Posts Tagged With: bribery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

South African Adventure – Finding Home

Jersey Shore ghosts of the past

Okay, so today’s post is NOT about wildlife.   It’s personal.   I know, not my style, but whatev.  Life without change and chaos is boring.

General consensus from several sources give the definition of ‘homesick’ as acutely longing for one’s family or home.  ‘Nostalgic’ seems to be the reality-immune bedfellow of homesick, as in you get nostalgic for ‘home’ and ‘home’ is this mythical wonderland that exists in your mind until you actually return to that place in person and realize it was all a very elaborate hoax by your mind to prevent you from ever finding peace and contentment anywhere else.   One of the ultimate ironies and frustrations in life is that the more places you live, the less you are able to actually define and find ‘home,’ and the less you ever feel at home anywhere.  With the arrival of each new place, new memories are created, new histories and stories to add to the stockpile of data from which to draw a picture of this mythical ‘home,’ yet the quilt you sew is too disparate as to have any unifying element aside from your presence in those memories.  Your friends from when you lived in Thailand will probably never meet your childhood friends (who also might not even know each other), or your friends from living in Canada.  Your spheres don’t mesh; they overlap slightly here and there, just enough to make you think there is a thread you can hang on to, but not enough thread to build a thick enough rope to tie you to one place and one place alone.  The more you change your surroundings, in fact, the less you are ever able to find yourself settled anywhere, perhaps owing to the ‘grass is always greener’ mindset that plagues humanity.  Or perhaps it is just that while we can believe that home is a theoretical term for a place that only exists within us, we nonetheless search all our lives for it in external sources.  Such thinking has done nothing less than to cause wars.

I used to think that the place where I grew up was ‘home,’ even though I went as far away from there as possible, as soon as possible.  I used to have this hazy image, like an old photograph, of what that place looked like, and memories would play through my head like old home movies full of Instagram-like unnatural color, light, and sound.  What I remembered was only a flutter of the reality, but I held to that flawed image, determined to keep my idealized childhood intact.  All the bad disappeared into my fantasy reproduction of the reality, with Dorothy whispering in my ear that there’s no place like home.  The ‘inadequacy’ of the homes every place I’ve ever lived since living there stems from that imaginary mental cloud.   No matter how I try, I cannot erase it, nor can I seem to push past it, and as such, I’ve since always felt emotionally and psychologically homeless, even when I return there.   Once in a while I go someplace where I forget for short period of time, but they invariably come back, and in certain times nothing I do can push those images from once again bubbling up and taking over.  Yet every time I return there, I can’t help but feel lost, out of place and unable to find common ground with the place I grew up.  My politics, my worldview, my experiences are so vastly different from the people I knew growing up, including my family, and though we can talk about things and share our stories, I find myself unable to identify with that world anymore.  I find myself feeling utterly alone in the one place I should theoretically feel comfortable and at home.

I started feeling ‘homesick’ again a few weeks ago when I realized that for the first time in my life, I would not be back on US soil at all in 2012.  Not even to pass through on my way to somewhere else.  For whatever reason, that struck a somber chord with me, prompting all these lonely, sad feelings to well up from who knows where.  This ‘homesick’ feeling took a turn for the worse when Hurricane Sandy showed up and decimated the area where I grew up.  Photos showing the collection of destroyed beaches, roads, boardwalks and towns where I spent my childhood drove home this feeling that no matter where I go and what I do, my fictionalized and romanticized ‘home’ will never even be the image I had in my mind of it, because that image has now been wiped out by the Atlantic Ocean.  So here I am, 10,000 miles and a more than a few years away from my childhood, and the one place in the world, for better or for worse, that I could always call home is essentially gone.  Yes, NJ is still on the map, but the boundaries, all the lines and roads and dimensions I remember are now redrawn, and some are gone altogether.  It feels like nothing less than having your childhood erased.

Where does that leave me, now?  South Africa is not home.  Though I’ve gotten used to the new world in which I live, it will never be home to me, because for me, home is being settled, being accepted, and accepting a place for what it is.  Here I am told that even if I am the best driver in the world, I will not pass my driver’s test unless I bribe someone.  Same goes for getting a marriage license and many other legal documents.  I can’t accept that.  In addition, this is a place that continues to tell me, through various manners, that my heritage and I aren’t wanted here.  Many, in fact most, people I’ve met here have told me they hate America and Americans, even though they’ve never been to the US and don’t actually know any Americans themselves.  Yet they never seem to see the irony of that or the fact that almost all of the movies, music, products they consume (and often illegally consume) come from that ‘hateful’ land and those ‘hateful’ people, as does a considerable amount of the world’s crisis aid.  And I – and several other American expats I know have also experienced this – have found that many of the people here have been significantly less accepting of and friendly to ‘outsiders’ than their counterparts Stateside.  Even my South African fiancé has said as much, cursing his homeland often because of this, because of the blatant and inherent corruption alive and well here, and because of the overall inefficiency that seems to be a hallmark of this continent overall.  As much as I try to accept that, I can’t, nor can I change it.  Trust me, I’ve tried.  I’ve had a lot of people who agreed with me, but none willing to do anything about it.  So no matter how much I can love this land, it will never be my home.

Funny how much more you identify with the place from which you come when you aren’t there.  I am Jersey, born and bred, like it or not.  I can live in the bush until I die, but I will always be Jersey.  And you know what?  I’m pretty damn proud of that and of my little home state.  I’ve seen countless acts of kindness, compassion and understanding from my fellow Jerseyans come out of Sandy’s destruction.   I’ve watched complete strangers work together to help people whose lives have been irreparably changed.  And I’ve been sad that I couldn’t be there to work alongside them and help rebuild.  My heart longs to walk those roads again, to ride those amusement park rides, to share Italian ice with friends on the beach, even though I know it is impossible.  But none of this changes the fact that it is no longer home.  Nowhere, it seems, is these days.  And that is a feeling I have to learn to accept, or I condemn myself to a life of continually driving myself to find something that doesn’t really exist anywhere outside my mind.

Song of the day: Many come to mind, but at the moment, ‘Home’ by Michael Buble hits the spot.


All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Expat, New Jersey, South Africa, United States | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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