14 September 2009

Rare Ant-Eaters, Rugby, and Cheetahs

Friday of week two had us now oldies welcoming a new batch of about eight volunteers after having said goodbye to friends and co-working-guests the day before as they headed off to Windhoek and then to wherever they each may be headed next. Work tasks for me included cleaning up old bones and scraps from wild dog enclosures and the wild cheetah enclosure. Some friends and I here discussed cultural differences and sexism as a result of a comical (from our perspective) extended interaction with a local. This theme has come up a number of times since arriving in Africa. Roles are, in many respects, roles. There are things that guys do and there are things that girls are not expected to do.

The highlight to Friday night was the release of Popeye, an owl who has been cared for at Harnas for some time now, and the release of a relatively recently arrived Cape Pangolin. This latter animal is incredibly rare. The acting volunteer director, Marnus Roodbol, who worked for seven years as a ranger in South Africa and with wildlife of different sorts for much longer, had never seen one until this pangolin came to harnas. It was such an honor to be part of the release of these two creatures. Once we had a good place to release the pangolin, I opened it’s temporary cage with marnas to let it go. Very strange looking animal indeed. To grossly simplify, it’s basically an armored ant eater.

The first half of Saturday was spent beating dead, dry, terribly throny branches from trees in the brush with a metal pipe to then form small piles of branches under each tree that a bushman would then burn to clear out an area for grasses to grow so that animals can eat. This is one of the many activities that falls into the category of farm work. Hot and frustrating. If you’ve never tried to use a round pipe to bang down branches from a tree, don’t, especially if the tree has thousands and thousands of small thorns on every branch.

The second half of my Saturday provided me another unusual experience compared with what most volunteers here have an opportunity to do. I was effectively an orderly and medical assistant for the veterinarians and vet nurse (Cheri) who were vaccinating baboons (rabies & tetanus) and performing minor surgeries on some who were injured before arriving or had various problems (e.g. one had stones, beads, and even a coin lodged in holes under her lower jaw).

Saturday night was also my first sleep out. My friends Barbara, Cheri, and I slept out with Goeters (pronounced roughly /xut@rs/ not unlike a restaurant chain with buxomly maidens as waitresses). He is a 23-year-old cheetah that couldn’t be sweeter. The first time I walked into his enclosure, he walked up to and past me purring. This was admittedly intimidating: seeing a graceful cheetah walk coolly up to you making a noise that you can interpret when produced by a domestic animal but whose meaning is perhaps unclear when coming from a less domestic one. I sat down away from him to get him used to my scent. He walked straight up to me and started licking my arm. Also intimidating. I’ve gone into his enclosure a number of times just to say hi. Getting back to the sleep out on Saturday, C, B, and I get our foam mattresses and sleeping bags and head to his enclosure. No sooner had we put the mattresses down that he climbs right on top and lies down. OK, now we just have to fit the rest of us on the two mattresses, with him taking up most of one. He couldn’t have been calmer. This guy gets loads of love and looking after. I suspect that won’t be the last time I spend a night out with him. It’s a lot like having a kitty in your bed, except that you’re outside looking up at a magnificent starry sky with an animal that could fairly easily incapacitate you if he so chose. It got cold during the night and we kept having to shift around to accommodate a long fluffy tail or leg or head of the most important one of the four of us on the two mattresses, so we didn’t get much sleep. Apparently I woke Goeters up with with my snoring. Barbara told me this over breakfast. I’ve been congested since before leaving Seattle, or for many years, depending on your perspective. I was mostly sleeping on my back on the night out, and I was snoring. During one of those snorty wake-yourself-up moments, I startled Goeters, who lifted his head and looked around to see what was going on. This happened a couple of times, according to Barbara, who must not have been sleeping well either. Oh well. Next time I’ll try to sleep on my side more and let the big kitty rest.

Have I mentioned that felines at Harnas like me? On Sunday morning, I went as one of the volunteers that accompany the morning tour for guests that come here on holiday. The volunteers’ role in this endeavor is to feed wild dogs various innards; throw horse or donkey legs to BIG lions -- including a lioness who may or may not have played Elsa or one of her kin in a later installment of the Born Free saga; throw mealie pap to LOTS of baboons; set up a table for tea and cakes for some special guests half-way through the tour; and throw various hunks of meat & offal, with and without fur, to painted wild dogs, wild leopards, and wild cheetahs. For the 23 wild cheetahs, we actually drive through the enclosure. Two of the cheeky cheetahs regularly jump onto the trailer that holds all the meat (while the guests sit comfortably in the vehicle pulling the trailer). Did I mention that the two volunteers sit or stand in that trailer along the way? I somehow missed the subtlety in instruction about what to do when the cheetahs jump into the trailer. Apparently we just let these two cheetahs jump in, get their meat and jump out without getting in their way. Well, David here gets in their way. Consequently, David gets a cheetah’s jaws briefly gripped around his calf (just as a warning nip: "get out of my way!"). The cheetah’s teeth did not really tear through my jeans (SOOOO glad I was wearing jeans from the night out with Goeters still). My leg has teeth marks/scratches that are not deep and I expect that there will be a nice bruise by morning. The lion scratches from the Brothers’ walk last Monday still hasn’t healed entirely. I’m thinking scars are in order here. I mean, what’s the point of all these encounters with ridiculously dangerous animals if you’re not going to have a scar and a story for each?

Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Sunday afternoon I play rugby with a former professional rugby player: Schalk van der Merwe. His family are the owners of Harnas. Yep, once-in-a-lifetime experiences here. It’s all a little surreal.


  1. The pro rugby player played in the world cup for Namibia and the BBC did a piece on him: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/rugby_union/rugby_world_cup/team_pages/namibia/3134902.stm

  2. That sound you just heard? That would be the sound of your mother fainting and hitting the ground.... :)