Heartbreak #1

So today was a sad day, and though it isn’t really honest to say it was the first while I’ve been in South Africa, it certainly was one that hit when I was already pretty low. After some growing levels of frustration across several other fronts, I received some bad news that closed the curtain on a very brief shining role in my story.

My little wonder baboon, Dobby, passed away. What is even sadder is the manner in which she died – a combination of bad luck, good parenting gone wrong, male testosterone and human trash. While her mother was fleeing from a male from another troop, she ran through an old barbed wire fence hidden in tall grass and left to rust away, clutching her baby as she fled. Unfortunately, the gap she ran through wasn’t large enough, and Dobby got caught on the barbs. Her mother, desperate to get away from the baboon quickly closing in on her, pulled at Dobby, practically eviscerating the little thing as she ripped her off of and through the fence. One of the researchers apparently saw the events unfold, and said it was nothing short of horrific. Anyone nearby certainly caught the aftermath – the miserable screams of one little mutilated peanut who would last only a few more hours before she finally bled to death.

I left work early to say goodbye to the little engine that could. By the time I got to her, she had been dead for a few hours now, and she was almost white (not surprising, given she probably lost most of the blood in her body to her injuries). I found her in a small grove of pine, her mother keeping a watchful eye over her baby’s corpse. After seeing Dobby hop around and play on so many occasions, it felt foreign and nauseating to watch this little half-bald body flopping around like a rag doll as her mother carried her from patch of grass to patch of grass.  If I didn’t know any better, I could’ve easily mistaken her for a child’s plaything now, a toy that long ago lost its stuffing and was now just a limp pouch of fabric. Watching this pathetic scene, I sat down next to a tree. And cried.

I know people will think I’m out of my mind for getting so emotional over Dobby. Maybe I feel so strongly about her because she felt a bit like a mirror to my experience in South Africa over the last few months – filled with challenges, all which I hoped could be surmountable with the right attitude. To see her survive and not only survive, but survive with flair and such a spunky spirit when all the odds were stacked against her, reinforced my belief that I too was going to be okay. I wasn’t drowning on the other side of the world. My little balloon of hope lost a lot of air and altitude when I got the call that she died.

Dobby’s mother will still cradle her, grooming the little stumps of hair that had finally started growing back on Dobby’s head and body, and that will now fall out again from the literal wear and tear of being dragged around. As is habit with baboons, Dobby’s mother will carry her baby’s lifeless body around for another week or so before she finally leaves the stretched-out pinkish bundle behind. And then her mother will move on.

I could write to you about infanticide among animals, about territoriality, primate behaviour, troop dynamic, circle of life stuff, and how ‘this stuff happens.’ And at some point I probably will. But for now I will instead just post a picture of my adorable little friend, in memoriam.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone that it isn’t unusual for  these types of events to happen whenever you get to know something. You forge a bond; you build a connection. Even the most fleeting of ties can cause your heart to hurt when the ties sever. Today was one of those days. RIP, little Dobby, the wonder baboon.

The little munchkin with mom

The little munchkin with mom

Categories: Africa, Animal, Baboon, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #742 – Dobby, the Wonder Baboon

Is that a human or a monkey she has in her hands?

Is that a human or a monkey she has in her hands?

They called her ‘Bleskop’ at first. ‘Bald head’ in Afrikaans. We renamed her Dobby. I think she likes her new name.

I’ve fallen in love with a monkey. Yup, there it is. She’s a month-old Chacma baboon. And I honestly have to say I’m totally in love with her! If it weren’t completely unethical (and if her mom wasn’t such an awesome mom to her), I’d smuggle her home under my shirt and raise her myself. And I was really tempted on quite a few occasions when her hair loss got really bad. Yes, she is also a balding baby baboon.

Apparently baboons can suffer from alopecia, just like humans, and the condition has been documented before in captive baboons. However, the only other time I’ve seen any record of a bald baboon outside of captivity is a female that lives in Kariba in Zimbabwe. And in yet another example of how similar these fellow primates can be to homo sapiens, she was shunned by the rest of the troop because of her looks. Admittedly, she is one of the scariest looking things I’ve ever seen, and I imagine she could be the basis of a few nightmares if you came across her in the bush. If you’ve never seen a photo of one, and you most likely haven’t, check out this link and you’ll understand why I was more than a little concerned about Dobby’s thinning hair (note – images are a bit haunting, so don’t say I didn’t warn you): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2271173/Hairless-female-baboon-spotted-bush-rejected-troop.html

I met Dobby when she was less than a week old, and she was already going bald. In fact, she was born monk-style, with a pale pate of skin on the top of her round little head glowing like a pasty Englishman on a Brazilian beach. If her mom held her just right, she looked like a human child.

As the days went on, she lost more and more hair, going from monk to overly hairy gnome in only two weeks’ time. No one could figure out why. She had no signs of mange or infection, and she appeared totally healthy otherwise. In fact, she was a spright little pixie, aware of everything going on around her and keenly interested in what the troop was up to while she stayed cuddled in mom’s embrace.

Now, I know many people don’t like baboons. Perhaps they’d look at her and think she wouldn’t last one of these cold, wet winters, and be happy about it. One less baboon, right? I am not one of those people. I love these critters. And I love her most of all. In fact, I was keenly concerned that she would die of exposure, no matter how caring and attentive her mom was, simply because without hair to keep her warm on these VERY cold winter nights, she was fighting a serious uphill battle. And points to mom, by the way, for being so incredibly attentive to her little peanut! As moms go, Dobby’s mom is pretty high up there in the offspring-rearing category.

We contemplated knitting Dobby a beanie and a sweater, but then realised baboons being baboons, her wardrobe would get pulled off of her by the other curious members of her extended family, and we’d be back to a bald baby baboon. Plus we thought she might get injured in the ambush if some of the juvenile baboons got too excited in the rush to play with the new alien items. So that idea got trashed. We also got worried when we saw some red cuts on her head from being over-groomed, but those healed as well.

Every day I couldn’t spend with her, I asked my boyfriend how she was, and every day I had a little knot in my stomach in anticipation of him telling me she’d died in the night, my frozen little missing link. But every day he reported back that she was fine, starting to play with the other young baboons and finally beginning to venture out of mom’s immediate reach.

In the last month and a half, Dobby’s become quite the little climber, summiting mom’s head and attempting to conquer some saplings. Her motor skills are still in development, but she’s right where she should be at her age, albeit a bit less hairy. She’s been abducted a few times by other baboons in the troop, but mom’s managed to rescue her without incident. The first time she ventured off on her own, another youngster grabbed her by the arm and dragged her back to mom’s safe keeping. She even got dragged around on her head for a bit when a juvenile wanted to play with her and stole her away. A few little squeaks and honks later and mom had her girl back by her side. In fact, it appears the whole troop wants a piece of the little bald wonder. They all come up to visit her, pulling at her arms and legs, tugging on her tail, lip-smacking stories to her. It seems everyone is in love with Dobby.

I was excited to hear that a week ago she started growing very fine black hairs on her head. Slowly but surely, she seems to be sprouting some insulation on her pip. I breathed a sigh of relief, no joke. I was happy to know she would have that extra necessary layer to keep her toasty during the miserable winter rains that drench this area from May through November.

It’s funny how attached you can become to something that is not only not yours, but something completely wild. I have no stake in this animal’s future or well-being (and to be honest, without breaking the law, there’s really not much I can do for her anyway), and yet I feel compelled to know her story. I feel compelled to spend hours sitting with her and her troop, watching her grow up. I hope you guys enjoy hearing about her escapades as much as I enjoy being a part of them. I’ll be sure to share more as she grows up. Dobby, the wonder baboon.

As an aside, yes, for anyone who doesn’t believe it can get cold in Africa, it does. I’ll admit, when I came here, I was shocked at this revelation. I had this perception that the entire continent of Africa consisted of varying degrees of sauna as far as temperature goes. Of course, logically, when you’re the last country on a continent before Antarctica, it would make sense that it gets a bit chilly at some point. And it does. We had a two-day hail storm here two weeks ago (after which I was convinced Dobby had probably kicked it). The surrounding mountains already have snow. You can probably imagine it’s pretty rough on the wildlife. It’s also the reason I’m convinced baboons here are the fluffiest I’ve ever seen. Well, except Dobby. For now, at least…

Song(s) of the day – Don’t Give Up, by Peter Gabriel; Titanium, by Sia

By the way, if you have any songs you recommend, feel free to let me know. Would love to hear what comes to your mind when you read these posts.

And without further ado, the little fighter…..

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Baboon, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #741 – Monkeying around with my new friends

Eat the leaf or go see if human has cheesecake?

Baby baboon catching a ride on mom's back

Baby baboon catching a ride on mom’s back

In the Cape of good old South Africa, people have a love-hate relationship with the baboons.  Actually, let’s revise that.  Some people love them; some hate them.  You don’t seem to get much in between.  I hear from one person that every baboon deserves to be shot (Deserves?  Really?).  Then I hear from another how we don’t belong in the baboons’ home territories, and because we’ve infringed upon their territory, we must accept them as part of the system we’ve injected ourselves into.  I fall into neither category.  I love the baboons, but that doesn’t mean I think they own the world, even if they were ‘here first’. And were they actually here first?

Here’s the thing.  We are all one species of animal or another.  None of us and all of us ‘belong’ in places.  The bigger issue is how we can find a way to live harmoniously.  Can we?  I’m starting to think the answer to that is no.  But it doesn’t mean I don’t harbour hope.

I spend a lot of time these days with the baboons in the Cape Peninsula.  For anyone who doesn’t know what that means (and that’s probably a lot of people, since I have to explain to a lot of people that South Africa is actually a country and not a region of the African continent, so I imagine even fewer people know what the Cape Peninsula is), the Cape Peninsula is essentially the end of the world as far as the African continent goes.  Though it is wrongly assumed to be where the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, meet, it is simply a very large peninsula at the base of Africa, and also happens to be the location of the second largest city in South Africa.  That would be Cape Town.

First off, for anyone who thinks wildlife roams the streets in South Africa, this is actually only really true in Cape Town, where the baboons do indeed have a sort of free reign (they are a protected species in this particular area).  There are baboon monitors whose job it is to keep these baboon populations out of the urban areas as much as possible, but these animals are smart and speedy, so really, if there is a way to get through any barrier set up for them, they will find it.  And they do, often.  Which then finds them sitting on restaurant dustbins, munching on croissants and half-eaten pizzas.  Or even better, they raid fruit trees that someone decided were a FANTASTIC idea to plant in their backyard, even though these same people KNOW they live in a baboon area. And then they get angry at the baboons.  Stupid?  That’s for you to decide.  I have my own thoughts about the matter, which pretty much side on the “hmm, they are idiots and hypocrites” end of the judgmental thought spectrum.  And yes, I have no problem admitting I’m judgmental about this stuff.

So the baboons in Cape Town (and in many parts of Africa) are Chacma baboons.  While they are all the same species in South Africa, depending on where you ARE in the country, they look different.  The Cape baboons are fluffy.  REALLY fluffy.  And they are not afraid of humans in the slightest.  In fact, they think nothing of walking up to a vehicle, grabbing the door handle, opening said door handle, and getting in a car with a complete stranger (who usually at this point has evacuated out the other side of the car).  I’ve seen a few knock people down to get at the food in their hands, or the backpack on their back.  It isn’t supposed to be funny, but it is.  I’ve had a baboon jump on me.  Once on my back in an effort to grab a backpack off my back while I was hiking; once when I was holding a packet of crisps (also known as potato chips for those non-British English speakers).  In fact, it was the same baboon.  I had to literally fling him off me.  And I might go down in history as the only person who was jumped by a baboon who didn’t give up the chips.  I love my chips.  Especially the Simba Creamy Cheddar Chips.  I was not letting anyone, not even a baboon with four-inch canines, separate me from my snacky snacks.

Suffice it to say, these baboons have no fear of humans.  There are several theories for this.  One stems from the fact that baboons, like humans, are a very social species.  These animals eat, sleep and breed in troops, or big groups.  In fact, pretty much the only time you see a baboon on its own is if it has gone on a raid to tackle a local dustbin, or it is trying to disperse to try its luck with another group. Or, in rare occasions, if it’s been kicked out of the troop (or more specifically, is so low on the totem pole in the troop that it thinks it’s better off on its own).

Baboons live in a very strict social hierarchy, so a low-ranking male will eventually get tired of getting the crap beat out of him and often will just take off for greener pastures elsewhere so he can try his luck with the baboon ladies from another neck of the woods.  Unfortunately, when these animals live in an urban environment, their paths to social networking get cut off.  In fact, for a baboon in Cape Town, social networking doesn’t really exist outside its small (and getting smaller every year) territory. They have nowhere else to go anymore.

Because of their close proximity to humans (genetically as well as spatially on a map), it would appear they’ve essentially started to think of humans as taller, less hairy extensions of their own species.  And since they steal from other baboons as part of their social life, they steal from humans, who’ve they’ve assimilated into their tribe, as well.

Another theory, and a very simple one as well, is that we just have more high-calorie food.  Why bother puttering around a mountainside all day, scrounging for enough calories to make it through the day, and then having to do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next?  Why not just steal a Snickers for the same amount of calories (and I’m guessing it might taste better)?  If I were a baboon, I would go for the Snickers and spend all that new free time writing a novel.  Because honestly, I wouldn’t put it past one of them doing that one day.

I can sit and watch the baboons for hours. In fact, I prefer watching baboons to watching people.  They are, in my mind, infinitely more interesting and a hell of a lot less stress-inducing than most of the people I’ve met.  I’ve had one hand me a weed once.  And a few have come sit down next to me on multiple occasions, just checking me out, smacking their lips in an attempt to chat me up, and even drawing pictures in the sand for me.  I could swear they show the same emotions and thought-processes we show, and I’m really not trying to anthropomorphize them.  You can see them thinking, working things out.  You watch them as they pick at their fingernails and clean out the dirt.  You can see how, when in a rather clumsy moment they fall out of a tree, they look around in almost embarrassment to see if anyone saw their failed attempt at landing gracefully.  They play with crickets.  Seriously play with them.  As I said, I can sit and watch them for hours.  And I have.

I’m including a few photos of my little furry friends.  For the next few posts, I’ll probably focus quite a bit on them, as I am lucky enough to know and spend time with the baboon monitors who manage them in the Cape Peninsula.  Getting this close and personal with an animal so like us, and yet so different, is a privilege and a curse.  I think it’s a good story for people to know, as it speaks volumes about the state of conservation, the state of people, and an overall lack of understanding of how important wildlife is to our own survival.  I hope you enjoy these guys as much as I do!

Today’s song choice – Simply because of all the baboon action that goes on in a typical troop, I had to go with ‘SexyBack’.  Sorry, Justin.

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

This is my pine cone...

This is my pine cone…

Snuggling with a sibling

Snuggling with a sibling

Dobby, the bald baby baboon

Dobby, the bald baby baboon

Categories: Africa, Baboon, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #617 – How finding beauty is about finding yourself

In light of the recent horrific events at the Boston Marathon, I felt compelled to turn to the good things in life.  It’s so easy to see the bad everywhere. Our media worldwide thrives on it, focusing on the pain, the misery, the misfortune. Misery loves company, right?  And I’ll be honest – I’ve fallen into the bottomless pit of the half-empty glass, wallowing in the endless streams of broken hearts and dreams. But not today.

While I’m usually the first person to seek out evil and string it up by its toenails, at this moment, I can’t think that way. Because fighting fire with fire is useless.  We need water to put out the flames, not more flames.  So yes, we should be angry, sad, frustrated, confused. But we should also remind ourselves of good ol’ Mr. Rogers, who so sagely said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.”  There is beauty, and in spite of the darkness, we need to remember the light that always finds a way to shine through even the darkest nights.

In the wild, animals don’t wallow in misery.  They wallow in mud. And they love it like a mole loves a hole. That’s the kind of wallowing I want to focus on today. Which is why I’ve decided to focus this blog on beauty, and not the skin-deep kind.

What is it that makes something beautiful to you?  I just did an exercise asking me to name 10 beautiful things. It felt like such a loaded question, and I swear I sat paralysed for the first few moments as I desperately sprinted through my brain to think of anything pithy, profound or perfect to say. I don’t know why I cared what I came up with, since no one but me cares about what I think.  Plus beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we are taught, is it not? So what I find beautiful may not be beautiful to you or anyone else.  To each their own. Still, I stressed out about this a little too longer for my own comfort. What does that say about me? That’s another blog for another day.

What I found most interesting about this question was that once I started coming up with my answers, I found most had a unifying thread woven through them (or in some cases were the equivalent of a full-on tapestry).  We seem to find beauty in pockets, in oddly linear elements that we probably don’t recognize on a daily basis, yet this predilection we have for certain things (colours, smells, juxtapositions, emotional puppy dogs licking our toes, whatever you want to think up) is a fundamental picture of who we are, what we hold dear, and what makes us tick tock around the clock.

Why do I bring this up in a blog about living in the bush?  Well, a part of that answer is obvious – I find the bush a whole entourage of beauty. But also I find that discovering what tickles our fancies offers tantalizing clues to who we are as individuals. And damned if I’m not somewhat obsessive about understanding human nature, the most difficult nature to unravel in a vast sea of challenging natures.  Living in the bush challenges you to see things differently. It challenges you to question yourself, your motives, your beliefs.  It tests you to see if you are worthy to share in everything it holds. Some days I wonder if I’m worthy. And some days I say, “Hells yeah, this Jane belongs in this Tarzan movie!”

I think because I’m an artist, I see beauty quite often in shapes, patterns, colours and random elements taken out of context. That’s not to say I don’t find the whole of a fever tree blissful, with its vibrant green snot bark, and its broad (but not too much junk in the trunk) canopy. But what I find myself most drawn to are the little nuances you can’t see in the big picture – the one gnarled root at the base that looks like it’s trying to claw its way out of the earth and break free, or the way the tree still glows a paranormal green even in the darkest night.  I am in love with an elephant’s eyelashes, and the wild, amber colour of its eyes.  I get goosebumps from seeing the mist rising off the ground or over a body of water early in the morning. Actually, any water, even a filled bathtub, gets me goggly.  I get teary-eyed when I see a baby rhino squeaking and galloping about its mother, almost skipping along and oblivious to the concept of ‘poaching’, which I also hope it never has to learn. And most importantly, I find beauty in the way it all seamlessly ties together everything – life in all its trials, tribulations, ups and downs. Out here, you learn to see beauty even in things you never imagined you could find beautiful, simply because it all brings to light how amazing our little blue and green floating ball is.

So what is it that you find beautiful?  Then think: What does my appreciation, my love, my admiration of these things say about me?  Cherish what is beautiful to you, whether it’s a single moment or a lifetime of them.  And always be on the lookout for more flashes of beauty, like those sparklers you can’t blow out, to keep with you in your heart for those times when hope fades a bit (or a lot, depending on the situation) and darkness creeps back around.

On this note, I dedicate this blog to the beautiful people of Boston, and all those who travelled to that wonderful city to either run in the marathon or cheer the runners on. And for everyone else who believes there is beauty in this world, despite those who do their best to convince us otherwise, I say, “Keep fighting the good fight.”

There are so many songs that come to mind that would fit with this blog, but I’m going to include just a handful. Take your pick. I hope at least one of them will fill you with a warm, happy feeling, which I think many of us could use right about now.

“A Wonderful World”  – Louis Armstrong (or Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole)

“The Fighter” – Gym Class Heroes

“Beautiful Day” – U2

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – Diana Ross

“Good Life” – OneRepublic

and because it just seems necessary

“Imagine” – John Lennon

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Conservation, Education, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

South African Adventure #303 – Reality, check please!

Mmmm, Wisconsin people are delicious!

Mmmm, Wisconsin people are delicious!

First, an apology for my lapse in writing.  A small family of insects made a personal empire in my laptop, and I needed to get a new one. And then I had to get it set up and get internet sorted and blah blah blah. This does make a good segue for this post, however. Coincidence? Or just bad luck? You decide.

Let me take a moment to wax poetic about nature and how these days we are completely ill-equipped to deal with it on just about every level.  Let me discuss how we’ve rendered ourselves useless in the natural world by erecting walls, fences, and boundaries of any kind, and built up our reliance on weapons rather than on our brains to defend ourselves.  Oh wait, am I talking about man in relation to the wild, or man in relation to anything in general?  Hmm, guess it could really fit both scenarios if you think about it.  But let’s stick to the ‘man in relation to the wild’ situation here since that’s what I’m dealing with these days. When I’m not in Jo-hazardous-berg, of course.

Living in the wild humbles you on multiple sensory fronts.  We’ve spent so much time honing our sense of sight that we’ve neglected all the other senses, to our own detriment.  Problem is, you can’t see shit (and I mean that literally as well as figuratively) out here.  Every single living creature is camouflaged and has made a killing (again, literally and figuratively) out of being impossible to see.  I realize I, with my dark hair and olive skin, probably blend in a bit more with my surroundings than the fellow gingers and blondies of English and Dutch lineage around me, but that isn’t exactly saying much, since I’m still so dangerously unaware of all the potential pitfalls that surround me on a daily basis.  Grab a tree for balance while walking through the bush and you may unwittingly lay your hand on a boomslang or other deadly arboreal snake, and possibly not live to tell the tale of your rendezvous.  Walk through the bush with earphones in your ears and I promise you, you will not hear the ‘pff’ of a puff adder underfoot before he strikes, or the soft whisper of the grass as a lion stalks you from behind.  And yes, I HAVE seen tourists walking through the bush with headphones on, or typing on their phones, or doing some other thing that renders them completely oblivious to their surroundings.  I’ve decided either they are too dumb to realize the dangers surrounding them, have a death wish, or are seriously that out of touch with reality.  It’s possible it’s all of the above.

I admit I may have a slight advantage over other city folks who venture into the bush, and I can attribute that to my unhealthy fascination with all things that can potentially eat me, many of which can be traced to a childhood ingesting Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic.  I’ve spent a lifetime studying these creatures and locales on paper, so now I’m finally putting to good use the random facts I’ve learned about elephant behavior, hyena feeding habits, and Worst Case Scenario Guidebook-type info that has proven useless while traipsing around NYC and LA. I’m still out of my element.  I think the most stealth thing I’ve had stalk me was a pigeon in Central Park who was hell bent on snatching a french fry from my lunch.  While I admit it was a sneaky little bastard, it was still a pigeon.

Out here, lion and leopard are very real dangers, and they have a habit of creeping about camp at night, doing annoying things like nibbling on fire hydrants hung outside your door and scaring the crap out of you when you open said door to walk to the bathroom at 2am.

They say the most dangerous leopard is the one you don’t see.  Well, considering I’d been here for almost 6 months before actually seeing one at all, yet I’ve heard and seen spoor (tracks) and scat (poop) for many more, there have been PLENTY I clearly haven’t seen.  And that’s a little scary since I admit I’m always looking.  In fact, having literally been standing next to an ELEPHANT that I couldn’t see, it still unnerves me how often sight is a useless sense out here.  Unfortunately, as I said before, this is the exact sense we’ve spent millennium fine-tuning at the expense of our other senses.  Well, I can safely say that in the bush, you will learn to use your nose and your ears.  Otherwise, you will end up looking like something that saw the wrong side of an airplane propeller. If there’s even that much of you left.

They don’t let you carry firearms out here unless you have the training, and to be honest, when an animal moves at 22km a second or faster, the gun probably won’t do a whole hell of a lot anyway, since you won’t be able to get off a round in time before the animal is literally on top of you.  A knife won’t help you a whole lot either, at least not when it comes to killing anything.  While it’s nice to be able to hack away some of the rather sticky foliage in your way, it won’t do a damn thing against a pissed off mama anything, or a bull elephant in musth, or a buffalo that is simply having a bad day (which is most days in the buffalo world).  Females protecting their young out here do so with a life or death mentality because that’s exactly what it is – either they beat the life out of you, or you take their baby.  Of course they are going to attempt to pummel you!  So don’t think you will have access to bullets (unless you want to carry around the shells and ping the animal in the head as it charges you, hoping maybe that might confuse them into stopping their attack, although more likely it will only act to further piss them off).  And don’t think you’ll go all Chuck Norris on the wildlife either.  I’ve seen people get f*&ked up by Bambi out here.  Imagine what the animals with claws and fangs will do.

In the wild, you take away all your creature comforts and replace them with bugs, humidity, isolation, etc.  Once you strip it all away, all the soft blankets, the heated floors, the screens to keep out the mosquitoes, the refrigerators that actually seal so the cockroaches can’t get inside, you find out what you’re made of.  And I will be honest, for the first month or two, you realize you are made of Jell-O.  You have no backbone.  You whine and get angry at how inept you feel.  You curse the local people because they are clearly the reason your phone doesn’t work.  You curse EVERYONE and EVERYTHING because you are well out of the comfort zone and instead stuck having to rely on yourself to literally survive.  Yeah, that teeny tiny MagLite torch (sorry, flashlight for us Americans) isn’t gonna cut it when you need to venture out into the blackest night to take a leak in the bathroom a good 300 feet from the ‘safety’ of your room’s four (semi-) sealed walls.  And those high-tech boots and Gore Tex pants will do nothing against an infestation of pepper ticks, those itty bitty tick nymphs the size of a grain of pepper (hence the name, of course) who LOVE LOVE LOVE to suck you dry while a few try to infect you with tick bite fever.  In short, you just have to accept the fact that you are not king of the jungle when it comes to the jungle, savanna, thicket, or really any biome in Africa.  You are simply part of the food chain.

Now before I go any further, and since I’m now guessing most of you are crossing Africa off your bucket list, please keep in mind two things.  One, this is all in reference to life in the bush, NOT life in the rest of the country.  South Africa is not all wildlife.  In fact, much of the country is agriculture and mining, and there are cosmopolitan cities that will certainly suit any gourmand’s or social butterfly’s needs.  Two, that which does not kill us….you know the rest. But honestly, stick with me here. I promise you this place is worth the humbling experience.

So back to the bush.  The other luxury you don’t have out here is time. Nothing happens for hours on end, but when something does happen, it happens in a blink. You barely have enough time to register what just occurred, let alone have the reaction time or presence of mind to catch it on film.  Your mind simply cannot process that quickly, which is ironic, since we make a life out of snap judgments.  But when it comes to anticipating the natural world, we are at a loss.  Eventually, you slow down, but it takes effort and time, and until you do, you will inevitably miss that cheetah kill, the fish eagle swooping down on its lunch, the leopard who slipped past your car without your even slightest detection.   People argue with me on this point often.  They can’t fathom how you could possibly not see a lion sitting in the grass next to your vehicle.  How can you not see a multi-ton elephant in the bushes beside the road?  Well, the reality is, unless you know how to look (and even then sometimes you have no luck), you will miss it entirely.

Understanding animal behavior is one key to being able to follow their movements and finding them in the abyss of the greens, tans, and grays of the bush.  If you watch a lion as it stalks, you start to learn how its body moves in the grass, how the grass shifts and whispers with each gliding muscle movement, and what it means when the grass stops moving and speaking entirely. You will hear things you didn’t hear before, like the shrieking of the francolins and the bark of baboons, when a threat is nearby.  You will learn to identify and follow the spoor, and eventually even be able to detect whether the animal whose spoor you’ve come across is walking, running, or stalking.  But that takes time, and as I said, time is a luxury out here that few people have.  So if you can’t dedicate years, or even months, of your life to studying this stuff, do what the rest of the world does and bow down to the people who DO know it.  Learn from them.  They have much to teach, young Jedi, and you have much to learn. And tip them well. To say this industry pays peanuts is giving it credit.

Lastly, remember: while you should keep your eyes open at all times, take a moment to close them now and again and let your other senses in on the fun.  But make sure you have someone else with you to watch your back when you do it.  Just in case.

Song of the day: “Wild World” by Cat Stevens

Of course, the theme song from The Pink Panther fits as well…



King in the brush

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

 

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Camp, Conservation, Education, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: | 3 Comments

The reality behind a lodge and reserve that calls itself a conservation and rehabilitation center

I took a job as a cheetah caretaker in what I was told was a cheetah rehabilitation center.  I was supposed to be helping them set up a breeding program with the intent to introduce new cheetah to the wild in an effort to increase their ever- dwindling numbers outside of captivity.  I was also supposed to monitor the collared cheetah, which were supposed to be released into the reserve.  I did none of that.  I walked cheetahs on a leash, foisted them upon guests as they ate their breakfast and lunch on the lodge’s lawn, and essentially put on a cheetah show.  This was not what I came to do.

I loved the cats.  There were five ‘tame’ ones kept in what the lodge refers to as ‘captivity’.  There were ten other cheetah, two of which were also kept in small enclosures, but they were at least away from the lodge.  The ‘captive’ cheetah were kept so close to the lodge and its guests, they could practically dive in the lodge’s swimming pool from their enclosure.  They were also living in non-ideal conditions.  Among other problems, the lodge facilities for everyone but the guests (and sometimes even for the guests as well) often don’t have water, so the cats’ enclosures don’t get hosed down as they should.  Ever.  In fact, cheetah poo is barely cleaned up at all because of the lack of water or sanitization equipment.  We were even asked to dilute down any cleaning products to make them go as far as possible because the owners apparently felt they were spending too much money to buy the stuff.  We were barely using the disinfectants and such at ALL, given that we didn’t have the right conditions to use them properly (eg., a way to scrub with them and then hose it all down – hard to do all that without water), so I can’t quite make out HOW, exactly, we were abusing the disinfectant.

In terms of HOW the cheetah were living, even the worst zoos in the world would be disgusted.  Two adult pairs of brother and sister lived together; each pair had its own enclosure.  Siblings of opposite gender should be separated by the time they are two years old.  These pairs were 3 and 6 years old.  Well past their separation due date.  And the males were starting to try and mate with their sisters.  Last I checked, this was not only bad for a population of animals with bad enough genetic diversity as to render every cheetah on earth virtually a twin of every other one, but bad for the concept of conservation and rehabilitation in general.  If they succeed in mating, the lodge will have succeeded in breeding a genetic disaster, possibly with two heads and five paws.  Maybe that’s the goal? After all, a genetically mutated cat might bring in more money for the owners, and money, I’ve found, is the ONLY thing this place was about.  Bring on the circus act.  I mean, it’s clear that’s what they’re going for here anyway.

Two of the cheetahs were purchased from a breeder who had supposedly been keeping them in bathtubs and toilets.  I can’t really tell you the real story, since I got about twelve different versions, including one from the proclaimed other cheetah ‘expert’ – who had been here when the cats arrived – and a totally different one from the owner, who bought the cats.  NOTE: If you were really interested in conservation, buying animals from that type of unethical breeder is the LAST thing you do.  You don’t GIVE MONEY to people who breed animals illegally and/or unethically.  In fact, you don’t BUY animals at all.  It is the antithesis on conservation.  Please keep that in mind when you buy animals from pet shops, and do serious research on your breeders as well.

Two of the cheetahs were born on the reserve and then taken into captivity under the premise that the owner wanted to perform surgery on the male, who was born with a leg deformity.  However, they didn’t bring the mother, and they never released the male and his sister back to her either.  They kept the siblings in their tiny enclosure.  THIS is conservation and rehabilitation?

Another cheetah died because she ate an employee’s Croc.  Another was kept in a tiny, windowless closet for two months because there was no place to keep her while she recovered from a broken leg (suspiciously, no one seems to know how she broke it).  The lodge has no appropriate place for injured animals.  Yet they call themselves a rehabilitation center.  And they have no vet on site.  And the vet they DO use (as apparently the local wildlife vets are subpar in their book) lives in Hoedspruit, which is a several hour FLIGHT away.

The caretakers before me had no experience working with cheetah.  The person who set up the program had no experience working with cheetah, nor did she have any expertise with rehabilitation and conservation.  There was no program in place.  I actually put one together while I was there, though I’m pretty positive they never actually enacted it, since they never listened to me about anything with the cats anyway.  They said it was okay to feed them mangy, mangled rabbits they bought and did not care for in the slightest.  It was the head ranger and I who decided to set up a rabbit breeding facility so that we could breed healthy rabbits for the cats.  That fell apart after he and I resigned.  Nobody cared.

When there were no rabbits, the cats were fed bad organs from a butcher, which often had to be thawed and then refrozen because there wasn’t a working refrigerator available to keep the meat in.  There was only a deep freeze available.  There was a time when I was told to cut up a horse that had died a few days prior and had already started to decompose.  The organs had been left in the sun for a good day before they even got to me.  It was rancid and already crawling with maggots.  But I was assured the meat was fine and ‘fresh.’  Seriously.

Cheetahs are not like a lot of other predators – they aren’t big on carrion.  I don’t blame them.  The meat they were often fed was either freezer burned or past its expiration date.  There would be days when the cats only got just animal hearts or just animal livers, which is horribly unhealthy for them.   The cats were constantly suffering from diarrhea.  Often I would find vomit in their enclosures as well.  Like the poo, couldn’t clean that up without water.  It just sat and baked in the sun, eventually becoming part of the ‘furniture’.

The ‘wild’ cheetahs also live in a form of captivity.  Each day, they were lured to a part of their enclosure equipped with a protected viewing stand for lodge guests ‘on safari’.  The cats were taunted with a tasseled object tied to the end of a string.  A guide pushes a button and the lure gets yanked down what is essentially a cheetah runway, enticing the animals to run after it and put on a show for the guests.  Oooh!  See the cheetah run!  See it get thrown an old, desiccated and sickly chicken for its efforts.  Guests were told that this ‘run’ is supposed to induce the females to go into estrus so they can then breed.  While cheetahs do in fact need to hunt and (the females at least) need to drive up their temperatures for mating (the males, however, shouldn’t run, as it burns up their sperm), only two of the cheetah run (always the same two), and they were all essentially too old to breed now anyway.  Several of the cheetahs were ten years old, well past their sell-by date for ideal breeding purposes.  As far as I know, this is all simply a gimmick to get people to pay to come here.  While two of the cheetahs had tracking collars, no one is tracking them, and there were no plans for the lodge to release them in the larger reserve.  In fact, until I showed up, no one employed by the lodge even knew HOW to use the equipment to track the animals.  The collars had been on for so long already, the batteries in them were most likely flat, meaning the entire collar had to be replaced.  The reality was, though no one would admit it, the collars were all for show. Those cats weren’t going anywhere.

The ‘wild’ cheetahs did not live within the main reserve.  They lived in a small enclosure WITHIN the main reserve, their own separate area that, while larger than the pens back at the lodge, was wayyyy too small to house 7 cheetah.  And like their ‘captive’ counterparts, the group consisted of a mix of males and females.

A few facts about cheetahs – the females are mainly solitary, except when they have cubs, or are looking for a mate.  They actively seek out the males for mating, and choose which one they want.  Not the other way around.  In fact, if you introduce a female cheetah to a male cheetah and she doesn’t like him, she may beat him up.

Males, on the other hand, will often stick with the brothers from birth, living in a form of coalition.  Sometimes another solitary male will join their group, but regardless, usually before they reach their second birthday, cheetah siblings of opposite genders have gone their separate ways.

Now, these ‘wild’ cheetah, because of their abnormal social dynamic with males and females being kept together too long, developed a super coalition and have actually attacked people.  Cheetahs don’t normally do that.  Cheetahs were usually afraid of their own shadow.  They were the low man on the totem pole of cats, lacking the strength to defend their kills and cubs from other, larger predators like lions and hyenas (and even wild dogs have been known to kill cubs).  As such, rather than defend, they were more apt to flee.  And as far as humans go, they would rather bolt than take the chance for injury or worse, death.  So the fact that these cheetahs attack people says something is not right in Kansas.  Or shall I say the Karoo?

Two of the captive cheetah also had a habit of attacking their handlers, with one cheetah in particular being a bad seed.  He even looks like a shady character, which is ironic, since that’s his name.  I had the pleasure of having his tooth through my pinky finger once.  I felt sorry for him, as well as the other cats, and the rest of the animals on this reserve.  Because of poor regulation within the conservation industry and within the sale of exotic animals, this lodge can continue to lie to guests and pretend they were practicing conservation, when in fact all they were doing is lining the pockets of the owners at the expense of the employees and their exotic ‘pets’.  I resigned after a month.  Oh, and by the way, the lodge still refuses to pay my medical bills from problems with my hand that are a direct result of the bite.  High-class establishment, right?

Places like this should not exist, and it bothers me to no end that there are so many writers out there who, instead of doing do diligence and getting the facts on a place, prefer to be lazy, pampered and essentially bribed and blinded rather than uncovering the reality.  By writing good reviews about a place without doing the homework to find out if the place really is what it says it is, a writer is then complicit in the disgusting things that go on in such a place.  Non-fiction writers have a responsibility to provide the truth.  Writers who praise this place for its ‘work’ are neglecting their responsibility.  And they are contributing to the problem.  The guests are no better.

I plan to report them to the Labour Department.  Another employee reported them to the SPCA.  Hopefully someone will actually make the effort and close the place down, though given how rife this country is with bribery and corruption, I sadly don’t have high hopes.

The lodge just bought two baby rhino that they say they are going to release into the reserve, but I just saw a picture of a guest playing with them.  Um, really?  Here’s a species that is being wiped out by man.  Why, then, if you are truly a conservation center, would you HABITUATE THESE ANIMALS TO PEOPLE?!?  What, so when a poacher shows up, he can walk right up to the rhino and lead it off the reserve with a carrot?  Clearly this is yet another example of animals that will be kept in captivity perpetually under the guise of ‘conservation’ and ‘rehabilitation’, but while actually being used to make money for the owners at the expense of the wildlife.  Sickening, seriously sickening.

By the way, this place advertises itself as Big 5 and has been doing so for months, if not years.  The Big 5 includes the following: elephant, black rhino (NOT white), leopard, lion, and buffalo.  This reserve has NO black rhino (thankfully), they didn’t have elephant AT ALL until a few months ago (and those elephant showed up WELL AFTER they were advertising the reserve as Big 5), the lions they DO have are in a small, separate reserve and are so overfed, they look like hippos that were shoved into lion skin, and no one I’ve spoken to has EVER seen a leopard on the property.  And I asked people who’d been working there for YEARS.  Big 5, my ass.

It took every ounce of restraint I possessed to keep from leaving the cheetah enclosure doors open the day I left.

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, Education, Habituation, Karoo, legislation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #6 – Wildlife Challenge of the Day

Here I am on my soapbox, about to pontificate and verbally gesticulate about all the reasons why I think we need to conserve, rehabilitate, and otherwise appreciate the beauty around us. But I won’t. Not really. I’ll just twist your arm gently.

My original title for this post was “Why Wildlife Makes Me Happy, and Why I Believe We Need to Cherish and Protect It.” I still think that is an apt name for the post, but what I’d prefer you to think of this post as is a challenge, a game.  t is an opportunity for you to step into my shoes for a few minutes and live like I do. You may run screaming at the thought of that, and I would understand. To some extent, at least. But what I’m proposing is something that I believe everyone should do everywhere in the world, no matter who you are. And it takes nothing but a few minutes of your time. So hear me out.

I swear if anyone took a moment to sit and watch a troop of baboons playing in a field, they could not help but to smile. Maybe not smile when the baboons jump on the car and eat the aerial or poop on your roof (which has happened to me on more than one occasion), but you still have to chuckle at their audacity, and their exploits as they toss each other around and genuinely enjoy life, even when they are getting beaten up by their more senior family members. Kind of like a human family, in fact, where the older brothers and sisters tease the younger ones incessantly and then go screaming off to whoever will listen as soon as the little one wises up and starts fighting back. In fact, baboons are uncannily like us. I’ll be honest – I kind of wish one would saunter up to me and start picking through my hair in an attempt to groom me.

I smile every time I see an animal, even the more mundane ones we take for granted, like squirrels and pigeons. Sit and watch them for a few moments before automatically judging them. Take a few minutes to observe without judging. The more you do this with wildlife, the more you will find yourself doing it with human life, and the more patience and compassion you will find you possess. It all starts with our ability to see things clearly, and not through the filters we’ve put in place through experience. The more often you allow yourself to see things without pretense, without judgment, the more often you will find yourself in a better mood. Better mood = happier people overall. I don’t know about you, but for me,  happiness is just about as good as it gets in my book.

So cherish wildlife. Appreciate it, take a moment for it, actually stop and smell those roses. No matter how busy you say you are, you always have time for it. I know. I lived and worked in New York, one of the most high-intensity places in the world, and I worked in media. If you don’t think I know a thing or two about being highly stressed, overworked, underpaid, and strung out, you are sadly mistaken. But I chose to make a change, one baby step at a time. And I always always always took a few seconds wherever I could to step back and bring the whole world into focus, stripping off the tunnel vision blinders I had been trained to use by a society so out of touch with ‘reality’ as to believe that we don’t need the outside world.  We do, and it needs us.  Just in the right balance.

So here’s my challenge for you – I challenge you to take five minutes today to sit quietly and watch a bird, a squirrel, an ant, whatever wildlife you can find. Watch, listen and don’t say a word, mentally or literally. If you do decide to try it, please, please share your experience with me.

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

What Cats (Cheetah in Particular) Find Interesting

Two male cheetahs sitting watchful and alert

Two male cheetah sitting pretty as they scan the neighborhood for prey and pretty lady cheetah

I sat (and I mean sat) in the freezing cold wind with a cheetah for three hours the other day.  During that time, we spent at least a half hour each devoted to staring at the following – springbok, donkeys, cars, and random people WAYYYYYY in the distance.  None of these creatures/items were within striking distance of the cat, nor did she make a move to get any closer to them. But apparently that doesn’t matter. It was like the cat had DSTV and was just switching channels between kitty NASCAR, the Discovery Channel, Farmer’s Weekly, and E!  She didn’t move in three hours. Just turned her head slightly in four directions to take in her four different shows. I was less than amused, and kept myself entertained by drawing pictures in the hard dirt. Then I practiced throwing stones.  No, not at the cat.

When she did eventually move her feline butt, she walked up to me, nuzzled me under the chin and waited for me to give her some belly and behind-the-ear rubs before finally sauntering back to her enclosure. That was my afternoon. I sat throwing rocks, sketching masterpieces in dirt that by tomorrow will have blown away, and occasionally watching her TV shows with her.

The cheetah isn’t much of a conversationalist, to say the least. And their interest level seems pretty much contained to moving objects of any kind, particularly if tied to a colourful string. Watching them follow me blindly as they swat at a plastic bottle filled with rocks and tied to a string sort of diminishes their exotic allure a bit. All in all, not very much different from your common house cat.  Just a bit bigger and spottier, honestly.

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Cool facts about cheetah and why I haven’t been writing about them

Ok, I know I’m remiss in keeping up on the posts here. I have plenty of excuses, including things like living in a place where I have to get internet vouchers to actually log on, and often there aren’t any available. Or even better, not having electricity. I really thought when I changed jobs that I would no longer have to deal with the lack of electricity problem. However, it seems to follow me like a fruit fly follows a moldy peach. If water had anything to do with internet access, I could use that as an excuse as well, since in the month since I’ve been at the new gig, I haven’t had water for half of it, and when I have, half that time it hasn’t been hot, or even remotely warm. But that doesn’t affect my internet, except to make me smelly when I’m typing.

Other than that, the only thing that has made keeping the blog updated difficult is the fact that a cheetah had its tooth through my finger, crushing my knuckle and severing a nerve.  I had no idea how valuable a pinky finger was until this point. Plus the injury affected the whole hand for a good week, owing to the massive amount of swelling, and the dew claw holes and infections on my forearm. Cheetah bites are dirty, but cheetah dew claws are even worse, a true cesspool of bacteria and evil monsters of infection. Luckily, my arm has survived, and my hand is healing, albeit slowly.

Sadly, the hand that got bitten was my right hand, and I’m right-handed.  Heavily right-handed. That made doing just about anything a challenge. But it’s amazing what your secondary hand is capable of when necessary. I have to give props to left hand for stepping in and not only doing right hand’s work but doing the work of TWO hands since righty was incapacitated for quite a while.

Anyway, enough excuses. On to some cool facts.

I had no idea that cheetah are the oldest of the big cats, and in fact originated in North America. As such, the North American pronghorn antelope, the cheetah‘s main prey, evolved to be the fastest antelope in the world. Then an ice age swept through about 12,000 years ago and wiped the cheetah out in North America and Europe, bottlenecking the species into Africa and Asia. It seems the pronghorn hasn’t realized the cheetah isn’t still chasing it, as it apparently hasn’t slowed its roll.

Cheetahs are also separated from the other big cats for a variety of reasons, one of which is their inability to roar like lions, tigers, and leopards. Cheetah chirp like little birds, one of many elements making them appear a little less formidable than their feline friends.  However, even though they often sound like little chew toys when they communicate, they’ve evolved a serious jaw for gripping, so if they do bite, they make it count. I learned about that personally when the cheetah that attached itself to my hand refused to let go. I could swear I even heard the jaw lock in place.

Having your hand in another animal’s mouth when said animal’s intent is not to play is a sobering experience, truly. Even though I could, in theory, toss a cheetah on its back (they don’t get much bigger than 65 kg, and that’s a BIG cheetah; our captive cheetah are more like 45kg, or 90 lbs), when I have one hand clamped between its teeth, I have to make quick decisions on which is the best plan of action for getting the hand out in one piece and with minimal damage. If I kicked the cat, it could run away, hand still locked in its jaws. If I poked the cat in the eye, it could still run with my hand firmly gripped between its teeth. I did the best thing I could think of, given the situation. I used my other hand to grip the cat’s throat and jaw, pushing inward to attempt to force him to open its mouth.  But freedom for my hand came from not from my efforts, but from an outside source, and thankfully that source had the ability to keep his wits about him and think fast.

My fiance, looking on horrified at the scene unfolding before him, was luckily with me, but on the outside of the enclosure. He grabbed a spray bottle filled with water and vinegar (which we keep for situations just like this) and was able to spray the culprit in the face, immediately prompting the cat to wince, open its mouth, and run off to the other side of the enclosure, sulking. Like most species of cats, cheetahs aren’t big fans of water, unless it’s to drink.

I wish I had taken a photo of my hand when it came out of the cheetah’s mouth. The base of my now disturbingly purplish blue pinky was about half the size it normally is, with a huge hole in it that went straight through from the inner bottom corner to the outside of the middle knuckle. It was surreal.  And for the first time in my life, serious shock hit and I actually swooned and almost passed out. While my fiance raced around to find a first aid kit (of which there were none to be found – law suit, anyone??), I literally sat on the floor of the cheetah kitchen, running my hand under cool water and washing as much of the saliva and other nasties out of my many new holes. My knees buckled. It was probably the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had. And I don’t wish it on anyone.

Just a word of advice for anyone who is bitten by an animal – instinct tells you to pull back.  Don’t ever do that.  You will shred whatever body part is being bitten, if not actually detach yourself from it.  I let the cat call the shots, forcing myself to not pull my hand back and instead, moving with him in whatever direction he moved.  Because of that, I only had punctures on my hand instead of shredded skin or, worse, no fingers at all.

Here’s a look at two of our kitties at play…note the claws on the front cat. Because cheetah claws are not fully retractable like other cats (though their dew claws do retract fully), their nails take a beating through wear and tear, though I doubt any cheetah ever cares about things like pedicures or dirty nails.

Cheetahs at play and photographer in the way

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, Education, rehabilitation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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