How does one turn down an injured or traumatized wild animal? For me it was simply not possible. As the months passed more and more animals arrived on my doorstep in desperate need of help and soon as word spread that a crazy woman was taking in orphaned, traumatized and injured wildlife the menagerie of species in my yard continued to grow and diversify.
On a personal level my empathy and understanding of the wild creatures that needed my help continued to grow. What unfortunately did not grow was my financial state of affairs; it dwindled at an alarming rate and soon all the commission I earned at the time went straight to food purchases, veterinary bills and the purchase of orphaned, injured and traumatized wildlife I was hell-bent on saving.
Had it not been for Andre supporting us at the time I would have been forced to give up all that was fast becoming the overriding passion in my life – helping those that had no power whatsoever to help themselves?
However difficult decisions lay ahead and soon I found myself between the devil and a deep blue ocean. I realised I would have to make some major decisions soon. My present job of working in the game capture and wildlife relocation industry would not get me the support of animal loving people and helping all of them that needed help would be impossible without the financial assistance of other people who shared my love of animals. At the time I was subjected to a lot of criticism about working in the wildlife industry and the fact that I never sold a single animal to a trophy hunting operation and that I allocated all earned commission to helping the animals that became the innocent victims of this industry really made no difference. I was involved with animal trading and no matter how much I tried to silence my voice of consciousness I failed.
The voice in my heart and soul continued to scream louder and louder. I had to change my direction and had to take a leap of faith. I had to choose between helping animals and serving God or utilising animals for my own personal gain and to sustain myself financially. God had a plan for me and I knew that it was not going to be easy but somewhere in my heart I trusted that He would guide my way and send me the answers sooner rather than later. I had to gather up the courage to quit my job, but how would we survive and where would the funding come from to build a wildlife sanctuary. Fortunately the decision had already been made for me and within days I would find the courage in a small group of wildebeest calves.
The helicopter used during game capture operations
It had been a pretty tough day on the job. We took to the air in the Robinson R22 just after sunrise to locate and find the blue wildebeest herds for capture and relocating. I loved these “clowns” of the bush and still do to this day. Their flat noses are some of the most adorable I have ever come across and seeing them play with each other especially early in the morning after good rains have always been a very special privilege.
It was shortly after nine when we landed and by the time just over 40 blue wildebeest were already captured and were being loaded into the transportation trucks. I walked up to our team manager and expressed my concerns about a number of small wildebeest calves included in the herds. Most of them were still un-weaned and with their mothers.
From past experience we knew that the capture of lactating females and young always presented a problem. Being taken from the wild in this manner presented a serious threat to especially the young animals. It is always an awful, fearful and stressful experience and something I know wild animals would rather not endure, but unfortunately the 1st time humans put fences around wild animals to contain them the forceful capture and relocation became a necessary evil when population numbers exceed the carrying capacity of the land on which they had been fenced in.
Today still many a visitor to South Africa believe that our country consist of millions of hectares of wide open spaces where wild animal roam free. Sadly this is not the case – every little piece of South Africa has been fenced into isolated pockets of land that is used for human habitation, agriculture, cattle and stock farming, provincial and national parks and privately owned game farms. Wild animal survive in pockets of land – some more protected than others. On a large percentage of privately owned game farms the commercialisation of wild animals (i.e. hunting; selective and rare species breeding) is at the order of the day and thousands of wild animals are captured, traded, relocated and hunted every year.
Zebra herd in the capture boma waiting to be loaded onto transportation trucks
I was pretty concerned about the welfare and survival of the 12 un-weaned blue wildebeest calves on the truck. The herds were destined to travel all the way to the Eastern Cape after being sold to a private game farm owner. I had not brokered this particular sale as the animals were sold on catalogue at a recent live game auction and we were following the instructions from the landowner and the auctioneer. However the welfare of these particular animals were our concern and we therefore ensured that the young calves and their mothers were loaded in separate compartments from the large bulls and other sub-adult males.
The game capture transportation trucks left shortly after 10am that morning on a long road journey (16 hours) that would see the animal arrive at their new destination by the next afternoon.
A game capture “kraal” from the air – a funnel-shaped construction into which wild animals are driven with a helicopter. On the narrow end of the funnel is the trucks onto which the animals are loaded for transportation.
A herd of blue wildebeest being driven forward so that they can be loaded onto transportation trucks.
The next day our truck driver phoned very upset; there had been problems with the offloading of the blue wildebeest. At the time I was not given the full details; only that the driver had been assaulted and that he was on his way back to meet up with our capture team. At least the driver was okay, but we had to wait until he got back to get the full story.
One of the staff members came to call me while we were busy re-fuelling the helicopter in order to start with a game census early the next morning at first light. He informed me that the driver had returned with some of the blue wildebeest and was looking for me urgently. On arrival at his destination our truck driver explained to the buyer that there were 12 calves with the herd. The man went ballistic; he owned a trophy hunting operation and were most definitely not going to accept the calves. When our driver explained that he had to take the whole family herd the buyer simply told him that he was to separate the calves from their mothers and offload only the adult animals. When our driver refused the buyer started to separate the young from the herd himself and when our driver tried to intervene he was assaulted.
As I got near to the truck I heard their pitiful bleating and when I opened the small hatch on the floor level of the truck to look inside I got the first smell of death. Of the 12 beautiful, playful and healthy blue wildebeest calves which I personally loaded some 48 hours ago only 2 were still able to stand.
Five dead, trampled little bodies were lying on the floor of the truck in three compartments in faeces and dry blood. Decomposition already started. The two calves that could still stand stood in one corner almost of top of another calf that could no longer stand. It was this pitiful little creature that was bleating all the time; maybe it was in pain? I honestly had no way to know. Maybe it was just terrified and stressed? Four others were still alive as well but I was convinced that within the hour two more would be dead. I always carried some basic veterinary supplies with me and knew I could possibly save some of them.
I gave instructions that the last compartment on the truck be cleaned immediately and as some of the staff got onto the truck to remove the dead calves I ran to my tent to get drip kits, antibiotics and cortisone injections. My first action was to get all the remaining calves hydrated and to treat them preventative with antibiotics.
Within the hour the remaining calves were all on intravenous drips on hay in a clean truck compartment. I had given instructions for the truck to be moved below some shady trees about a half kilometre away from the campsite and all human activity. They needed peace and quiet and needed to get away from people to rest. This was all I could do for now.
Some of the orphaned and injured animals in my yard.
By the time I returned from Mussina with baby bottles and milk and some more veterinary supplies one of the calves had passed away. I removed the drip kit and the cotton wool I placed in her little ears to soften the unfamiliar sounds and gently lifted her limp body in my arms to carry her off the truck. Tears were streaming down my face and I tried to silence the voice screaming in my head: “You did this; it is all your fault; You did this”.
That evening I spent most of the time inside the truck by myself with only the company of the suffering little animals and a small torch-light trying my best to get each individual calf to take some milk. Outside the truck one of our Africa staff members sat patiently warming yet another bottle of milk on a small gas burner to hand it to me upon request.
By the next morning when I returned to the truck with a heavy heart I almost could not bear it to open the doors. I expected to find at least 3-4 more dead calves and asked my African staff member to have a look first. I honestly almost died not have the strength and emotional will to climb up to the door.
As Albert turned around his face lit up and his smile stretched from ear to ear! He bent over towards me stretching his hand to lift me up to door level. Inside 6 blue wildebeest calves were all standing crowded in one corner staring at us. The one little guy even snorted sending them all into a little stampede. My heart jumped in my throat; we are back in “business” and I now had hope to save them all!
A blue wildebeest
Albert rushed off to get clean bottles, the gas burner and some green Lucerne he had arranged to cut on a small section of land that was being irrigated by the farmer for his cattle. After the calves all had their next bottles I decided to drive over to the capture site where the rest of the team were busy catching eland to share the good news that the calves were going to be okay.
On my arrival the first group of eland had just been loaded; the truck was rocking and I could hear the animals inside. As I opened the small hatch at ground level to look inside my first sight was of a young adult cow. Her eyes were wide open and her nostrils flared; she was shivering terribly and I could almost smell her fear. For a split second our eyes met and at that moment my soul almost died – the answer came loud and clear – there was no doubt for that split second – this was all wrong; what we were doing was wrong! It was wrong to nature; it was wrong in the eyes of my God and He at that particular moment made His voice heard to me.
When I straightened up and walked away from the truck I realised what kept me captive as part of a game capture and relocation company – it was the excitement; it was the adrenaline; it was my own ego and to a small degree the financial reward that I got from earning a commission which by that time had already been used to purchase injured and orphaned animals from my team to give them a second chance.
An orphaned zebra foal being taken off a game capture relocation truck
I realised purpose in life could no longer be found in the suffering and traumatizing of wild animals. I knew where my destiny was – it was in the truck with the 6 blue wildebeest calves; it was with an ordinary Afrikaner that at the time wanted to marry me. A hunter turned animal lover who agreed to pack up his hunting rifles and share a life with a crazy woman who would from that day onwards live only to help those who could not help themselves. This was the day I decided to listen to the little voice in my head and follow my dream – no matter what lay ahead.
A couple of hours later I started back “home” followed by a game capture relocation truck with 6 orphaned blue wildebeest calves that would become the founding herd of blue wildebeest that today still live in the SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary.
One of the rescued blue wildebeest calves that now live at SanWild with her family group and own offspring. She has distinctive markings on her nose.