Saturday, December 31, 2011

un-routine routine

As the days have gone on, I’ve found a sort of rhythm to my days. After getting myself together each morning, I head over to Marieta’s garden area and feed the two macaws and the African gray parrot some peanuts (I’ve trained them to come to me when I yell, “Peanuts!” and the parrot will even perform a bit for me by saying “hello!”)

Then I take a couple more peanuts (yes, I brought them with me) to Audrey, the blind vervet monkey, who is a whopping 22 years old—practically unheard of, but true. She comes out of her little house when I tell her I’m there with her morning treat, pats her hands on mine until she finds my fist, and then unwraps my fingers one by one to get to the peanut. She’ll often touch my hands between bites to make sure I’m still there. (And her cage mate, a squirrel named Fred, comes over and takes his nut out of my hand, too.)

After I slip a couple more peanuts to the monkeys in the cage next door (they always look on with their big soulful eyes and beg), I move over to the garden area that houses Atheno the cheetah cub. I spend a few minutes brushing his coat and scratching him while he purrs. Then we play chase: I drag a toy along the ground while I run around as fast as I can and he waits as long as he can before he pounces on it. He’s fast, let me tell you—and he can turn on a dime. Sometimes the grass is slippery, though, and he goes careening into a corner before he can get his footing. I’m usually laughing hysterically before long, and we do it again and again until we’re both panting.

After some more cuddling (if I can get him to calm down long enough to let me), I’m off to gather up Pickles where I’ve left her by the outside gate, and then she and I head off to get some breakfast. I can’t think of a better morning routine—not ordinary, by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly joyful.

Friday, December 30, 2011

working it out

For the past few days I’ve been able to work with the volunteers. Their numbers are a bit lower than usual—because of the holidays—and yesterday they lost quite a few when a group flew home. Today they’re down to about 12--compared to sometimes having as many as 50--and the new ones coming this afternoon won’t be able to help much until they’re trained.

So I’ve joined in and had a good time. I helped clear the weeds from a cheetah enclosure where guests go (so it needs to be looking good). Then I helped clean the water hole in the aviary. And this morning I worked in the food prep area, cutting meat into various sizes for different creatures (1 inch cubes for mongooses; steak size for cheetahs; strips the size of your smallest finger for the bat-eared foxes), and finally I helped rake and clean up the aviary. I admit I'm a big sore in my shoulders and arms.

None of these activities are picture worthy, so I’m including a picture of Asem, our movie star vulture. He had a small part (picking at a dead body by the side of the road) in Beyond Borders from 2003. He was rescued as part of a group of vultures that were being smuggled into Namibia. Once he and his siblings were healed (and some died as a result of the smuggling), they were all released, but Asem kept coming back to Harnas. He just didn’t want to go. Finally, Marieta decided he could stay in the aviary—where he’s King.

The one thing I’ve been reminded about the last couple of days is how hard these young volunteers work. They toil out in temperatures that are near 100 degrees, doing manual labor they’ve probably never done before, and they pay to do it. It’s mostly European kids between 18-30, taking time off from work or in between school and work. I wish more American kids would take a gap year and do things like this. It changes your perspective and makes you appreciate how great you have it. And it helps the world become a better place for both people and animals.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

some rescued cats

Only about 25% of the animals rescued by Harnas can be released back into the wild. First of all, there's not that much "wild" area left in Africa. Every place belongs to someone: owned, fenced off, ranched, farmed, mined. So the first thing that's needed is a place. Then you need an animal that can survive on its own.

Since lots of animals are brought to Harnas as babies, they lack the training wild animals get from their mothers. Others are pets that have grown to large or aggressive. Some are injured or maimed in some way that makes it impossible to release.

Such is the case of four of our caracals. Two of them are blind--lacking the right nutrients as babies. These two are Romeo and Juliet. They seem to be able to see light and shadow--a bit--but they would never survive alone. They'll live out their lives here at Harnas in the best way they possibly can.

Two others, who live in the same enclosure with Romeo (the one in the picture) and Juliet, have three legs each. Their mother, apparently, was really stressed out as a new mom and actually chewed one foot off each of her babies. (Hey, I understand. That probably would have been ME if I'd had kids, so I'm not blaming her.) Anyway, they get along okay, but of course they could never hunt in the wild.

So these four live together in an enclosure, are fed every day, and they have their various ailments looked after medically. Anywhere else, these four would be put down rather than have someone pay for the expense and put the time in to take care of them. But this is one thing that I love about Marieta. She isn't just interested in the survival of the SPECIES. She believes every INDIVIDUAL has a right to live, a right to exist.

Sure, if an animal is in pain, that's different. But these four seem to take their disabilities in stride. They have a good place to live and they even get to go out on bush walks with volunteers--they do as much as makes the animal comfortable and happy. And they're loved.

Monday, December 26, 2011

morning visitors

This morning I was doing some writing in my little house, enjoying the cool temperatures. (It's academic writing. I know--boring--but consider my global perspective: I'm writing an article for an American journal in Africa about a Japanese writer!) I had my door open and most of the windows.

Then I heard a little squeak—then another, and another, and I looked over at my door to find a herd of mongooses (yes, it’s mongooses, not mongeese) coming to visit. Since Pickles had gone running off with Marieta this morning (she got tired of waiting at the cheetah enclosure for me to exit), it was the perfect day to have these guests (dogs and mongooses—not a good match). Plus, they eat bugs of all kinds, so I love to let them houseclean for me.

Between 10 and 15 of the little creatures (about the size of a ferret) came in and spread out through my house. They’re very curious and have to get into everything. Some went into my closet and explored, others went under my bed and scratched at something. A few went into the bathroom and were picking at the toilet bowl brush. And then a few of them went behind the cupboards in the kitchen and got into the shelves.

One got stuck there and started squeaking pretty loud, so I had to open the cupboard door and let him out. As long as I stayed quiet at my table, they weren’t scared of me. If I moved, stood up, or made too much noise, they all went streaking out the door like creatures fleeing from a fire. Then they would creep back in.

They stayed for about 30 minutes, and then they heard the volunteers calling them with their breakfast meat—“Brrrrrrrrrr, brrrrrrrrr, brrrrrrrrr.” The scampered off and I was left with a bug-free house for now.

You just never know what’s going to happen here at Harnas.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas in Africa

Merry Christmas, Everyone! What a simple joyful holiday it is here in Africa. Last night for Christmas Eve the whole Harnas “family” joined together for a celebration on the lawn by the lapa.

The Bushman children sang songs—none of them Christmas carols that I recognized—but so full of jumping, hand-clapping, and gestures that I could hardly contain my delight. You can see the movement in this picture. I wish I could send you my video, but that will have to wait till I get home. Still pictures take about 10 minutes to upload, and I can’t imagine how long a video would take. Since I pay per minute here, I think I won’t attempt it.

After the children sang, the volunteers, staff, and guests took turns singing “Silent Night” in their mother tongue. So we had versions from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, English/American/Australian, Herero, San, and Afrikaans.

Then “Father Christmas” arrived with a present for each child and each staff member. Just a token something from Marieta and Harnas, but it was close to 100 people, I think. She even got a little something for me. Here, it truly is about the thought rather than the thing.

In an around it all were dogs, cats, a baby springbok, three baby donkeys, desert tortoises, and baby ostriches. The manger scene had nothing on us.

Today for Christmas, there was a special service at the small, open-air chapel that Marieta had built in honor of her husband and son—who both passed away in the past decade. More singing, dancing, and children. Later we'll have a big buffet lunch for everyone. And that’s it. The one decoration is a sort of tree made from part of a cactus--which has red tinsel on it. It looks sort of like a Dr. Seuss tree.

Back to feeding the animals and taking care of them—they don’t take a holiday.

So simple. So pure. A perfect Christmas in my book.

Friday, December 23, 2011

tracking Pride

This morning I got to participate in an exciting activity. I think I've mentioned the cheetah Pride before. I know her story is in my book. She was a cub when I first came here as a volunteer in 2007, and she's one of the cheetahs that I spent the night out with.

She's been one of the real success stories here at Harnas. Even though she was hand-raised by humans, she's been released into the Lifeline area to hunt and live free and wild. She's been very successful at hunting, and doesn't rely on people for food anymore--BUT when humans come around, she's still tame enough to come up and lick their faces.

She wears a radio collar and the research team checks up on her every day to make sure she's eating and is okay. Today I got to go out with Erin, a researcher for several projects, including tracking Pride.

First we picked up and then released Max and Moritz, the two tame cheetahs that are on "soft release" these days--meaning they spend days out in the Lifeline area and then come back to their enclosure at night. They're occasionally successful at hunting, but still not quite ready for full time in the wild. This is a picture of me and Max. You can see that I rode in the back of the truck with them to the drop site.

Then we delivered some meat to some African wild dogs for their breakfast. Awesome creatures.

Then we started to track Pride through her radio collar. We started holding the antennae out where she was last located and then moved out from there. It took over an hour to get our first "beep" on the radio, signaling that she was near. We kept driving and narrowing the search until we had a more specific area. Then we started walking through the bush, holding out the antennae and looking.

Finally one of the two volunteers spotted her under a tree. She had been hunting and had a small impala that she was eating. I'll spare you a picture of that.

She's an amazing cat--to be able to live and hunt freely--and still interact peacefully with humans--and all her instincts still intact! What a girl. She certainly fits her name.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

the strong silent types

Yesterday I mentioned my friend Doug, back in North Carolina, who is battling cancer. Well, at nearly the same time I was writing those words, Doug passed away, peacefully and finally free of pain.

When I got his wife Heidi’s email with the news, I felt stunned by the loss of this wonderful friend. And here I sat, on the other side of the world, living a life of peace while in North Carolina such a hard thing was happening to his wife and family. I didn’t know what to do.

So I did what I felt I needed to do: I went and spent time with my two favorite grown lions, Zion and Trust. Doug would have like these lions and they would have liked them. They’re the strong silent type, too, with more going on below the surface than appears. I told them about Doug and his family and explained what had happened. The lions seemed to listen, one even cocking his head as if he were contemplating it all.

When I first met Doug, I thought he didn’t like me because he so rarely said anything to me. In time I came to understand that Doug, like the lions, didn’t feel he had to insert himself into every conversation. He listened, and he listened carefully.

This past year, I’ve met Doug at a dog park every Sunday morning. While we sat on a bench in the sun, we watched our dogs, Ellie and Milo, play with the other dogs who frequent the park. We talked about our lives and our work. I kept up on his two daughters’ busy lives. He talked about Carolyn and Kirstin so lovingly. He described how different they were and what their strengths and challenges were. He told of their accomplishments with pride.

As a matter of fact, I was sometimes surprised at how much he talked—how that silent Doug was stripped away by comfort and familiarity—and I discovered the intelligent, funny, and compassionate man he really was. Those dog park meetings were so important to me, and our conversations became a touchstone for the beginning of each new week.

I told Zion and Trust all this, and when I finished they began to roar. True, at sunset they often roar back and forth with the other lions here, but there was something about the timing of this particular roaring that made me feel they were doing it for Doug. They began with huffing and advanced to full roars and soon all the lions at Harnas were joining in the chorus. It was so intense I could feel the vibrations deep within my chest, and I felt comforted for the first time since I had heard the news of Doug. And Doug? I think he would have liked their tribute.