Habituation

The ‘Truth’ About Hunting, in South Africa and Elsewhere

Okay, I imagine everyone reading this also saw some mention of the American hunter (or huntress, as one commenter wrote, though that seems a little too Xena, Warrior Princess to me…) posed over the lion she shot in South Africa, which was undoubtedly followed by thousands of vitriolic comments you may have read that ranged from simply banning her from entering an entire country to wanting the woman’s head on a platter. This all because she did something that is, unfortunately, COMPLETELY LEGAL and then had the (some say) audacity to flaunt her prize. And, if I’ve read a lot of the comments correctly, because she happens to be a woman, it is apparently an even worse crime. ??? Bear with me here as I tackle all of this. I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

Here’s the rub about the whole situation – she didn’t actually do anything wrong, according to the law.  And now anyone named ‘Melissa Bachman’, or any variation of that name, must hire armed guards and prove to the ravenous mobs of angry (and in a lot of cases misinformed or, worse, uninformed) posters that they are not, in fact, the ‘guilty party’ (who again, I must reiterate, is guilty of nothing but being a pompous ass with a large ego and misdirected sense of self).

Now I do not agree with trophy hunting. And I REALLY don’t agree with canned hunting, which, if I’m reading all the reports correct, is indeed what this woman’s hunt was. But the fact of the matter is, trophy hunting (even canned trophy hunting, which is conveniently called ‘captive hunting’ now) is legal in South Africa, as it is in many places in the world, including the United States. There are South Africans whose SOLE profession is as a professional hunter (or PH, as they are called here). There is a society dedicated to these people (http://www.phasa.co.za). Hunting is big business here. In fact, according to PHASA’s site, hunting tourists contributed R811 MILLION to the South African economy in 2012 alone. And most of the hunters who pay the money to hunt the game? They come from outside of the country (mostly the US and Europe). Now, whether the money ACTUALLY goes to conservation is another story, but the fact of the matter is, it does make money. And for many people, that’s all that matters.

PHs also hunt the wildlife many of these internet proselytizers so vehemently call for ‘protecting’. Yet it’s one woman people are directing their anger towards, not all these other hunters. This one woman, even if she got REALLY good at hunting, could still never do the amount of damage that South Africa does to itself when it comes to its wildlife. The same can be said of the US, and many other countries around the world. We hunt our own majestic animals, and then we rail against anyone with the nerve to do something we do ourselves. And we are okay keeping the cattle, chickens, and pigs we eat in miserable, miniature pens. Go figure.

I’d like to point out several facts that people should know before they continue on the witch hunt.

1. The same people who call for the ban of hunting are also often the people who want to visit the petting zoos so they can have a chance to cuddle a lion cub.  And then this happens: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/south-africa-lion-park-attack-5805070  And people then want to put all the blame on the lion. Why? Because it wasn’t tame? Because it did what lions do? There are signs all over that park telling visitors to keep their windows closed.

And as for the other lions in these types of places, the little cubs? What do you think happens to those lions when they grow up? You guessed it – they get used for canned hunts that bring in tens of thousands of dollars to the South African economy. So tourists ply money into the country via aggrandized petty zoos filled with adorable fuzzy predator kittens, and then other tourists come and shoot those kittens when they grow up. It’s a pretty sick cycle, but it is a cycle nonetheless, and if you want to hate on the hunting, don’t be the hypocritical idiot who goes to pet the baby lions. I know; I’m one. I had NO IDEA that this stuff happened. Now I do. And I will never do it again, nor will I encourage anyone else to do so. If you think I’m exaggerating, check out this article (http://www.lionaid.org/news/2013/11/the-furore-about-melissa-bachmans-lion-kill-in-south-africa-continues.htm) and spend some time on the LionAid website (www.LionAid.org). Africa Geographic did another article worth a read, if you feel like educating yourself even further (http://blog.africageographic.com/africa-geographic-blog/hunting/how-lions-go-from-the-petting-zoo-to-the-dinner-plate/).

Oh, and this current point goes for the place I used to work at as well, that abomination of an establishment that pretends it practices conservation, all the while abusing the wildlife it pretends to protect. I’m still debating about whether to just out the lodge, to be honest. Especially since now they have baby rhinos that they let guests pet. Yes, pet. You know, rhino? The critically endangered animals about to go extinct because of poaching? Yeah, they ACCLIMATE the animals to people. Makes it easier for a poacher to just walk up to one and shoot it, doesn’t it? Really great CONSERVATION work, isn’t it? Oh, and they charge serious ducats for the ‘privilege’ (with the rhino and with the cheetah) to interact with an animal they keep in captivity forever. But that’s another story for another day…back to the trophy hunting.

2. As I said, while the practice may not be nice, it is legal, and so was she. So instead of aiming your tomatoes (or daggers or abusive language or whatever else you choose to hurl) at her, aim them at the entire industry on the whole, and don’t restrict it to South Africa. If you hate trophy hunting and think it is a despicable practice, then take EVERY PLACE and EVERYONE associated with it to task, not ONE measly woman! She doesn’t deserve that much credit! Get pissed at the game farmers who raise animals to be shot for fun. For food, fine. For fun, not okay.

3. No one is actually doing anything but gossiping, for all intents and purposes. Get off your butts and do something. Instead of ‘Like’-ing a post from someone, create a petition that calls for the banning of trophy hunting. Get a few million people to sign it (if the petition in reaction to this Melissa chick is any indication, I’m sure you could get an actual USEFUL petition signed by even more people). Then get it out there. Contact places like the World Wildlife Fund, CITES, Panthera, and all the other conservation and/or lawmaking groups out there. Petition the governments of the countries. Make a difference, not a snide comment.

4. The conservation industry and the hunting industry are rather uncomfortable bed buddies. For a long time, the two have been intertwined, and many people believe that hunting HELPS conservation because it brings in money for the wildlife industry to pay for stuff like anti-poaching units and animal relocations. This causes serious issues, because people WITHIN conservation believe in trophy hunting as a fine and dandy practice. Not all of them, but some do. Also, it’s still up for debate as to where the funds actually go, but again, another story for another time.

And for a little lesson in conservation: the Kruger Park, one of the most beloved and beautiful places on earth, was STARTED as a hunting concession. The land was delegated as protected area so that game stocks could have a place to replenish. Because of uncontrolled hunting way back when, Paul Kruger and some friends decided that the best way to preserve the wildlife and restock the supplies of game was to set up a protected area for them. That way the animals could reproduce, gain in numbers, and then – drumroll, please – be HUNTED! Kruger, the epitome of conservation? Yup, that same Kruger. I kid you not, dear readers. So if you wonder why this topic is such a challenge, now maybe you’re starting to get a fuller picture of how difficult it is to separate the conservation industry from the hunting one. In the last two centuries, they grew up and developed together, those funny little animal-obsessed industries that they are.

5. From the myriad posts I saw, an awful lot of them were aimed at this woman more because she was a woman than because of what she did. This is something I find very interesting. Why is it that a female hunter is an abomination, but the gazillion male hunters who do this same thing every day don’t face the same vicious backlash? Wtf? Don’t be sexist about it. Choose to be either against something or for it, but don’t be a hypocrite who draws the line based on the machinery ‘down there’.

6. The other thing I noticed is that there was much less furor over other pictures on the internet of people killing other wildlife. Why is it that the lion gets so much attention, but the other animals – who are equally as important in the food chain – do not? Is it simply because the hunter is posed proudly next to her kill? There are plenty of those to be found online. What about people killing foxes in fox hunts, for instance?

Again, we can’t choose to champion one animal while we allow other animals to fall prey to more hunting simply because those other animals aren’t as ‘majestic’. Or we can, but we are once again proving to be hypocritical. And it’s very easy to poke holes in hypocrisy when you’re a lawmaker. Or a hunter. Or a poacher. Or a local desperate to feed his family. Or really anybody. It sort of ruins the foundation of your argument, you know? So by all means, protect lions. But protect hyenas as well, and vultures, and sharks, and…I don’t know…golden moles. You get the point.

7. It’s speculated this Ms. Bachman’s hunt was a captive, or canned, hunt. Canned hunts are perhaps the most shameful kind of hunt imaginable. They require pretty much no skill. I’m going to quote directly from the Born Free website here (www.bornfree.org.uk) to give you a better idea of what they entail: “Canned hunting, the hunting of wild animals in a confined area from which they cannot escape, is not only legal in South Africa, it is flourishing.  Hunters from all over the world, but notably from the United States, Germany, Spain, France and the UK, flock to South Africa in their thousands and send home lion body parts, such as the head and skin, preserved by taxidermists, to show off their supposed prowess.

The animals involved are habituated to human contact, often hand-reared and bottle fed, so are no longer naturally fearful of people. Such animals will approach people expecting to get fed-but instead receive a bullet, or even an arrow from a hunting bow.  This makes it easier for clients to be guaranteed a trophy and thus the industry is lucrative and popular.”

If you want to be nauseated a bit, check out the video of an actual canned hunt, courtesy of The Humane Society:

Another note about this? Lion parts are now being sold off to Asia to fuel the illegal wildlife trade, which then fuels demand, which then fuels poaching, etc. So yet another reason to not support the activity.

8. Many of the lodges here tout animal skins and heads as chic decor (the lion seems a very popular decorating item, in fact). It seems that to qualify as African decor, many a lodge feels the need to display pieces of dead animals all over its property. In fact, I’m sure if you did a little digging, you’d find some of those lodges online, with spectacular glamour shots of their animal-laden interiors. People still go to these places. And in many places, they pay stupid amounts of cash to go them. And that money is very rarely reinvested into the conservation industry (or the local community, for that matter). But you don’t see people ripping apart those lodges, their owners and their interior decorators, do you? You don’t see people boycotting them, or banning them from existence.

9. Most posts I’ve seen neglect the fact that the largest threat to animals overall is us. Not just hunting of the wildlife. Or over-loving it. Nope, it’s a simple numbers game. Our burgeoning and out-of-control population leaves little space for the rest of the animal kingdom to live. But no one seems ready to give up all the comforts they have to alleviate the situation. People just keep buying and wasting and expanding (in more ways than one). So again, I’m all for people getting aggro about this hunting situation and for taking notice of a situation that really is ugly. But unless you actively DO something about it, why bother getting mad? Why bother spending time firing verbal bullets at a woman who was doing what she had every right to do? Why not use the time to make a positive difference that matters? Volunteer, donate money, get off your butt to get laws changed, but for the love of all things wonderful in this world, please educate yourself before you start throwing lightening bolts at the next target. And walk the walk if you’re gonna talk the talk.

Okay, and with that, I’m off my soapbox.  I know I have more points to make, but for now, maybe chew on that cud for a while. There’s a lot to digest, and plenty more where it came from.

Like I said, I don’t agree with trophy hunting. In fact, I don’t agree with hunting at all unless it’s for food, it’s fair game (meaning the animal can actually get away) and it’s legal. But I also don’t agree with this whole circus surrounding a woman who was, for better or for worse, within her rights. So if you have a problem with this practice, forget about the bimbo posing next to her kill. Go to https://www.change.org/petitions/stop-canned-hunting-in-south-africa and sign the petition to ban canned hunting in South Africa. And if you want to expand your banning to other locales, go for it! You can create your own petition on the website. It isn’t everything, but at least it’s a start. And it’s a start in the right direction.

I’d like to include some other links that would be good reading about the topic of mistreating wildlife, but rather than overwhelm you, I’ll focus on one specific post that I thought was quite interesting, given the fact that we seem to pick and choose how we like to interact with our wildlife.

Check out the newest venture of a Hilton Hotel in Hawaii, which is introducing sharks into its dolphin interaction lagoon. Dolphin interactions are also the antithesis of conservation, by the way. They do nothing good for the wildlife and a lot of good for the lining of the pockets of the people who force the wildlife to interact with humans. If this article doesn’t make you sit up and say, “Huh”, I don’t know what will…

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/hawaii-hilton-sharks_n_4305392.html?ir=Travel

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Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Conservation, Education, Habituation, legislation, Lion, poaching, rehabilitation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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

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

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