Western Cape

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

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

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

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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