The first sign that the Christmas tree has been eaten in the night is a trail of chewed red tinsel leading from the tea garden to the river. Closer inspection of the scene reveals the muddy torso of an angel protruding from the mud and a severed Santa head discarded on the steps. The cloven hoof prints of the perpetrators are everywhere but the nocturnal festive snack hasn’t put the donkeys off their breakfast. There is the usual kicking, braying, eye-rolling melee as the seventeen battered trays of food are laid out, the usual bellowed insults and kicks as the cows and zebras cut through the crowd, beady-eyed chickens, apoplectic turkeys and waddling white ducks scattering before them. There are satiny heaps of yawning cats in the kitchen and a row of expectant, downy little heads in the nursery waiting for their breakfast. Marilyn, the fat red cow, is waiting outside the kitchen for her bottle and Meredith the meerkat is already out digging for insects on the lawn, keeping a wary eye on the dogs shivering and panting after their first boisterous plunge into the rain-swollen river.
I head down to the lions. Our rehabilitation area keeps growing: a series of massive, interlinked enclosures contained our rescued, recovering lions. It is tranquil and thick with trees, shielded by heavy tarpaulins, closely monitored by the Sanctuary staff around the clock. I pass Wire and Kimberly, who have been with us year now, Joshua and Johanna – the most challenging rehabilitation we have undertaken so far, and then frail, frightened Juno and her companion, Fluffy who arrived in October.
As the skies filled with signs of impending rain, we constructed shelters for the lions. The first shelters didn’t last the night, torn apart in a destructive frenzy that left splintered poles and ragged bits of canvas scattered across the enclosures. The novelty must have worn off by the time we built the second lot of bamboo-framed structures, pillowed with thick golden hay donated by Brian Black and water-proofed with plastic from the wonderful people at Golfing and Giving. It is like a camping ground for predators – a forest of tents dotted about haphazardly, and from each doorway peeks a huge furry head. Johanna moved into hers instantly, patting down the hay with her huge paws and taking all her toys and arranging them tastefully about her with little murmurs of satisfaction, and then sitting proudly in the entrance, growling at Joshua to wipe his feet before he came in. Even enormous Wire, who is so obsessively macho about everything, conceded that snuggling down in the dry hay was a better option than sleeping the rain and after a bit of token roaring and dirt-kicking he settled down in his customary power-nap pose – legs in the air, belly on display.
Juno and Fluffy are making slow progress. Physically they are vastly improved although Juno still limps heavily on her damaged leg. The removal of her infected canine means she can now eat with gusto, and mealtimes are still a delightful novelty for her. Her weary face with its scarred muzzle and torn ear lights up with pleasure when she sees her dinner coming and she eats with patent relish. Fluffy is still aggressive and angry – her life has been a fight for survival and old habits die hard. Despite the abundance of food at the Sanctuary, she works herself up into a frenzy of fear and rage at dinner-time, charging at gentle Juno and at us, snarling and slashing her massive claws and then bolting her food. Trust is an alien concept to her, but the mindless pacing of the fence lines has stopped and she sleeps deeply, her exquisite golden face peaceful in repose.
Joshua’s astonishing black mane has grown thick and luxurious around his damaged face and his coat shines over lithe muscles. He will walk past me now without growling, but the quickening of his pace betrays the frisson of panic he still experiences around people. What courage it must take for him to approach us after the horrors inflicted upon him by humans.Darling Johanna, who has travelled such a long road to regain her health and happiness, enchants us with her exuberant embrace of her lovely new life. She and I look forward to our morning chats, and the moment she sees me coming down the road she assembles every single one of her toys for our morning ritual of ‘show and tell’. She rolls a motorbike tyre expertly towards me –“Look! This is one of my favourites! Oh, and see, this one is new!” – a go-kart tyre is flipped nonchalantly onto one paw- “I learnt that trick yesterday! Watch me juggle – I get better and better at it...”. We exchange compliments and headrubs and nose kisses and I go on my way, leaving her pottering about in her safe little world with her beloved companion Joshua.
Nduna the lion, who was paralysed, is not only totally mobile now but his exuberant, irresistible personality is back in full force. When he began to roar again, we knew his confidence was back. The first sounds he had made in five months were initially coy little coughs behind his paws, just to gauge the reactions of the other lions. Now he is back in the full swing of the daily roaring schedule, bellowing vociferously into the fierce sunsets flaring behind the rain-blackened clouds, and heralding the muted, misty pink dawns of the rainy season. Kylie, his hyena friend, is absolutely thrilled to have her playmate back. When Nduna was in the hospital for so many weeks, she would sit gazing wistfully in the direction of his boma, whooping mournfully into the ground as she sent sonorous get-well messages to him. Now, each morning he pokes his ears through the fence and she grooms them meticulously with her huge pink tongue while he tilts his head back and forth as if to say, “Left a bit....down a bit...to the right...” while Kadiki the lioness glares at them in outrage. She knows its not right for lions and hyenas to be friends and Nduna’s dogged insistence on consorting with the enemy infuriates her.
Woody the eagle owl, who has been my dedicated and rather aggressive admirer for a very long time, has forsaken me for a younger, fluffier model. Fabio, the eagle owl chick rescued by Di Fynn on Wingate golf course, is now fully-fledged and is the recipient of Woody’s obsessive attentions. I don’t miss the lacerations on my scalp from her dancing on my head, or the severed rat heads and disembowelled geckos that she used to try to force-feed me as a token of her love, but I do miss her eccentric and hilarious antics – swooping into the house to lie on her back on top of the fridge where it’s warm, peering coyly round the bedroom curtains at me at dawn each morning, and swooping along behind me as I walked round the Sanctuary at night. I think she just realised I was NEVER going to learn to fly, and that I wasn’t really that keen on moving into the nest she had made us behind the dog kennels, and so she decided to move on.
Another eagle owl joined the family – an elderly gentleman found bewildered and bedraggled in the rain in a Harare garden. Staggering about in a recently ploughed maize field, brandishing a bath towel and assisted by an absolutely petrified gardener who screeched with fright every time the owl moved, this was hardly the stuff of National Geographic documentaries. Despite my hissed instructions to the contrary, the poor gardener just could not restrain himself from dissolving into loud, gesticulating hysterics which simply served to ramp up the fear and rage felt by the owl. Eventually, nearly losing a finger in the process to a vice-like talon, I bundled the enraged owl ignominiously into the bath towel and got him to the vet for a check up. With a couple of hours in hand, I thought I would do a whirl-wind Christmas shop at Borrowdale Village, just down the road. As I breezed in and out of the scented sanctums of the upmarket shops, conversations halted and shop assistants stiffened. The lady in Edgars department store seemed particularly transfixed as I browsed through the rack of silky, festive outfits and anointed myself with a few free blasts of perfume samples in the hushed and gleaming cosmetics hall. It was only when I got home that I realised I had great crumbling crusts of red mud all over my trousers and spatters of ochre dirt across my face. The hostile reception suddenly made sense, especially the angry lady brandishing a dustpan and broom behind me.
The owl responsible for my social debacle is now recuperating in the hospital with determined permanent resident Owly, who has been asked to return to the wild four times, only to be found the next morning, puffed up in feathery outrage outside the hospital door, waiting for re-admittance.
Jenga the jackal joined the family – a little orphaned pup with huge brown eyes and a glorious thick pelt of silver and black fur. She is strictly nocturnal and sleeps the day away in the snug confines of a hollow tree trunk, popping out like a fury jack-n-the-box at dusk, first poking out her sharp little muzzle to test the air, then unfolding her immense fluffy ears to absorb every sound. Jenga has a puppy for company – the round-eyed, fat-tummied Mabel who was rescued from a puppy vendor.
There are 3 kittens in the nursery too, two glossy sleek black boys as smooth as satin and as fast as lightning, and a tiny grey tabby who is so ill and emaciated that every day that she survives seems like a miracle.
Stevie B, the blind donkey we rescued after he was found starving in a boma because he was no longer of use, is making good progress. He lives the high life in my garden, munching his way through vast buckets of food and piles of hay, supplemented by a steady stream of marshmallows, popcorn and apples. He loves to be groomed and his sparse brown coat is starting to respond to the hours of elbow-grease we put into his pampering. Nina, a very special rescue donkey who has been part of our family for many years, died after being gored by a stray eland that had come into the Sanctuary looking for food. We miss her beautiful face and gentle ways, and her daughter Cadbury is heartbroken.
We have rescued and released many wild birds and reptiles recently. The free-ranging troupe of banded mongooses added another dozen pink-nosed, squeaking babies to their family, Jimmy the tortoise joined us after many adventures in Harare, several more owls came in and were successfully released, and our wonderful volunteers nursed a number of rescued puppies and kittens back to health and we found lovely homes for them. Saffron and Duncan, the young servals rescued this year, moved into an outdoor enclosure from the nursery – with a pond to fish in, trees to climb and endless perfect ambush sites, they are in their element.
The usual floods, lightning strikes, power cuts, heavily loaded trucks mired in the mud, and an influx of bedraggled little creatures washed out of nests and burrows keeps us especially busy during the rainy season. Frequent nocturnal raids by a hungry family of wild otters and visits from voracious pythons have us on high alert at night, and an ever-expanding and aggressive troupe of wild monkeys make frequent raids on the food stores and kitchen. One of the monkeys got into my house and leapt at me in a sharp-toothed show of aggression. As I ducked out of range, Harry the caracal catapulted off the couch in one fluid flow of instinct and muscle, over my shoulder, and snapping his big jaws round the monkey’s throat, killed it instantly. A reminder that this beloved companion, who sleeps on my bed and lolls on the couch, is also a super-predator. He fared less well when a giant lizard perambulating through the garden caught his attention. Harry chased it with bristling confidence down the garden until it stopped dead, swelled up with rage and fear and slapped him across the face with its substantial tail, causing him to jump several feet in the air with fright and then take several diplomatic steps backwards. There was a lot of ferocious grooming and claw-nibbling after that humiliation, to prove that he had far better things to do than bother with pesky reptiles.
Our rescue and rehabilitation programme has grown far beyond anything we could have imagined. With eleven lions and a multitude of other animals in our care, as well as the free veterinary care we offer to the animals living in the area around the Sanctuary and our conservation education programmes for local school children, our time and resources are stretched to the limit. As always, none of this would be possible without the unstinting and constant support of our friends and sponsors. So many people work behind the scenes, raising funds and awareness, organising our fantastic Golf Days, sourcing food and other essentials, and celebrating the triumphs of successful rescues and offering comfort and understanding during the inevitable times of heartbreak and when the challenges we face sometimes feel overwhelming. The Twenty Four Hour Vet treats every single one of our animals free of charge, and the care is unstinting and exceptional. The devoted vets at the surgery have just spent three months rehabilitating Sniper the greyhound, a local dog who burnt his foot in a fire. Sniper has been living in the surgery hospital and the care lavished upon him has seen him make a full recovery.
Special thanks to Mega for our beautiful Bally Vaughan calendars, now on sale at the Sanctuary and the Twenty Four Hour Vet. We are truly grateful to Sharon Nicholls, Di Fynn, Sylvia Carter, Ashley-Kate Davidson, Chooks Langerman, Sarah Kenchington, Debs Sly, Linda Turnbull, Nicole Havell, Teresa Gaston, Gareth Howell, Garth and Yvonne Nicholls, The Cheeseman, Premier Milling, Anoop Patel of Raybag Designs for our stunning licence disc holders featuring our rescued animals, Sue Roberts, Sarah Jackson and Derek Selby (Kylie the Hyena could not have better friends...), Whelson Transport, Sue Coghlan, Karen Bean and all the Book Borrowers, Sophie and Alexandra Bean, the Middleton family, Mark Lubbe, Caboodle for a whole truck-load of baby food for our orphans, Karen Muirhead, Jen Fraser, Lisa Rheeder, the author Lauren ST John who does so much for the animals, National Fencing, Fence Africa, S&P Logistics and George Kille, Directory Services, Mike Garden, Sharon Wilson, Les Duncan, Montana Meats, Douglyn Farm, the Khumalo family, Jolly Jongwe, The Butcher’s Kitchen, Trinity Ncube, Alexa Volker, Sandie and Chalkie van Schalkwyk, Cathy Carter, Cecilia CAbodie, Emma Robinson and Phil Barclay, WebDev, Yo Africa, Zimbiz and Troy and Liz Prinsloo, Joe Leese, Joe Davies, Anesh and Mia Ramlaul, Kay Scott, Merle Papenfos, Ramsay McLaghan, Pauline Visser and Atlas Earth-Movers, the artist Sheena Povall who supports our lion rescues so generously, Enid Graver, Bev Lawes, Carole Graham, Waste-Away, Robert and Chris Noon, Jackie Silva, Lorraine Thomas and Mike Wedlock, Chisipite Conservation Club and Pat Collins, Rosie Mitchell, Sharon School Grade One and Katie Ferreira, Krafty Kids and Meg Hopley, Radiator Services, LonZim, Belts ‘n Hoses, Dave Adams and family, Jacquie Andre, Harare SPCA, ZNSPCA, Gail Clinton, Mary-Lou Stodart and Friend Foundation, Mr R. Hopley, Mr Musango, Beverley Bridger, Georgina and Tony PUrkis, Kim and Campbell MacMillan, Jodie, Mega Meats, Dhumile Meats, Munenga Farm, Hortico, Mrs Heath, Mrs Cable, Sherrol D’Elia, Food Lovers’ Market, Tasha Henning, Rani Maven, Stacie-Lee Cilliers, Karen and Stacey Gent of Orobianco (South Africa), the Save Foundation (Australia) and Kat Biljisma and Cool Galah (Australia) who make so much of our lion rehabilitation work possible. And as always, thank you to Vinay Ramlaul.
There are huge challenges facing the Sanctuary in 2013 – we know that with your support all will be well.
We are open throughout the holidays, including all public holidays and look forward to seeing you!
Our facebook site, Bally Vaughan Animal Sanctuary, has regular updates and photographs of our animal family.
With love and thanks
Sarah and All at the Sanctuary
THE TWALA TRUST/BALLY VAUGHAN SANCTUARY
Tel: 233 772592944 0774312887