South Africa – To Be Afraid or to Not Be Afraid

Eland in the Karoo

Antelope mirrors in the Karoo

Recently I was asked what was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Most people who know me would probably say me moving to South Africa was very brave. To that I would say that are right in some ways, but I don’t think I’d consider it the bravest thing I’ve ever done. However, for anyone who’s ever lifted off the bowlines and set sail, by car, plain, train, boat, horse or foot to a new destination, I’d say they certainly have at least one brave bone (if not an entire skeleton of them) in their body. It takes a lot of guts to change your life so dramatically.

But for me, bravery is about staying strong even when you’re feeling so very small. And this story is about one of those moments.

South Africa, though very cosmopolitan in places, and with most of the modern conveniences first-world countries take for granted, is still very different than those same countries. For one, crime really is bad here. Many South Africans have told me otherwise, but everyone I’ve met here has experienced some sort of crime, whether it was a mugging, car-jacking, house break-in, and in some cases, even gone so far as been a victim of rape and/or some other physically violent crime. The taxi drivers carry guns here, and I’ve been warned more than a dozen times to not honk at them or they might actually shoot me. I’ve been told this by people I trust, and who said it with no hint of irony or humour. They don’t honk at the taxi drivers either.

When I first started driving in South Africa, my fiance told me I must never stop at a stop light or stop sign after dark, and that if I see police lights behind me, to not pull over, but to instead drive to the nearest police station. Certainly didn’t make me feel comfy and cozy driving around, and certainly not something I expected to hear about a place known for its tourism, world-class hotels and restaurants, and reputation as the ‘Rainbow Nation.’

I’ve been told by many South Africans that the US is much more violent than South Africa. I feel the need to set the record straight on that. Yes, the US has plenty of crime. But in terms of levels and percentages, it isn’t even close to that of South Africa. I lived in three major cities – New York, Washington, DC and Los Angeles. In none of those places did I ever have to live in a compound brimming with video surveillance cameras and locked down with fences and metal bars on every possible window, door or small opening. While I did live in what are considered nicer sections of those cities, even the nicest sections of Cape Town and Joburg have considerable crime, both non-violent AND violent. In South Africa, we live in walled compounds surrounded by home security systems and the alarm company not only on speed dial, but offering patrol cars that constantly monitor the streets. My friend’s sister was mugged right outside her house the other day by a kid who wanted her cell phone. It’s not pretty. To be honest, I’d rather take my chances in the bush than in any city in South Africa.  I’ve never met a lion who’d pull a knife on me over a laptop or an iPhone.

But the bush DOES have it’s share of human dangers. In fact, the reserve I worked on up in Limpopo had apparently seen a few murders committed by the two-legged primate known as man. I’d go so far as to say the most dangerous places in the world are the ones inhabited by people.

The following story is one of the few instances in my life where I was truly afraid. And it was one of the few times in my life when I also felt truly brave. Funny that they often go hand in hand like that.

When I was living on the reserve out in the Karoo (an arid region north/northeast of Cape Town), I lived in a small house by myself. It was connected to another little row of rooms/houses, none of which were occupied while I was there because they were under construction. My kitchen opened into one of the cheetah enclosures, so I always knew I’d be safe from that side of the house (provided the cats didn’t break down the door, which they did threaten to do every morning when they saw the lights come on in my kitchen and they thought I had breakfast for them). However, the front of my house faced another empty house and an unlit walkway, and the other side faced the very empty and open Karoo. The fourth wall was connected to another house, so it didn’t actually ‘face’ anything but a lot of concrete)

People walk off into the Karoo and disappear. The landscape is like an infinite horizon that doubles back on itself, with a stubble of low shrub and hardy grasses and a terra firma sea of dusty mirages and dried up dams. On moonless nights, the sky is a blanket of stars shimmering like sequins against a silvery satin dress. On cloudy nights, blackness envelops you like a velvet curtain and you can’t see so much as your hand in front of your face.

Karoo before rain

crusty pan screaming for rain

My cell phone had no reception at my house; I had no landline. I didn’t have a working two-way radio. The reserve had yet to provide me with one (which was one of the first indicators that my employers did not give a whit about their employees – they made no effort to get me one for the first few weeks I was there, and not even after this incident, or the one when I was bitten by one of the cheetah and couldn’t contact anyone for help). I was therefore alone in the equivalent of a desert, with no way to call anyone if anything were to happen to me. In fact, my best defense might have been simply letting the cats into my kitchen so they could attack whomever came after me.

I kept a Bowie knife under my pillow alongside a massive Maglite torch (aka flashlight). And every night I listened for the squeaky gate that led to my front door, the telltale sign that someone or something was prowling around my house. The gate was too high and too flimsy for anyone to jump over, so I had some peace of mind knowing that if anyone tried to break in, they had to go through that crappy gate and alert me of their presence. One of the few times I’m glad my ex-employers took care of nothing on the reserve – in a better lodge, the hinges would’ve been replaced and I would’ve never heard a sound.

When I first got to the reserve, my house wasn’t ready. They still hadn’t cleaned it up from the previous tenant and the miserable blue macaw that lived with her and left several months’ worth of bird shit caked into the ground around his stoop. So I stayed in a tiny but well-lit and secure rondavel near the field guides. I ended up moving into the house a day earlier than expected, which is what probably caused the incident. I think people figured no one was in the place yet, and they could take advantage of the empty house full of goodies like tableware and bedding. I’ve realised that people, when they want to and think they can get away with it, will steal just about anything, including a spatula.

At any rate, at around 12:30am, I heard my front gate scrape, soft footsteps padding across my little yard, and then the front door rattling. Someone was clearly trying to get in. I then heard some muffled and disgruntled whispers as they tried again. At this, I turned on the flashlight. Alarmed by the light, my potential intruders immediately scuttled away through the gate. I heard their car doors slam shut as they got into a car and drove off.

I immediately checked the area around my house, and then booked it to the closest neighbor, who happened to be one of the lodge managers. I relayed the story and we got into one of the lodge’s trucks and drove around looking for suspicious cars in places they shouldn’t be. It probably wasn’t the brightest idea for two women to be speeding around the reserve in the middle of the night, but we did need to get a read on where everyone was, and if anyone or any cars where missing.

While we were driving, the lodge manager informed me that quite a few of the workers were very disgruntled, did not like the owners, and were plotting on robbing the lodge blind any chance they got. I think they were hoping tonight was one such chance, and that they could take advantage of whatever goodies were in my place while it was still empty. After realizing the empty house wasn’t so empty, though, they tucked tail and never came back.

The next day I checked the tracks left by the night visitors and their escape vehicle. They hadn’t bothered to try and cover them up. It was easy to identify the type and size of the shoes they wore by their tread. The same goes for the truck they drove. There was enough evidence to figure out who my ‘guests’ were – and they were indeed people who worked at the lodge.

We called the lodge owners the next day and told them what happened, but did not mention any names or point fingers. I thought, given what happened and how vulnerable we were, that it would be more appropriate for the owners to initiate a real investigation so there was no bad blood against either the lodge manager or myself. My employers were so clearly concerned about us that they blew it off. Couldn’t be bothered. They told us we were overreacting. Nothing was done. And as I found out, that was how they handled everything at that lodge. The employees don’t matter; we can always find new ones.

That was the second mark against them. The cheetah bite would be the last and final blow against that shitshow.

When I returned to my house that afternoon, I checked my bedroom window, which another employee told me didn’t lock. It hadn’t locked for two years. My employers insisted it was fixed. When I checked, it was still broken. No effort had ever been made to sort out the lock or the window.

I slept with the knife and torch under my pillow until the day I left that job, only a few short weeks later.


All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Karoo, South Africa, United States, Western Cape | 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

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: