There is nothing glamorous about my job today. I am kneeling in the dirt with my nose level with a very large lion’s bottom, giving him a bed bath. The air is thick with the sifting dust of the dry season and the sun is a hot, hazy disc in a smoky sky as the voracious seasonal bush fires devour the dessicated landscape. Nduna, one of our beloved rescued lions, has suffered a mysterious head injury and he is paralysed. The Aware Trust vets darted him and we transported him on an old door to a hospital pen where he lies on a bed of hay with an eclectic collection of old bed spreads and blankets tented over him, like a down-at-heel Bedouin in a desert camp. He is utterly passive, allowing me to massage his feet and clean him and stroke his face, nibbling tidbits from my hand and taking water from a syringe. It is heartbreaking to see this magnificent and beloved creature so helpless and vulnerable – his great golden eyes are full of bewilderment and apprehension as the muscles in his gigantic body quiver and spasm uncontrollably.
When we rescued Nduna three and a half years ago, he was so traumatised he didn’t roar for a year. As his confidence grew, so an utterly endearing and delightful personality emerged. He is the Sanctuary clown – always happy to perform for an audience with his collection of old tyres that he juggles and tosses about with his huge paws, balancing them on his head and floating them in the water dish so he can leap upon them with paws extended like a jazzy tap dancer, thriving on the applause and laughter, his great teddy bear face alight with pleasure. Nduna’s companion, Kadiki, showed little concern at his disappearance into a hospital pen, appropriating his toys and sending suggestive little roars and coy tail flicks, like the lion version of internet dating, in the direction of a rather dashing neighbouring lion. As can be the case with those creatures blessed with great beauty and fierce intelligence, Kadiki takes a certain malicious pleasure in annoying the lesser mortals around her. Lions take roaring very seriously indeed, and there is a ‘roaring etiquette’ that must be observed. Male lions always start the roaring, and then the lionesses provide backing vocals. The song is then ended with the guttural grunting of the dominant male lion. As far as Kadiki is concerned this is the lion equivalent of the glass ceiling, and she is going to do everything in her feminist power to smash it. She roars whenever she pleases, earning herself smouldering stares of rage from her conservative neighbours and waits, with patent glee, for the males to finish off their macho display of grunts and coughs before she opens her big pink mouth, extends her furry brown neck and lets out just one derisory little grunt – getting in the last word. In order to save face, the males have no choice but to all get up again and start the whole process over. This entertains her for hours.
Nduna’s neighbours, Wire and Kimberly (lions we rescued a year ago) show little compassion for the sick either. Kimberly realises that every time I walk past I am carrying a bowl of choice morsels to tempt Nduna’s appetite and she trots along the fence giving her irresistible little “woo woo” greeting and slanting her beautiful eyes at me beseechingly. It works every time – I have to stop for a chat and a cuddle, and of course, she gets a treat too. She pokes her dexterous paws through the wire of Nduna’s hospital pen and makes off with the blankets hanging on the fence to dry, cavorting idiotically with one on her head like an over-the-top Ladies Day hat at the races. Kimberly is our smallest and youngest lioness; a dedicated sun worshipper who bakes herself on the huge granite rocks in her enclosure every day, letting the warmth seep into bones made frail by a lack of good nutrition before we rescued her. Wire charges Nduna’s hospital pen several times, snarling and grunting and kicking lumps of dirt into the air in his usual testosterone-fuelled way until we hang tarpaulins to block his view. Wire is absolutely enormous, with bulging shoulders and a massive head. With his guttural roar and cowboy swagger, he tries hard to be the bad boy of the Sanctuary but with a ridiculous punk hairstyle and a tendency to lie upside down with all his legs in the air, he just cant pull it off.
Tending to Nduna is a challenging and, initially, rather frightening job. There is no other solution to caring for him other than for me to provide hands-on nursing and sitting with this massive predator in the dark each night is surreal. I can hear him breathing beside me, and every now and then he tilts his head back and gives me a measured yellow stare, followed by a gigantic, tooth-rimmed yawn and a contemplative grunt. Each time I can feel my muscles tensing, ready for a frantic scramble out of reach. I help him to roll from side to side, essential if he is to avoid pressure sores, and he tips his head back on my chest with his mouth an inch from my chin and his breath hot on my face and uses me for support as he pushes himself up. I have tucked a battalion of hot water bottles along his spine and covered him in blankets; he is as comfortable as I can make him. I fish about in the gruesome bowl of treats for something to tempt his appetite – there are heavy lumps of ox heart and slithery, metallic-smelling slices of liver and several rump steaks pilfered from the kitchen. He slurps the pieces of meat from my hand, his huge pink tongue rasping on my fingers and he wrinkles his nose and pulls faces while I wipe his bristly whiskers and big, hairy chin. When he has had enough he raises his one working paw and places it on my arm. The claws stay sheathed but the size and weight of it are reminders of the predator I am dealing with. A guard waits outside the enclosure just in case Nduna suddenly undergoes a miraculous recovery and decides to eat me. I am not sure what the role of this guard actually would be in this event, other than as the bearer of gruesome details after the event, but Farai and Tatenda wait patiently in the pitch darkness, as they have done on so many nights outside the enclosures of so many sick and injured animals over the years. Relations between Farai and I are still somewhat strained after I insisted on trying to catch an enormous and very angry puff adder a few nights ago with a feather duster and a dustbin outside the kitchen. “Madam,” he said to me sternly after I had explained my plan, “that thing will jump on you like a rabbit and kill you.” With that somewhat startling imagery in my head I couldn’t concentrate on the task at hand and the puff adder disappeared.
The Sanctuary is a different place at night. The round red glow of bushbabies eyes are dotted throughout the trees as they make their way to the feeding stations in the trees. Bowls of yoghurt, fruit salad and cereal with honey are laid out for them each night, and the dinner queue of fluffy gourmands is growing as the word gets out. A genet unravels its sinuous body like a striped, silken skein and dissolves into the moon-dappled shadows. The repetitive lyric of Bardot the wood owl sounds from the mahogany tree as she fluffs up her soft brown feathers against the cold, and a white tailed mongoose flashes across the road. The abrupt bark of a baboon from the granite hills behind the Sanctuary signals the passage of another, larger predator making its deadly way through the night. Our own little predators, the domestic cats that lie in silky, sleepy heaps about the tea garden all day are also on the prowl, ears pricked for the furtive squeak and scurry of rats. Strauss, the senior Sanctuary cat who sleeps in the klipspringer’s house of his own volition, accompanies me up and down to check on Nduna, thrilled with the novelty of night- time company, tail bristling to attention, little white chin raised with self-importance as he trots along beside me in the pale pool of torchlight. Kimberly executes a rather clumsy stalk and pounce and Strauss glares up at his enormous adversary and taps her nose briskly in admonishment through the fence. Small-man syndrome exists in the feline world too, it seems.
Woody, our mad eagle owl who nurses a violent, long-standing crush on me swoops upon me with a sudden whoosh of grey and black feathers out of the darkness each time I emerge from Nduna’s enclosure. This is followed by a brisk tap dance on my head, accompanied by manic shrieking and savage pecking at my scalp , an activity that rather loses its novelty at 2am when I have just been peed on by a giant predator and have liver all down the front of my shirt. She swoops into the house at all hours with various gory take-aways for me too – a very small brown mouse, the grinning, lop-eared head of a hare, a bristly brown rat and proffers them with a flourish, like a proud hostess with a snack platter.
Every twitch of Nduna’s tail and each flexing of his huge paws is cause for celebration. He gets up on his chest three days after the accident, and then a week later he pushes himself up onto his bottom. The first time he stands we are all holding our breath, and then a collective groan goes up as he totters and falls heavily and lies disconsolate in the dust. His first tentative, stumbling steps, leaning heavily against me for support, make me cry with relief. He makes clumsy, endearing attempts to play with his battered collection of toys and I spend hours every day rolling and throwing the tyres and drums he loves in an effort to improve his co-ordination. When he trashes the hospital and then hides beneath a tarpaulin, creating mass panic because we cannot find our 220 kilogram patient, I forgive him because his naughtiness is a sign he is on the mend. It has been a gruelling and frustrating six weeks nursing Nduna back to health but a wonderful and unique experience too to spend so much time with such a brave, determined and noble lion. We hope Nduna will leave the hospital next week and resume his happy life.
Our rescued serval kittens, Duncan and Saffron, are thriving. Duncan took a foray into the outside world, fancying himself an intrepid explorer and sashaying off down the path from the nursery with a confident swagger of his skinny, spotted hips; all that was missing from the Great Explorer persona was a pith helmet. The bravado lasted until he met up with a donkey and the ensuing panic-stricken scramble for safety saw him lodged behind an old fridge in a chaotic storeroom jammed with a plethora of prehistoric appliances. I started swearing before I even got through the door and after an hour or so of wafting tempting treats in the direction of the runaway and calling to him until I was hoarse, I was fuming. Servals are absolutely heavenly to look at, and utterly charming when the mood takes them, but essentially they are the most wilful, mercurial creatures on the planet and many hours of my life have been spent in the pursuit of various recalcitrant serval residents of the Sanctuary. As I upended myself in the rusting, sharp-edged entrails of various defunct pieces of kitchen equipment, the cobra I was convinced I could see in the corner turned out to be a spool of electrical cable but the giant ginger spider squatting malignantly above my left ear was the real deal. Eventually I managed to seize hold of Duncan but as my arms were trapped behind the fridge, holding grimly to the spitting, writhing serval and my one leg was in the unrelenting clutches of a giant coil of ancient garden hose, I had to manoeuvre myself and Duncan out of this hell-hole by dint of kicking spasmodically with my one free leg and pushing myself backwards with my chin whilst Duncan bit through my thumbnail with his wickedly sharp teeth, lacerated my hand with his scimitar front claws and removed a large chunk of flesh from my wrist with his back claws. As I staggered from the detritus festooned with cobwebs and dust, with blood dripping off my elbows like some sort of denizen from a horror film, I fell backwards over a hay bale, still clutching the furiously hissing serval and landing on my cell phone, making an inadvertent call to my friend Sharon Nicholls whose voice rose in an increasingly irritated squawk from my back pocket as I staggered off to the serval enclosure, still swearing loudly, and deposited the dishevelled but unrepentant Duncan. “Excuse me,” murmured one of the Sanctuary staff, all of whom had watched my performance with the same sort of demeanour they adopt observing the antics of a particularly dangerous animal, “there is a person speaking from your pocket.”
A cockatiel called Sparky arrives – I should have known this was no ordinary cockatiel when we had to send our two ton truck to move his house, baskets, feeding trays and other essentials to the Sanctuary. It’s like accommodating the avian version of Mariah Carey – his perch must be just so, he only eats certain seeds in a certain bowl, he will not drink from the water dish because there is a leaf in it...and his singing is vastly overrated. Two horribly injured bushbabies come in – one has been clblinded by some sort of chemicals and after several weeks of trying to reverse the damage, the sad decision is made to euthanize him. The second one has been savaged by a dog and has severe injuries but he has regained the use of his legs and is expected to make a full recovery and be released. Sergio the chicken decides on an alternative lifestyle and moves in with the rabbits and Rover, our small red dog rescue dog, falls in love for the first time with the singing, dancing superstar known as Mommy Dog but it all ends badly when Isabelle, a fluffy sociopath posing as a poster puppy for cuteness is found in Rover’s kennel one morning and there is an ugly scene. We rehabilitate and release several owls and our giant eagle owl Vernon opts for self-catering, lying in wait for rats as they scuttle in and out of the feed shed and beheading them with a flourish of his gigantic beak. The mongooses watch this gruesome process with rapt fascination – murmuring and twittering amongst themselves like the crones with their knitting at the guillotines of the French revolution.
Many of you knew and loved Eleanor, our eccentric little black and white dog with the ballerina feet and a passion for fishing. Eleanor died last month and is in our thoughts every time we head down to the river she loved so much, where she would accompany visiting fishermen with such patent delight in their company, barking wildly at the fish, chasing lures and sharing picnic lunches with them. With her enormous, upstanding ears and huge brown eyes that she would fix beseechingly on anyone with a packet of crisps, she was one of the most beloved creatures at the Sanctuary. She had so many adventures, and so many adrenaline-fuelled trips to the vet, all of which we were always convinced would be her last. She almost drowned one Christmas day hunting cat fish in the flooded river, she tangled with a huge python, was trampled by a zebra three times, almost tore her leg off climbing through a fence, had a severe dose of biliary and came face to face with a hyena on the Sanctuary lawn. This time, however, she didn’t bounce back and we buried her beside the river she loved so much, with a packet of crisps between her paws to sustain her on her journey to the place where all good dogs surely go when they leave this life. We miss her.
Joshua and Johanna, the lions we rescued two months ago, and who have been the source of such heartache and concern, are making a slow but steady recovery from the neglect and abuse that marked their lives before coming to the Sanctuary. Johanna is mobile at last - her leg is permanently damaged and she still drags it sometimes when she is tired, but the pinched, terrified creature with hooded eyes and broken whiskers has been replaced with the beautiful proud features of a contented lioness. Her dignity and bravery are remarkable and sheer willpower has played a huge part in this exceptional lioness’s recovery. How proud of her we are, and how she has won our hearts. Joshua is out and about in the heavily fortified enclosure built especially for him. Thick with trees to ensure his privacy, a sunbathing platform and a view of the other Sanctuary lions, it is a place he is gradually realising is his own, and somewhere safe. When he emerges from his management pen, known as ‘the cave’ because it is draped in tarpaulins to give him a secluded spot to rest undisturbed, he still casts a fearful glance up at the sky as if expecting something terrible to descend upon him and both lions cower and snarl at any sudden movement. Joshua snatches his dinner with a ferocious growl, trembling with anxiety in case it turns out to not really be for him. His broken teeth often cause him to drop his food and it is hard to imagine the stress he must have endured competing with several other lions for limited food. After he has eaten he lies quietly at the back of his enclosure, watching the other Sanctuary residents go about their business - the staff heading home down the dusty road, dodging a traffic jam of donkeys and the majestic bulk of the Brahman cows, the Egyptian geese with their startling Picasso faces, calling in their rasping voices as they fly overhead, the bright white stripes of the zebras scribbled against the dusk as they graze on the lawn. The peacocks take up their roosts on the roofs in a swirl of psychedelic colour and a deafening cacophony of mournful cries that echo across the water and bounce back from the granite hills to mingle with the post-prandial chorus of coughs and howls and roars.
Joshua and Johanna are among the hundreds of birds and animals rescued and rehabilitated at the Sanctuary. Restoring these two lions to health and happiness has been our biggest challenge so far, and it is ongoing. Phase Two of their new home has begun – another large enclosure that means we can feed them separately and nurse Johanna without having to contend with Joshua’s potential aggression. With nine lions now in our care and several of them in need of lifelong medication and hands-on care, the lions punctuate our days with their varied demands. From an endless list of treatments including antibiotics, pain killers, antacids, tranquilisers, vitamins and herbal remedies we put together each lion’s daily medication, stashed in chunks of meat that we hand-feed to them. Planning the menu is complicated - Kimberly wont eat chicken and Kadiki hates beef. Elsie wont eat unless Johanna is eating, and Ngozi will only eat next to Mac. Wire wont eat if we are watching him and Joshua can only eat certain cuts of meat because of his teeth. Nduna eats anything, anywhere, at any time, including his blankets and the roof off his house. As with any community, there are alliances and personality clashes, secret crushes and enduring friendships and sudden, violent fall-outs. It is our job to monitor all of this and try to keep everyone happy. After dinner each evening, the roaring of the lions rises into a red sunset sky. The scars of the past are still visible on their great, golden bodies, but we believe they know that they are safe now, and loved, and that the bad times are over for them at last.
Our rescue and rehabilitation work would not be possible without the outstanding and constant support of our friends and donors. This support has given us the resources and facilities to take on animals in desperate need, like Joshua and Johanna and given them a second chance. The response to our appeal for help with this rescue was overwhelming and we are truly grateful to all the wonderful people who assisted so generously. We would like to thank David Behr, the SAVE Foundation of Australia, Johanna (Kat) Biljisma & Cool Galah – Australia, Executive Air, Mogo Zoo - Australia, and their staff, Sally Padey, Clive Brookbanks, Sandie and Chalkie van Schalkwyk - such constant friends to Zimbabwe’s lions and to us, Lynne Whitnall and Friends of Paradise (UK), who several years ago came to our rescue when the Sanctuary was reeling under Zimbabwe’s economic collapse, and they have come through for the animals once again, Derek Cottrill, Chris and Maimie Noon, Trekkers’ Biltong, Rob Noon, Carol Graham, Phileas Fogg Travel, Rooneys, Fence Africa, Di Fynn - such a dedicated supporter and fund-raiser, Wingate Golf Club Ladies Section, Golfing & Giving, Sharon Nicholls for whom nothing is too much trouble, Linda Turnbull, Enid Graves, sponors Penny and Arthur Harley who will sponsor a Bally Vaughan 2013 calendar to raise funds, the Aware Trust for relocating the lions and donating considerable time and costs in the ongoing battle to rehabilitate the lions, Bev Lawes, Whelson Transport and GDC Africa, Ian Silk, Alro Shipping and Transport, Pomona Quarries, Exomark, Tusker Springs, Jackie Fingland, wildlife artist Sheena Povall who donated 3 stunning paintings, Dr Chris Foggin, the Tikki Hywood Trust, Radiator Services, Dave and Jenny Adams, Sherrol D’Elia, Chippy Duncan and Destyl , Caboodle Baby Shop, Teresa Gasston, Alexa Volker, the 4x4 Club who arrived en masse to support the lions, bearing a huge pile of useful items for the Sanctuary, Karen Bean, Lisa Jackson, J.Mann & Co, the Book Borrowers, Brian Black, Karen and Stacey Gent and Orobianco, Sue Roberts, Set in Stone – Daniel Themostocleous, Billy Mannix, Sarah Jackson & Derek Selby, Leanne Byrom, Jenni Ferguson, Debs and Craig Sly, Garth and Yvonne Nicholls, Nicolle Havell, E-Micro, Richard & Rhona Harris, Gareth Howell, Gina Everson, Patrick Mavros & family, Lesley Duncan and Steph Watson of Nguni and Ngwenya, Lindsay Maine, Julie Barnes & Mrs Gabriel , Kat van Deventer, Chooks Langerman, Sarah Kenchington, Leigh Revolta who set up our fabulous facebook page, Ashley-Kate Davidson, Tim Griffith, Clive Wakefield, Adam Root, Kim & Campbell MacMillan and all the lovely people at 9a Drew Road, Food Lovers’ Market, Freshpro, Mrs Taylor-Freeme, Mrs Brakspear, Koala Park, Carswell Meats, Montana Meats, Douglyn Farm, the Khumalo family, Trinity Ncube, James Waddington, Emma Robinson & Phil Barclay, Mark Walker & family, Cathy Carter, Nicky Franco, Chantelle Jardine, Jackie Silva, Mr Kasongore, the Cheeseman, Chisipite Junior School Grade One who sold an astonishing amount of cupcakes to raise money for the lions, Westridge Junior who held a takkie day for the lions, Mike Brophy, Mrs L. Regadas, Mike & Lorraine Thomas , Rose & Rogan Maclean, Ashlee Middleton & family – thank you for your hugely generous support of our work, Bercol, Jacqui Taylor who donated her exquisite books to raise funds, Deb Addison, Wendy Robinson, Butcher’s Kitchen, Elizabeth Worthington, Drake Steele, Telford Mica, Beverley Bridger, Pauline Visser & Atlas Earth Movers, Jackie Holmes, Rob Hoard, Sharon Wilson, Samir Shasha, Mike Garden, Sharon Wilson, Spike Kennedy, Harare SPCA, Anton Newall, Sylvia Carter, Stacey-Lee Cillier, Andrew Revolta, Anoop Patel who donated stunning licence disc holders featuring our animal family, Joe Leese, Joe Davies, Motor Torque, Gail Clinton, Signs of the Times, Yo Africa and Webdev. The Twenty Four Hour Veterinary Surgery sponsored all the many veterinary drugs required for Joshua and Johanna’s recovery and spared no expense in treating the lions. Every single animal at the Sanctuary is under the care of the Twenty Four Hour Vet, and all this treatment is donated. Vin Ramlaul has been with us every step of the way on Joshua and Johanna’s journey, and is currently administering various injections each day to an increasing mobile, and progressively more irritable Nduna the lion. I am sure there are times when he wishes his wife collected shoes or recipes rather than predators and that the bathroom was full of nail polish and face cream rather than owls, and that he didn’t have to share a bed with a large and rather malicious caracal known, inappropriately, as The Hamster, but somehow he maintains a sense of humour and is always there for all of us. To all the people who are supporting the lions and the Sanctuary by visiting and sending messages of support, and the sixteen thousand people who visited our facebook site last month - none of this would be possible without you and on behalf of all the birds and animals that have had a second chance because of you – thank you from us all.
With love and thanks
Sarah and all at the Sanctuary