Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tyson's new home

A couple of days ago, we moved Tyson to a bigger enclosure just next door to his garden  area. It's a large area with a full-sized waterhole, a house, and a big platform to climb on. Many big cats have stayed there--Elsa, the Brothers, Zion and Trust, the Babies (all lions), Dolce and Gabana (leopards)--and they generally love it because cats like to be high up, and the platform allows them to be.

Tyson on his platform
The move itself was traumatic. You've heard the phrase about herding cats. Well, it was worse. He just had to move through two gates, so first I tried to lure him with some red meat. He took the first piece but then freaked out. So the bushmen and I had to get behind him and sort of force him through the gates. He was not happy and hissed and growled the whole time. Marieta directed us--in Afrikaans, so I had to guess about what she wanted me to do. Finally he got in the enclosure but then just ran from corner to corner trying to find a way out. Then he discovered the platform, ran up, and stayed.

Marieta told everyone to get out besides me, so I could calm him down. It took a long time to approach him again, but after about an hour he let  me pet him again. It was clear he felt safe on the platform so I gradually climbed up with him and lay next to him, petting him, until he stopped panting and hissing. He stayed up on the platform all night I think. I left him water up there and some food.

The next day everyone was prohibited from going in to see him, again except for me. I spent most of the day on the platform with him, calming him down. Eventually I got him to come down and drink from the water hole, but then he was up there again. But we definitely took some steps backwards in our training.

Volunteer Lara with Tyson

Three days later now, and the volunteers are back with him. They've followed my lead and spend a good time up on the platform, sleeping next to him and hand-feeding him when his food arrives. Yesterday I gave them the task to make him come down and play,and by the end of the day, they had accomplished that. So we are doing fine. I'm so sad to leave him the day after tomorrow. I will miss him so much.

Just a Harnas sidenote: while I've been writing this blog, I've been bombarded by Ollie, the baby baboon. I type a few sentences and then she climbs up my leg to play. We play and then she jumps down and runs away. I type a few more sentences--repeat. Very amusing, but how can I pass up the opportunity to play? Harnas!

Monday, December 30, 2013


I haven't written much about the lions this trip, although every evening starting at about sunset, they fill the night air with their symphonies. Five or six times during the night I hear them as they roar back and forth. Many times it wakes me up because the enclosures are so close to my bungalow, and it sounds like they're under my window. I don't mind being awakened--I get to hear LIONS!

Martha, 3 months, 2010
There are no baby lions at Harnas right now. Recent laws in Namibia prohibit the breeding of lions--even though they're endangered and technically extinct in the wild in southern Africa. The government of Namibia has good intentions: they're trying to avoid the breeding of lions for canned hunting. This is a despicable practice of people paying to shoot basically tame, hand-raised lions in an enclosed space. It's a practice I've written about in my book and also in an on-line magazine called takepart.com

There are money driven people who breed lions just for hunters to kill--at about $25,000 a kill. A man can walk into a small fenced area, face a tame lion who has no fear of humans, and shoot it from close range--all so he can go home and tell people he went to "wild" Africa and bagged himself a lion. Such a "brave" man. Such behavior is beyond my comprehension--that someone can look at such a magnificent creature and say, "Hey, I'd like to kill that."

Me with one of the Brothers, 2010
So to comply with the non-breeding laws, Harnas has all of its lions on birth control. So since 2010, no baby lions. I understand, though I miss handling the cubs. But I still walk every day or so to the lion enclosures to see the grown-up babies that I cuddled and played with. Lions are magnificent. When we, as humans, kill the last lion, it will be a sad day for this world. Being in their presence makes me appreciate my fragility, as well as the stupendous pattern that is the creation of life.

Zion at the Gate
In the mornings often I walk the 100 yards from my bungalow to the enclosure of Zion and Trust--the first two lions I ever touched when they were cubs in 2007. They are usually waiting for me at the gate and I slip my hand through the fence to scratch them while they make satisfied grunts and groans and rub their bodies on the fence. It's enough to sustain me for years in the Real World.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Spring and Babies

It's late spring here in Namibia, so there are lots of babies at Harnas.  Sometimes animals choose strange friends, so for example, on the lapa lawn there is a foal and a calf that are best friends and walk around everywhere together.

In the garden area, we have babies galore--two lambs, a baby duiker, and two baby warthogs (who are so small, they refused to come out of their box--I'll have to get a picture later when they're bottle-fed).

In the office where I write this, there are 6 (six!) kittens that are always entertaining to watch. While pictures are uploading, I just sit back and laugh at their antics--such as their incessant need to climb all over the stuffed lion--and then falling asleep on it.

Then of course there's the baby baboon, baby tortoises, baby crocodiles, baby cheetah, and just about every creature you can imagine. It's an orphanage of love and care.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Play time with Tyson

Here's a short video of Tyson playing.

He's gotten very brave and curious now. He still hisses when a new person enters his enclosure, but I believe that's his prerogative since it's his territory. He's gotten tame enough, though, that volunteers have started taking sleeping bags and spending the night with him. So far he doesn't sleep WITH them, but soon he will grow used to them and he'll be happy to cuddle up.

I leave a week from today. You can't imagine how much I'll miss him.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas at Harnas

Ah, Christmas at Harnas. Last night the staff, volunteers, guests, and family all met together in the boma (an outside eating area). While we waited for Santa Claus to show up, the Bushmen and their families broke out in spontaneous songs. So rhythmic and addictive, everyone was clapping along while they sang.

Then Santa appeared. This year it was Marieta's boyfriend Derek. He came to hand out presents to bushman children, volunteers, and staff. But what he hadn't counted on was his Great Dane, Lexi. She adores Derek and never leaves his side--and gets a little jealous if people come between her and him. She's definitely a "Daddy's Girl"--despite her size, she's a puppy at heart. Well, she knew it was Derek behind that beard and red outfit, and she couldn't understand why all these people were coming between them. Derek had to keep pushing this huge dog out of the way so the children could come up and get their presents. It was pretty hilarious--Santa with his own bodyguard. I told him later we should have just put antlers and a red nose on her and then the children wouldn't have been confused about why they had to fight a dog to get to Santa.

This morning we had a short program with the children singing and dancing and re-creating the nativity scene, then a nice brunch. Everyone ate together and the rain stayed away so we could all eat outside. Then everyone was off to take care of animals and relax for the day. Very low-key.

America has become so money-oriented when it comes to Christmas. It's all about buying, buying, buying. Christmas starts at Halloween and just escalates until Dec. 25. I've been here at Harnas 5 out of the last 6 Christmases and I've really come to love the simplicity and authenticity. Children singing. Few gifts. Friends coming together. At times my eyes blur with the grateful tears for the basic and simple human connection--dogs and cheetahs included. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Animals Animals

I ran into the baby baboon, Ollie, this morning as I was going to breakfast. She was running around outside the staff room where Marieta was having a meeting. Still in her nighttime diapers with a pacifier around her neck, she was the perfect picture of a baby. As I often do at Harnas when a situation presents itself, I decided breakfast could wait so I sat down on the ground and had some play time with her. There's nothing to hurry for here, so if a little bit of joy can be had, I'm all for it.

Ollie climbed all over me and I tried to get some pics of us together:

 Then she wrestled for awhile with Pickles and then a cat. So curious and funny. I just love these baby baboons. Then  I made my way on to breakfast with a smile on my face.

Just before I saw Ollie, I was completing my morning routine of feeding peanuts to the two mccaws who live in a large aviary near the office. For years I've been bringing peanuts to Africa to feed the birds, baboons, and anyone else who needs one. I walk to the cage and yell, "PEAnuts, PEAnuts" and the two birds climb their way from wherever they are in the cage to take them gently from me in their rather large beaks.

Recently, Cornelia thought she heard me yelling for them, but when she went to see, she found the birds themselves yelling "PEAnuts, PEAnuts" in MY VOICE! I've clearly had an effect on them. I knew they said "hello" but I didn't know they were imitating me.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 22, 2013


I talk so much about the cheetahs, Tyson and Atheno, lately that sometimes I forget to mention the other kinds of animals I interact with daily. I've discovered a sweet pair of meerkats that I love to visit. They were originally names Hansel and Gretel until Hansel was discovered to be a girl, so now they're Hannah and Gretel.

I climb the 2 1/2 foot wall and sit down in the dirt (I spend a lot of my day sitting on grass and dirt). The two of them immediately start to climb all over me, making their chirping sounds. Hannah just want to bury herself in me, wrapping her arms around my arm and hugging me like in this photo. (Ignore the scrapes and bruises on my arm. That's just the way I look at Harnas.) Gretel flips over and lets me rub her belly. They're adorable.

Last night Marieta had a braai--a sort of barbecue they have here. They cook meat over a fire and people laugh and talk and drink for hours while it cooks. Namibians work hard but they play hard, too. I'm sure there are more than a few headaches today.

A couple of highlights from the party: At one point I was talking to Conrad about a dog with epilepsy. I had a glass of wine in my hand, and suddenly I heard a "glug-glug." I thought, "Someone is refilling my glass." But I looked and there was Lexi, the Great Dane, with her huge tongue all the way down  in my glass. Apparently this isn't the first time she's shown an affinity for a nice dry white wine.

Later I was talking to Nica, Marieta's 10-year-old granddaughter, and we noticed the 13-year-old son of one of the workers performing antics for her. I whispered to her that he obviously liked her and was showing off. She looked at me doubtfully and then she got it. "Oh," she said, "just like the boy peacocks who spread and shake their feathers for the girls." Clever girl.

Dinner was good (although not until 10:30 or so) but the highlight of my meal was getting to give the baby baboon, Ollie, her bottle of milk. She closed her eyes and sucked and then just drifted off to sleep in my arms. Heavenly.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


When I was a volunteer here in 2007, one of the baby baboons who slept with me was named Jacob. There were four in all, and some nights they all slept in my room with me and my roommates. Jacob had an interesting and sad beginning. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to have a baboon as a pet, but she wasn't willing to cut a hole in the diapers so his tail could come out. She had it amputated--so stupid because of course baboons use their tails for a lot of things--like balance. Well, after a few weeks, she got tired of him so she gave him to Harnas. He was always a crazy boy--jumping around while everyone else was trying to sleep. Very naughty but lovable. He's in this picture--the one in the back sitting by my right shoulder.

So now Jacob is 7 years old but still very naughty. The other day I was walking by the completely enclosed cage--about the size of a living room but still completely enclosed (I call it the prison) and there was Jacob, sitting by himself and looking sad. Apparently he keeps escaping his enclosure and getting into trouble--stealing things, attacking tourists, breaking into things--you know, the usual baboon behavior. So they had to put him in the prison while they built a more secure enclosure with higher electricity to keep him from breaking out. The enclosure is almost finished and he'll go out there in the next few days, but meanwhile, I go to see him every day. I sit down outside his cage and he puts his arm through the bars and we hold hands for a little bit. Then I give him some peanuts to eat. Finally, he turns his back to me and presses it against the bars so I can groom him. I scratch for awhile and he's happy. I'm not saying he remembers me or anything. I'm just saying he seems to like bonding with me.

Here's a fabulous photo that Cornelia Achtel took. There are 6 baby kitties near the office where this stuffed lion sits. Obviously the kitty can't read. I asked her to use the photo since  it's priceless. Fierce.

A quick update on Tyson, the baby cheetah. This morning when I went in to see him, instead of hissing, he chirped when he saw me! Everything inside just melted. Mom and baby cheetahs chirp to each other to find each other and connect. He thinks of me as his mum! I'm overwhelmed.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


A friend from home--a former Harnas volunteer--asked me to update her on Atheno, the 3-year-old cheetah whose purr and even temperament are legendary. He's wonderful--magnificent, actually. Strong, healthy, big, and seemingly happy. I walk out to visit him daily, sit under a tree with him, and press my head to his chest and feel his purr in my head.

Yesterday I was visiting him, taking a few photos, and loving on him. When I got up to go, I walked to the fence to open it and leave, but before I could unlatch it, he came behind me, jumped up, and wrapped his 170 pounds around me, giving me a little play-bite on my shoulder on the way back to the ground. He wasn't trying to hurt me--he could have done that easily--and he didn't break my skin either with his claws or teeth. It was as if he was just saying, "Thanks for coming. Love ya!"

We got a lot of rain yesterday morning in a few short hours--more than 3 cm. Everyone is rejoicing. Now things will be green for Christmas and the waterholes will be filled for the animals. Rain is such a gift here.

Not all the animals were joyful, though. Poor little Tyson just sat out in the rain and shivered. I sat in the rain with him for quite a while, comforting him and trying to convince him to go in his little house. Finally he did. Then I went home and changed into dry clothes and went back with a towel. He let me dry him off some with just a minimum of hissing. We've made real progress in the last 5 days. I know it's going to be so hard to leave this little guy in a couple of weeks. Maybe I can fit him in my suitcase. I wonder how my dog Milo would like a cheetah brother.

We lost a vervet monkey yesterday--Izzy Pooh. He hadn't been feeling well and then the rain came and he got wetter and wetter and colder and colder. Marieta brought him into her office with hot water bottles and blankets, but he slowly passed away. The volunteers who worked with him were, of course, devastated and crying. It's so easy to fall in love with these animals. But with over 400 animals here, and with the short lifespan of most animals, death is a very present experience at Harnas, and the animal cemetery is always visible from the lapa. But at least these animals have gotten a second chance at Harnas to live out what's left of their lives. Every day they're here is a bonus for them.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Well,  I'm going to try this again. I was right in the middle of writing today's blog and a very mischievous baby baboon called Ollie jumped on my keyboard and turned off my computer. This is a problem most people don't.

What I was starting to write about was my truly amazing, almost magical night I had last night. Cornelia and I were given the opportunity to spend the night at the dam house out in the Life Line area.

Those of you who have followed my experiences at Harnas know about Pride--the cheetah whom I slept out with one night and the reason I have a cheetah paw tattoo on the inside of my inner arm. Well, she was injured recently chasing a warthog--got ripped in the chest--and so she and her two cubs (who are fully grown now but still living with her) are behind the fence at the dam house, recovering. One of her cubs, Denga, is also injured and recovering from an infected tooth. So the three of them were inside the yard, and Cornelia and I were inside with them.

The dam house is a real house with 5-6 bunks, a kitchen, bathroom, and a wonderful roof. There's a spiral staircase that goes up there and once there, you have a 360 degree view of the surrounding area, including a waterhole where all kinds of critters come to drink.

We arrived around 5:30 and sat in the yard with the cheetahs, having a glass of wine while they ate their meat. Pride is still extremely tame and let me wrap my arms around her. Her cubs are NOT tame and will only let us get about 4 feet away before they hiss. Then something wonderful happened: just at sunset, the cheetahs all stood up and looked in the same direction. Out of the sunset walk two other cheetahs--it was Max and Moritz, who also live in the Lifeline and who Cornelia knows from when they were little newborns, sleeping in her bed. We had been told they were 8 km. away, but somehow they decided to visit us. They walked along the fence and Cornelia was able to reach through and pet her babies. What a treat. Our three cheetahs know them and there was no hissing or growling. They all get along.

Derek brought dinner to us around 8:30 and we ate on the roof. There was a full moon and the savannah was so bright there were distinct shadows. We ate, drank more wine, talked, watched the animals and a pretty much perfect night.

Eventually we went downstairs to sleep and I slept the best night since I got here. At sunrise we were on the roof again, watching honey badgers, jackals, and a herd of wildebeest come to the waterhole.Then about 8:30 they came to pick us up. What a perfect and magical night. One I'll never forget

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Terrorist at Harnas

If you look back at last December's blog near the end, you'll read the story of bobby,the springbok I rescued--just a baby, only days old. Well, Bobby is grown now, wandering the lapa lawn, and he has become a terrorist. He's a year old, with real horns that the vet has covered in rubber so he doesn't kill somebody (see picture). He needs to go out with the wild springboks, but so far that hasn't happened. He stalks the lawn.

What Bobby does is pick someone and charge her as she walks across the lapa lawn. He's fast and he's ruthless and I've had to grab him by the horns to try to keep him from goring me several times. I've reminded him that I saved his life but he ignores my pleas. No respect at all.

Yesterday he chased me and I had to keep hiding behind bushes and trees as I made my way across the grass. If Pickles is around, she fends him off--he's scared of her--but one time Bobby chased me until I tripped and smacked my head on the ground. A big volunteer guy rescued me by chasing him off. Thirty minutes after my encounter, Cornelia had a similar experience. She had to run at top speed (something  she didn't know she could do) and she says she "zig zagged across the lawn like in the movies."

Last night on the way to dinner, Cornelia and I crossed the bridge to the lawn and there he was, waiting for us like Billy Goat Gruff. Guarding the way. Challenging our position. I looked over at the lapa and saw a small white body--Pickles! I called to her and she came running. This 15- pound dog worked as our bodyguard, walking along beside us, barking at Bobby and keeping him at bay. Embarrassing.

At dinner we made our plan for getting home: we saved a piece of meat to lure Marieta's dogs to follow us across the lawn. In the end, though, we admitted to Marieta that we were scared, so she (carrying two baby baboons), her 10-year-old granddaughter Nica, and six dogs accompanied us the 60 yards to the bridge. How humiliating! But he really seems to hate us! And his horns are scary! And he doesn't realize I saved his life!

Only at Harnas. Put me in an enclosure with a full grown lion and I'm fine, but put me up against a springbok who's bonkers, and I'm a damsel in distress.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hello from the other side of the world! My flight was long--babies crying--and the drive from Windhoek was hot--broken a/c--and gasoline spilled in the trailer where our luggage was, but all of that nonsense and frustration drained away as soon as I drove through the gates of Harnas. And it only took me two days to figure out the internet here, so I think I'm all set.

My good friend Cornelia, from Munich, joined me in Namibia, and our bungalows are next to each other, so we are already having lots of fun.

My African dog Pickles greeted me as soon as I got here. I stood on the lapa lawn and called out her name, and soon she came running, bouncing up and down like a springbok. She belongs now to a man who works here named Conrad and I try not to steal her outright when I get here, but Pickled DID come scratching at my door in the middle of my first night, so of course I let her in and she slept next to me in bed. I found out she nearly died from some illness that spread through Harnas this year, so I'm especially glad to see her and find out she's all right.

Marieta looks wonderful and seems so happy now that Harnas is all hers again--after struggling to get it back from greedy developers who wanted the Harnas name. There's a whole new book in that story, I tell you. She's carrying around her newest baby baboon--Ollie--so tiny! Ollie came to me almost immediately and they were astonished because she hardly goes to anyone but Marieta. That made me so happy and I didn't even mind when she peed on me at dinner.

Great news! There's a new baby cheetah named Tyson. He's only been here about 2 weeks and is still wild because the volunteers are scared of him--he hisses a lot, but it's all show. Marieta asked me to tame him while I'm here. Hallelujah! I couldn't have picked a better assignment and I soon got Cornelia dedicated to it also. I've been in his enclosure with him four times so far for about an hour each time, and now he'll take food from my hand and even let me scratch his head. There's a lot of hissing involved, but as I said, it's all posturing. It's amazing to me how much I've learned about cheetahs over the last 7 years--their sounds and their body language. It's all about gaining his trust and spending lots of time just sitting with him and talking. We also play pounce with a stuffed animal. Apparently I'm the first person to touch him. How happy do you think that made me? Soon I'll have him purring. I'll keep you informed. That's his picture up top.

So much else! I visited Atheno the 3-year-old cheetah, whom I adore, and he purred nonstop while licking me all over. I just wrapped my arms around him and buried my head under his chin.

So many babies to visit and get reacquainted with. The days will go fast. But I'm home.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

December 11

The time has come again to set off to my second home: Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary. I leave December 11 and will stay until January 2. I hope those of you who have followed my blog in past years will join me again in my journey. This is my EIGHTH visit to Harnas! Amazing to me. No wonder it feels like home. I can't wait to see all my babies: Pickles, Atheno, Pride and her cubs, Zion and Trust, the Brothers, Audrey--the list goes on and on for me. Join me!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

my last Harnas day

I'm in Windhoek now, trying to get used to things like traffic and air conditioning, on my way tomorrow to Jo-berg, New York City, and finally Raleigh on Saturday.

My last full day at Harnas was a nice one. It's traditionally "wish" day--when the volunteers who are leaving are allowed to pick their activities--whether it's one they want to repeat or one they haven't had yet. I decided to do the same for me.

In the morning I headed out with Erin to check on the animals in the Lifeline. That's when we discovered Bobby and took him back to the farm. Then we went out again and saw Pride and her cubs, Max & Moritz (the two cheetah brothers), and a pack of 4 wild dogs. All were healthy and it appeared hunting was going well since everybody's bellies were full.

Me and Pride
After lunch I took a walk with Pickles and said goodbye to the lions--Zion & Trust, The Brothers, and Macho and Simba. They made a little noise for me, and Zion rubbed his head on the fence so I could touch him.

Then I made the rounds of the animals near the house and lapa--Elsa, Atheno, the 3 cheetahs, the caracals, the vervet monkeys (who got my last peanuts), and of course the 3 baby baboons.

It's been a memorable trip. I've seen some old friends and made some new ones--both animal and human. I've watched volunteers that I thought were hopeless blossom into solid workers. I've done some work myself but found plenty of time for just sitting and thinking--often in the company of cheetahs, whose purring usually helps me think clearly about life.

holding Leuki's head while he purrs

Most of all--as usual--I'll go back to North Carolina refreshed and rejuvenated. It's hard to go back to winter, to work, to problems I told myself I'd deal with later, but it would be harder still if I didn't take with me the African spirit.

I write in my book about the night I spent sleeping (sort of) with Pride and Cleopatra in June of 2008 and how it fundamentally changed the way I see my life. I knew after that night that no matter what happens to me, I'll always have that experience to draw upon and help me find peace. So after that trip, I got a small tattoo of a cheetah pawprint on the inside of my right wrist. Whenever I have a hard day, I find myself rubbing that pawprint, subconsciously remembering, I believe, that no one can ever take that away from me. It's more than any one person deserves, and I was honored to have it.

my tattoo
But every trip, in its way, is like that for me. I go home with experiences that I can relive simply by closing my eyes. And that sustains me.

Cheers--and I'll see you on the other side of the world.

Harnas sunset

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A new baby

This morning I rode out with Erin to check on the animals in the Lifeline, and at the gate entering the area, I shrieked and pointed. There was a baby springbok--couldn't be more than a week old--straddling the fence, head hanging and limp body, stuck, and--I thought--dead.

Erin stopped the car and I jumped out to check. As soon as I touched it, he started kicking. I untangled his long legs and cradled him in my arms. We headed back to the farm to get help. We don't know how long he was out there, stuck like that, but we all agreed he would have died soon in the sun.

He must have been dehydrated--don't know when his mother lost him. He might have been an orphan if one of the cheetahs got his mother. He drank a whole bottle of formula.

The rule around here is that if rescue an animal, it gets named after you. Since it's a boy, I named him Bobby.

Two days ago another antelope-type baby was found, a duiker named Simon. They're about the same size, so they're together and already friends. Simon licked Bobby from head to toe. It was a beautiful thing.

Bobby on left, Simon on right
 It's a wonderful event to happen on one of my last days here, and I'm so happy he was found and rescued. I do with I could stay longer and be the one to care for him, but I trust the people here at Harnas to do a great job and raise my boy to be strong and beautiful. He couldn't have been luckier to find a home than here.