After weeks of planning, e-mailing and phone calls, I was about to embark on what some would call an adventure…but for me, at this point it, I would rather call it a “get in & get the hell out”, kind of situation!
On Monday night my nerves were shot….what would Tuesday bring?
It was possibly the longest 2 hour drive of my life! Nervous tension was flowing through my body & the only time I seemed to be level-headed was when I spoke to Louise at SanWild who I am sure thought I was nuts with my rambling on. I had no idea what awaited me? We turned down the sand road to the lion breeding farm….every gate had the word “ranch” plastered on it which for me, conjures up images of animals in distress. Looking at these places from the outside & a tourist point of view, you wouldn’t think twice but knowing what I do, it made my stomach turn. Many of the so-called lion conservation & breeding farms are places where the blood of our wildlife; especially the big cats are shed on a daily basis.
We pulled into the parking area & all looked normal. For a brief moment I even thought to myself: “Hmmm…doesn’t look as bad as I thought?” It is easy to imagine how these projects “trick” international volunteers into thinking they are doing wonderful things for lions, leopards and tigers. Caring for & interacting with young predator cubs; some only days old must be quite appealing to the uninformed.
Despite warm welcomes all round with offers to take us on a tour, the seemingly friendly people were a little on edge & uptight. For obvious reasons I was curious as to why? Surely these volunteers were in the “place of their dreams, helping animals”? Realizing my questions would never be answered, my thoughts moved on. I think deep down in one’s soul, a place like that would have an adverse effect on you whether you realized it or not.
Despite my nerves, I was surprisingly calm. I was here with a specific purpose & that was to get Sassy and Jessie out. I had no idea what Kirsten looked like but guessed it was the woman who at a moment’s notice had her arms wrapped around me with a big smile on her face! We said our “hellos” & took the travel crate out of the car & made our way through the central facility on the way to the cub enclosures; almost tripping over two idiots who were wrestling on the grass next to the pool…odd people!
The pool was smack bang in the middle & on walking past I wondered if this was where the tiger cubs had been thrown in to swim with children who had come to visit recently? Surely not! It was a normal pool & quite deep. Tiger cubs would not be happy swimming in there?
It seemed to take forever to get to the cub enclosure. I looked down & noticed wire running along the grass, sure enough there were two young caracal attached to it on leashes. Kirsten warned not to go too close as the animals were known to go for people. How terrible for them, I could fully understand why they would “go for people”. At this point I was having quite a few conversations with myself in the privacy of my own mind.
Finally reaching the cub enclosure, I stopped briefly & looked at these poor little souls. What struck me most about this surreal scene is that cubs like these should be with their mothers. They weren’t there to keep them safe and warm during the cold winter nights that were fast approaching. At least there were quite a few cubs; at least they had each other?
My mind was playing havoc with me & I had to force myself to concentrate on why I was here in the 1st place. “Get them & get out!”
Four little cubs were watching me – Sassy, Jessie & two slightly older females. They were curios at the strange plastic thing that was brought into the enclosure. Kirsten picked Jessie up & moved her to the crate. She seemed relaxed enough to be pushed inside but as Kirsten tried to guide her in all hell broke loose….she was not happy. With one push she was in; hissing & snarling.
I wondered how on earth we were we going to get Sassy in without Jessie getting out & at that exact moment my phone rang. I was distracted & within a split second Jessie escaped & was out of the crate. It was like a comedy of errors. Kirsten managed to get her back inside, we realized it would be good to wait patiently for her to settle a bit before we tried getting Sassy in.
We were staying longer than I would have liked but we had no choice! I sat down next to the crate, talking to Jessie continually, trying to calm her down. Sassy & the other cubs became intrigued with this new person on the ground & came to investigate. While sitting there; desperately fighting off the three cubs, my attention was drawn to the adjoining enclosure by the calling sounds of more cubs barely 5 weeks old. I am sure they were just recently taken away from their mothers. My heart was breaking but I had to focus on the task at hand. I wanted to grab all of them & just run away from this bad place – to keep them safe.
Some other volunteers kept walking past the enclosures – the word arrogant could hardly describe their obvious attitudes. Eventually Kirsten & I decided to hold the crate at angle to keep Jessie down at the bottom. I lifted the door open & Kirsten scooped Sassy up & put her inside. We had to work fast, as 4 little paws with very sharp claws were scratching like made to get out.
We were on the way back past the poor caracals & the pool area, which by now was quiet. Obviously the attention seeking volunteers were now busy getting on the nerves of some other poor creatures. I am relieved once the “girls” were in the car. While Kirsten was saying her “goodbyes” my thoughts were that I had only one more hurdle to cross before we would get out of there.
I had to meet up with the lion cubs previous owner Ingrid Swart at a local garage on the way. What if she asked me questions which I could not answer; what if she got suspicious & cancelled the sale of the lion cubs to us? How was I going to pull this rescue mission off successfully? Visions of a “breakout” or maybe a “car chace” went through my head. I told myself I was being ridiculous & that I had to get a grip. Needless to say, the meeting went off without a hitch! The car started & as we pulled out of the car park, I knew my adventure was about to begin & the reality of saving two lion cubs from an awful life set in!
I have had the privilege of spending the last week with two of the most incredible little female lion cubs which we rescued from a breeding facility. Jessie & Sassy have crept under my skin & into my heart! They were not in good physical health & emotionally I believe, they were in tatters. The two-hour from Kroonstad to my home in Johannesburg was clearly very stressful for them. They moaned & complained the entire way, desperately trying to get out of the travel crate.
Arriving home, the first thing we did was let them out in the garden. They immediately started exploring & sniffed around. To my absolute pleasure they settled down within 10 minutes or so. From that point onwards it appeared that their behavior & emotional state literally changed hour by hour. When I looked at Sassy’s face on Thursday, I could already see a change; the expression on her face & the look in her eyes, so much more relaxed & she truly seemed quite happy. Jessie however took a little longer to adjust to the new surroundings & needed constant reassurance.
Numerous friends; old & new came to visit. Every one was excited about the rescue of the two cubs. There were quite a few kids that came with their parents & I really didn’t mind as it gave me a great opportunity to talk about the plight of the big cats & also about the atrocities of the ‘Walking with Lions’ & the “Lion cub petting” industries that have became known as animal-pimping in South Africa.
One has to understand the full extent of what lion cubs & young lions have to endure in order for them to allow people to handle or walk with them. The cubs get taken away from their mothers from about 2 weeks old & this causes severe emotional distress to the lioness. The cubs are hand raised by humans & are put onto bottles of milk formula which is of an inferior quality, it simply cannot meet the quality of a lion cub’s mother’s milk. As with Sassy & Jessie, the cubs physical condition drops very quickly. At this point the cubs then go for human socialization & is they are handled extensively on a daily basis so that they can get use to being with humans most of the time. This constant handling takes its toll on the small cubs, that unbeknown to most humans, find it terribly stressful. Like a human baby, lion babies need a lot of sleep & peace & quiet. They need to be handled with care and compassion – not by human upon human that do not really know how to meet their most basic needs.
Once the cubs grow up the females are used to produce more cubs for breeding projects or lion parks, the males normally end up at hunting farms where they are gunned down by trophy hunters. The evil & terrible cycle carries on repeating itself day after day, month after month.
I have known this for a long time but over the past few days it has hit home even more. We have a number of places in our immediate area in Johannesburg that offer “cub petting” & they allow both children & adults to hold various wild animals – mostly large & small predators – in order for photographs to be taken. At some of these places individuals or groups of people pay for time to play with & interact closely with baby animals. I know it is difficult even for an adult to safely hold & handle a young lion, unless the animal in question is drugged, it is near impossible for a small child to hold & cuddle them.
Please believe me when I tell you this; most of these animals and lion cubs are SEDATED to make for easy handling. Even my daughter Mia took to higher ground on the kitchen counter & my study desk while the cubs were awake, as the cubs made it their mission to “play” with her. Picking on the smallest it is instinctual with most predators.
So when the kids arrived to see the cubs with their parents, I kept them in the lounge from where they could peep at the two young lions in the garden. They could see them, but could not interact with the cubs. Although Sassy & Jessie are only four months old, they are already extremely strong with very sharp little teeth and claws. The kids accepted that these cubs are not toys & should not be treated as such. People may think they are doing a good thing by taking the kids to interact, pet & play with lion cubs. They believe that allowing their kids to hold a lion cub for that “special” photographic opportunity is great, but they simply do not realize the potential health hazards & injuries their kids may face as a direct result. Besides fueling a very sick & cruel industry & the continued exploitation of beautiful animals that should be wild & free, they run the risk of their children being infected by endo-parasites like hook & round worms that can cause a variety of health problems including nausea, neurological problems & even blindness. So if you would like to teach your kids about lions & other large & small predators, rather take them to places such as the Kruger National Park which is a lot more satisfying as you can see our big cats in their natural habitat.
The same applies to volunteers; you should understand why interacting so closely with lion cubs is a bad idea & has nothing to do with the conservation of the species. There are unethical volunteer marketing agencies worldwide who place volunteers at places like Boskoppies & other lion breeding facilities every day. Their marketing campaigns & adverts play on people’s’ emotions inviting them to “look after and help raise orphaned lion cubs”. They claim, in most instances that these lion cubs will eventually be “returned to the wild” & they claim that these projects contribute “to the conservation of the species” – which off course is all lies. Many well intended volunteers have no idea what they are getting themselves into until it’s too late! Others so it seems; simply do not give a damn.
Back to the cubs –
We left for SanWild on Friday the 13th April 2011 at about eleven in the morning. It was going to be quite a long drive so I decided to ask my vet how we could make the trip easier for the cubs. She suggested Nutricalm should do the trick.
Before we left the cubs were running around with more energy than I had seen in all the time they had been with me – they were like two (good) naughty children. Half of the time they were up to some serious mischief & after much looking & finding them in Mia’s bedroom of which they were clearly obsessed. Jessie loved the bed, with a toy & Sassy on the floor with another. Sassy of course, would not let hers go for love or money; so I had to pick her up, toy & all to take her outside where I eventually managed to distract her with something else so I could “rescue” Mia’s toys…that was it, ouside for them so we could finish packing in peace!
When it was time to put the cubs into the travel crate, I felt my stress levels rise & did not look forward to repeating the same exercise as when we collected them. This time however we got them into the box & straight into the car for the long journey to SanWild without a problem. They did not make a single sound & slept the entire trip. When we arrived in Tzaneen, I quickly checked on the cubs again. Sassy was still out like a light, but Jessie sat up & looked at me with her huge big brown eyes – quite calm.
When we got to SanWild’s rehabilitation center the cubs were put directly into their temporary holding enclosure. A large spacious outdoor holding area where they quickly settled down. They were greeted with some fresh venison & some of SanWild’s anti-poaching team members popped in to welcome the new arrivals. It was fantastic to see them in this large enclosure where they soon became fixated with all the sounds, smells & sights of all that was going on around them.
That night was the first time Jessie had eaten meat & lapped her milk out a bowl. For Kirsten, this was a huge breakthrough as up to now, Jessie had only been drinking from a bottle & would not touch meat at all. Over the next day or so the cubs confidence improved in leaps & bounds; their coats are slowly but surely starting to shine & their little souls seem so much more content.
I know in my heart the right thing has been done. Now they are home, in a place where they will be showered with love & will forever be safe from the clutches of mans greed!
I left SanWild yesterday with a heavy heart as I will miss them terribly & as I type this, my house is awfully quiet. There are no sounds of little paws galloping up & down the passage, but I am so happy with the knowledge that I will be able to watch them grow up. One thing is for sure, I will never be able to walk around my house & ever feel the same again. My heart & soul have had the privilege to meet up with two very special lion cubs in their darkest hour of need.