a journal on namibian wildlife.

"No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold."
-Cormac McCarthy


A pre-veterinary student with the desire to work with farm animals, I wanted to explore another realm of veterinary medicine: exotics. My Chancellor's Scholars project focused on that desire, integrating other goals of cultural immersion, exploration of a new continent, and intensification of  my passion for service work. I spent one month living in Namibia in the Kalahari Desert. There, I promoted nature conservation, discovered African veterinary medicine practices, mediated with farmers for species preservation, actively discouraged poachers, hand-reared orphaned animals, and cared for exotics which were either 'un-releaseable' or being prepared for release.

I uncovered the startling similarities and differences between my life and the lives of Namibian bushmen. Furthermore, I made global contacts with fellow volunteers and prospective veterinary students. In just four weeks, I was further persuaded to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. More importantly, I recognized the importance of a life which harmonizes the traditional workforce with  international and community service.

All of these life-altering experiences would have been unattainable without Vanderbilt University and its Chancellor's Scholars Program. For more information on both, check out the following sites:

Vanderbilt University
Chancellor's Scholars (to see other scholars' project blogs)

To see my other reflections and photoessays, check out the following sites:

Photo Essays
General Reflections
Cross-Cultural Experiences

So long, Africa.

I wanted a perfect ending…Now, I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.
-Gilda Radner

These past few days have been a whirlwind of activity. Luckily, I've been spending more time in the clinic where I get to experience how vet medicine is practiced in Africa. The other day, we anesthetized Maxxie, one of the donkey babies, in order to drain a leg abscess. Without some of the modern tools and instruments, we learned how to improvise. A sweatshirt wrapped around the opposite hind leg and under the neck held the leg out of the way for surgery on the injured leg. Later, an African wild dog was attacked by members of its pack. We cleaned its puncture wounds with the limited antiseptics available. Finally, a mongoose needed to have sutures removed. Each time, Erin, one of the coordinators, taught us which anesthetic is appropriate for each species. and she let us calculate the appropriate doses. All three animals are recovering well.

One afternoon, a friend and I took a break from the clinic and volunteered in Harnas's school for the bush children. The minute we walked onto their playground, children ran up to us, showing their us countless cuts, scratches, and injuries, thinking we could help them. Helpless, I distracted them by dancing to Waka Waka and having them teach us some of their local games and songs. Even though they spoke very little (if any) English and I can't speak a word of the San language, Shakira's music is apparently pretty universal. The kids come to school in ripped, dirty clothing. After the teacher bathes the kids, they dress in uniforms until the minute they leave to go back to the bush. These kids are learning Africaans, San, and English, but they still deserve better than the sporadic education they're receiving.

Although I personally struggled with aligning my conservation goals with those of my second site, I did have a valuable experience there. I found that despite my initial distaste for them, I'm actually somewhat of a baboon whisperer, hysterically enough. I saw people pet fully-grown male lions (I opted out of that one because I firmly believe a chicken wire fence isn't sufficient protection, evne if the lion is "tame"). I lived a life surrounded by the most diverse group of animals I could have imagined. I shaped an educated theory of conservation and decided that as wonderful as it is to hear a cheetah purr when you scratch it, a wild animal deserves to be wild. Life in an enclosure is a life poorly lived, especially for the large carnivores. Most importantly, I learned that human intervention is not always optimal. Although we pride ourselves on our ability to "fix things," we must let nature be. Sure, we must rectify past transgressions against animals, but the less we intervene, the more natural nature is.

I said goodbye to the African sun, and after over 30 hours of travel, I was greeted by some of America's best features: humidity and Steelers fans. I honestly forgot about street lamps and telephone lines. Modern civilization escaped me, and I didn't even notice. Tiny vans filled with twenty cramped schoolchildren replaced fancy cars on highways. After living with people from across the world for one month, I forgot about American accents. It felt strange to walk into my kitchen for breakfast without passing a herd of ostriches and bottle feeding the donkey babies. To go from a country with over 50% unemployment to one with less than 10% is more dramatic than one would imagine.  I left Africa with a bigger fear of meerkats than cheetahs, a deeper understanding of and passion for both animals and conservation, and firsthand experience with an African culture and the pervading poverty that shapes it.

In just over one month, I lived on three different continents, reaffirming my love of diversity, adventure, and service work. Although my career plans are still cloudy, I'm certain they will include both animals and service work.

In Africa, I left behind my fear of exotics, my idealistic impression that the quest for conservation is both united and clearly defined, and almost all of the clothes I brought across the Atlantic. Somewhere in the African savannah, a bushman is walking  around in a Chancellor's Scholars t-shirt which encourages everyone something that I truly learned in Africa:  

"Don't follow your dreams...chase them."

Thank you, Vanderbilt University, for helping me chase my African dream.

June 12, 2011

And we always say, it would be good to go away, someday 
But if there's nothing there to make things change 
If it's the same for you I'll just hang.

-Matchbox Twenty

The past few days have been a confusing blend of happiness and complete frustration. I get to be surrounded by animals I love while spending time with three of the most amazing and hysterical people I've ever met. Thankfully, the sanctuary staff took our suggestions into consideration, and the program is improving slightly. 

I spent one afternoon with two baby caracals. Their mother (stressed from being kept in an enclosure) chewed both of their right legs to the point at which they needed to be amputated. Now, these caracals are living proof that wild animals should remain free and uninterrupted by human influences.

Harnas recognized that and developed a strange release program which they use to release their tamed animals into the farm's own land. Luckily, I got to witness a caracal's first "soft release" day. With a GPS collar on, the caracal was allowed to wander and hunt while humans observed its behavior. Over time, the caracal is released for longer periods of time until the caracal is never returned to the enclosure. Unfortunately, Harnas can only release tame animals, and they only have 8,000 hectares of land available. The staff, therefore, needs to consider the number of carnivores that can be released on the land. Hopefully one day the local farmers, the government, etc recognize the need for sufficient land for Africa's animals. Otherwise, wild animals will  only ever continue to be tamed.

Pride, Harnas's success story, is a tamed cheetah that is successfully released on their land. Almost every day, they track her using her collar and radio telemetry to check up on her. Yesterday, I was on research duty. When we found Pride, she walked up to the truck to greet us and then led us back to her kill she recently made. There, we sat twenty feet away and watched her devour a springbok while I learned about how cheetahs hunt and why Harnas has adopted its particular type of sanctuary.

Today, church was canceled because the pastor wasn't in town. Instead, we wandered the farm, taking pictures with zebras, caracals, vervets, baboons, and cheetahs.

Every four days, my group is responsible for washing the dishes after meals. This is, quite literally, my favorite activity. We scrub dish after dish in the kitchen, singing along to the radio with the bushmen workers and watching them moonwalk.  The whole time, tortoises are crawling around our feet, trying to find a warm place to hibernate. We also started playing "Waka Waka" with the bushwomen in the nursery after the sun sets. I'm sure we're mispronouncing all of the words and they're laughing at us, but it makes the time go by more quickly, and it's nice to see the san people laughing. This is, to me, what I'll remember when I look back on my Namibian days.

...and in my spare time, I play with cheetahs.

June 9, 2011

What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.
  -Virginia Woolf

Recently,  I have endured a true test of character. My three close friends here (my roommates) and I inspired a sort of revolution on the farm. After repeatedly discussing our complaints, concerns, and suggestions with staff members, all of the volunteers were invited to write letters to the staff expressing any of their concerns. Nearly everyone turned in anonymous notes which the staff are going to read and (hopefully) use to move the farm in a better direction.

Despite this positive turn, today has been difficult. After trying to feed the carnivores, we found that one of the lions was missing. On my way to lunch, I watched as a truck with the carcass of Shere Khan, one of the lions, pulled into the car park. They're sending his body in for an autopsy. Even as I write this, I can hear the lions (nearly 20) roaring behind the village. Death is never easy. Not even for animals.

After a chain of frustrating events, I volunteered to walk a puppy to blow off steam. We wandered off from the group into the bush, following oryx tracks along the way. Although it was more relaxing than the usual activities, the mornings starting at 5:30am, the feeling that I'm helplessly fighting a battle in the name of conservation, and the frigid, bug-infested showers are beginning to wear me down. 

On the bright side, I get to interact with more of the bushmen on Sunday. Last Sunday I went to the highly unconventional open-air bushman chapel. There, we sang, danced, and prayed using three different languages: English, Africaans, and San. I was incredibly uncomfortable, but only in an "I'm completely immersed in this foreign culture, and I have no idea how to behave" kind of way. I'm looking forward to more distractions like this, and I always anticipate my favorite times of day (sunrise and sunset).

June 6, 2011

As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
-Thom Gunn

The more I learn about this farm's philosophy, the more I find that it clashes with my personal conservation philosophy. Although I'm trying not to compare the two experiences, I'm struggling with volunteering for a cause with which I disagree. Their conservational efforts, while valiant, are contrary to my personal beliefs. I have to remember Harnas is just trying to give every animal a chance, even if I don't agree with their methods, their treatment of volunteers, and their views of conservation. These next few days may be difficult, but I'll distract  myself by taking pictures with as many animals as possible.

June 5, 2011

You get to determine the size of your world…expand your knowledge by expanding your community.
-Khaled Hossieni

The morning started at 5:30am when I had to wake up to give the donkeys their bottles before breakfast. The rest of the day I learned about how to care for our animals. I'm living in a nice cabin with two sides of insect netting and two sides of wooden walls. Two of my roommates are veterinary students, and my other roommate studies wildlife conservation. Although Harnas doesn't have lectures, I've been learning so much about exotics from my brilliant roommates.

June 4, 2011

Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.

Today we learned more about Harnas and were assigned groups. Because the farm has so many animals, the animals are divided among four separate groups. A member of group 4, I am now in charge of the feeding and health of a one-eyed owl, a wildcat, two caracals, seven wild cheetahs, five baby donkeys, three kittens, four vervet monkeys, and two macaws. It's quite a diverse group of animals.

June 3, 2011

God gave the white man a watch and the black man time.
-John Kasaona

Luckily for me, it was another national holiday yesterday, and we had the entire afternoon free. I spent my last hours with Samira, the tame cheetah, and the other animals like Eddie, my favorite sheep. At the fire after dinner I said goodbye to my new friends and gathered contact info from people from Germany, New Zealand, England, Canada...

My transfer from my first site was supposed to leave at 5:30am this morning. I was waiting at foodprep by 5:15am, watching the minutes roll by until 5:50am, when the schoolbus finally arrived. With the sun rising to my left, I was surrounded by a choir of schoolchildren singing traditional African songs. They were even harmonizing. At 6am. I think God gave the black man music, too.

After waiting another 3 hours for my second transfer from Windhoek, I am more than willing to insult God's gift-giving abilities and give the black man my watch. We drove three hours east toward the border of Botswana, past Gobabis.

This new site, Harnas, is larger than N/a'ankuse, but feels more like a petting zoo than an organization targeting species conservation. They have zebras, macaws, porcupines, donkeys, springbok, ostriches, baboons, cheetahs, lions, cats, dogs, meerkats, bat-eared foxes, an owl, leopards, a rabbit, crocodiles, mongoose, vervet monkeys, and birds.

June 1, 2011

The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.
-Galileo Galilei

This morning I volunteered for Clever Cubs, the school for the bushmen preschoolers. The second I stepped into the schoolhouse, Deshi gave me a huge hug and immediately became obsessed with my straight, blonde hair. She sat on my hips, petting it for ages. We sang nursery rhymes and colored pictures. It was absolutely adorable. Once my camera was revealed, I discovered that these kids are wonderful photographers. Within forty minutes, they took 200 pictures. I got to hear their click language, and I helped them learn a few English words, too. All in all, it was a great morning of cultural exchanges.

During carnivore feed, we fed horse heads to the lions. I'm becoming more and more desensitized to slaughter, but watching a lion devour a horse's head was definitely interesting. Like I said, every day is a new adventure.

As hard as it is to believe, tomorrow is my last day at N/a'ankuse. On Sunday, a film crew from Animal Planet and National Geographic is coming to the farm!!! They're filming about 13 episodes detailing the events here, including the release of some cats. I'm incredibly bummed I'll be missing the filming, but I can't wait to turn on the television and see familiar places, people, and animals, knowing that I had a part in all of it.

May 31, 2011

And miles to go before I sleep.
-Robert Frost

On this last day of May, I got to (finally!) ride on border patrol. I tacked up Ice Cream, one of the sanctuary's horses, and rode out of the farm with Tessa, a German coordinator. Within meters of the main gate, we ran into all four giraffes just a few meters away from us. With such a lucky start to this four hour ride, we were excited to see more animals. As we raced our horses along the fenceline, we passed oryx, springbok, kudu, wild baboons, lizards, and more. We even saw the herd of wild horses race alongside us. By far, it was my favorite African experience. Again, I got to play an active role in conservation (checking the fence for damages) while still having the time of my life riding on a personal safari and getting closer to the animals than possible in a car.

A cheetah from a local farm was captured and brought to the temporary camps today. Although I didn't get to see the release because I was on border control, it's exciting how many animals keep arriving here. Even better, it's exciting to know that their work conserving cheetahs is paying off.

Oh yeah, pictures are on the way!

May 30, 2011

It’s a hard life where the sun looks.
-Gary Soto

Normally it would be a hard day in the sun, but today I was lucky enough to have some good chores. The morning caracal walk was as relaxing as usual. We spotted hartebeest, vultures, and other creatures while watching Medusa hunt for small snacks in the brush. Afterwards, I was dismissed from my junior baboon walk duties and was allowed to have time with the wild dogs.

Heloise, Emma, Ashley, and Jon leave tomorrow morning. I hate to see them go, but I love knowing that I have contacts in new corners of the world. I look forward to more British v. American debates, and I'm excited to watch the television when Heloise play piano at Prince Albert's wedding.

This afternoon was consumed by another research project! Because the footprinting project is complete, we drove to the neighboring farm and checked out the images on the camera traps. These cameras, hung on trees that cheetahs mark (Flo, one of the research scientists, taught us how to identify cheetah marks on trees), let the researchers identify important information about the cheetahs in the area. They set up really cool traps around these trees and surround the rest of the perimeter with thorn branches. This encourages the cheetahs to pass through the cage. When a cheetah is trapped, they put a GPS collar on it and track it for research purposes. It also allows them to identify which cheetahs are problem animals, thereby making relocation and cheetah conservation much more flawless. I got to see the union of local farmers and research scientists. What a unique and effective conservation method.

May 28, 2011

We know not the value of a blessing but by deprivation.
-Hannah Webster Foster

 Oh, the blessings and curses of life in an African desert.

I love falling asleep to the sound of jackals crying in the distance. I love knowing that two cheetahs are sleeping 60 feet from my bed, and I love even more knowing that tomorrow morning I can pet them before breakfast. I enjoy listening to the bushman interact with each other, and I love that every day is a new adventure. I’m surrounded by people from all over the world, not just Africa. Although I had to fight to overcome the negative stereotypes of Americans, I’m definitely gaining a more global perspective.

I could live without the gigantic yellow spiders and the range of poisonous snakes living outside my room. More importantly, I despise the complete isolation from the rest of the world. America could be completely submerged in water and my only worry would be whether or not the apple slices I cut were too large for the resident steenbok. Cell phone and internet services are abysmal, at best. For a girl of my generation, this detachment from the outside world is challenging.

May 27, 2011

American girls, they want the whole world.
-The Gaslight Anthem

Another rotation on enclosure patrol came and went uneventfully. The afternoon, however, was exciting! A few weeks ago, N/a’ankusê resumed the cheetah walks. Although only a few volunteers can go on each walk, I was lucky enough to be on rotation. We loaded a cheetah cage and drove a few kilometers to one of the tame cheetah enclosures where we picked up Kiki, the tamest cheetah. Another lucky break: we got to drive through the bushman village on our way to the walk. As we passed through, the villagers were posing near their pet ostrich for a picture. A few months ago, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt donated $2 million to N/a'ankusê and the sanctuary is compiling a "thank you" package.

Anyway, we enjoyed our walk with Kiki through the open field. It's definitely an incomparable experience walking in the desert with a cheetah beside you...one I'd recommend to any animal enthusiast.

Tonight, the presentation topic was baboons. Yet another lucky break: Marlice, the sanctuary's owner and inspiration gave the talk. Despite my lack of affection for baboons, I was hooked by every word she spoke. I hope one day I'll be able to talk about my passions with such enthusiasm and eloquence. She is so accomplished, she even has her own Wikipedia article:  here AND she has a movie made about her: check this out

May 26, 2011

There were so many fewer questions when stars were still just holes to heaven.
-Jack Johnson

I took Rudy’s diaper off and cleaned him up after breakfast. To my delight, I went on a caracal walk this morning. As usual, a junior baboon walk follows a caracal walk. Up to this point, I painted a somewhat skewed image of baboons with the hopes that my optimism would alter my attitude toward these animals. Unfortunately, although baboons are surprisingly brilliant and entertaining, they are terribly destructive. Although many may disagree, I would rather shovel manure than go on a baboon walk. Further defining my passions (or lack thereof) is one of the reasons I chose to spend time with African exotics. Now, more than ever, I appreciate the time I spend with my beloved farm animals…horses, cows, sheep, goats, dogs, cats.

With that in mind, I still thoroughly enjoy many aspects of caring for exotics. This afternoon was filled with wild cheetahs and collecting more footprints for the database. “Footprinting” is one of my favorite jobs here.

Cila offered the volunteers the opportunity to go on a security drive tonight. Every once in awhile, a coordinator drives a truck around the sanctuary to ward off poachers. Volunteers in the truck bed shine a spotlight into the brush to check up on the nocturnal animals. So, at 10:30pm, (2 hours past my regular bedtime around here, I wrapped myself into blankets and hopped onto a truck. For the first leg, the three of us crazy enough to sign up for this late night adventure sat staring up at the stars. Never have they been so bright. I was nearly deceived into believing they were so close I could reach up and brush them away with the back of my hand if I wanted to.

When the time came to shine the spotlight, I almost immediately spotted a giraffe to the right. With wild giraffes less than 30 feet away, I couldn’t help but be grateful for this midnight safari that I got to enjoy while still promoting animal conservation.

24 hours ago, I was sleeping with a baby baboon in my arms. Now, I’m on a moonlit safari. I’d consider this a life well-lived.

May 25, 2011

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.

We whizzed through foodprep duties in time for an early break. This time for carnivore feed we saw each carnivore, including the lions. Watching Meatball roaring for food, I have never been more grateful for electric fences. Next week, Cila is sleeping in a truck in the lion enclosure for a fundraiser. Brave, crazy, and driven by passion. I had my moment of pride today. A tour group was passing through the sanctuary on a “safari”. They stopped by the 14 wild dogs as we were throwing them meat. I was thankful for the direct contact I’ve had with these animals. I know their stories, and I’m close to learning all of their names. I have my list of favorite animals, and I can recognize when one of them is feeling sick. Oh, the joys of animal husbandry.

After we returned from carnivore feed, we saw a dead cape cobra on the floor of the foodprep room. One of the deadliest snakes, the cape cobra is apparently common around these parts. We watched as its muscles contracted post mortem, and we measured it - a record-breaking length – almost 2 meters. Only in Africa.

Small digression: I sacrificed my desire for complete immersion so I can finally be healthy again. My reversion to a vegetarian lifestyle is definitely helping.

Nature here is aggressive. Everything’s fighting for survival. I’m covered with scratches from the trees’ thorns. The land’s inhabitants are quick to react, and compared to the docile, gentle, beautiful land of Ireland, where I spent the past five months studying abroad, everything is harsh and dangerous.

Speaking of dangerous, I have Rudy, the 5 month old baboon, in my room again tonight. This time, I’m alone in this endeavor. With my roommates gone for the evening, I bathed and fed the babies with Sandy, an inspiring New Zealander volunteer. It was a cold night, and Rudy fell asleep under my sweatshirt as I walked him back to the room. Although there are many horror stories about having a baby for the night, Rudy was as calm as a teddy bear all night.

May 24, 2011

If the path be beautiful
Let us not ask where it leads.
-Anatole France

This morning was my first rotation on enclosure patrol. I spent hours walking with Heloise the miles around each carnivore enclosure, checking for holes in the fences while ensuring the electric fences were powered enough. I walked around African bushes while watching the animals and checking the path before me for snakes. It was exhausting, though. The afternoon was filled with my personal specialty: shoveling manure. There was even time to play with the baby baboons and the lambs in between chores.

May 23, 2011

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
-William Wordsworth

Today started off beautifully. I got to go on a caracal walk. We picked up Medusa, one of the four adult caracals, and drove past the waterhole and a flock of vultures to a field with two ostriches. Medusa chased birds as one of the bushmen taught us how to identify certain animal tracks. Frequently, Medusa would reveal habits of domestic cats, purring and rubbing along our legs. After our caracal walk, we took the junior baboons out again. They were great fun. Cila, the leader around the farm, taught us how to interpret their behavior – what certain sounds mean and how to determine which baboons are dominant.

The afternoon was not as enjoyable as the morning. Although we were supposed to be helping with research all afternoon, we had a few chores first. So, Heloise and I loaded the truck with some of the foulest smelling contents imaginable. What would have been a remarkable safari-like tour of the sanctuary, complete with lions running alongside the truck, was actually somewhat reduced by the sound of horse intestines sloshing around behind me. I’ve done many disgusting things in the name of veterinary medicine, but this afternoon topped everything. Slotted buckets filled with the remains of a dismembered and disemboweled horse leaked blood all over the truck bed. Throwing a horse’s ribs to a cheetah certainly tested my formerly iron-clad stomach. The smell of horse meat is incomparable to other smells and didn’t escape me even after showering. If I’m not prepared for the blood and guts of vet medicine now, I don’t think I ever will be.

We did, thankfully, get to spend about 45 minutes doing the research project. N/a’ankusê is creating a footprint identification database for cheetahs (see here). To do so, they gather around 15-20 pictures of the left hind print of each animal that is about to be released. This meant one exciting and terrifying thing for me: entering the enclosure of wild, not tame, cheetahs. Luckily, cheetahs are known for their cowardice. Simple eye contact and a stick in my hand kept the cheetahs under control. Pieces of horse meat persuaded them to cross a patch of wet sand, where the footprints were recorded. This experience, combined with the morning’s animal walks, is beginning to inspire confidence with exotics.

May 22, 2011

Infinite impediments yet no discouragement
-John Smith

Sundays are unique here. Volunteers have three options: 1) stay on the farm; 2) go to the local tourist lodge; 3) spend the day at a mall in Windhoek. Exhausted from all of my recent traveling, I chose to stay on the farm. There, I learned how comical it is to expect a day of rest on a farm filled with exotic animals. Instead of relaxing, I created a habitat for two baby caracals found in a shopping center. Later, after counting the sheep, we saw one with a broken leg. It fell on me and a Bushman to carry the sheep to slaughter –not one of my favorite moments. Euthanasia in modern medicine is far less traumatic for the animal, and I would have loved to inject a ketamine overdose into its heart instead of carrying a terrified animal to slaughter.

Throughout the day, I was extremely nauseous. The combination of too much meat, dehydration, and malaria prevention pills led to a difficult day for me. I suppose an African adventure wouldn’t be complete without getting sick and having to take care of exotic animals simultaneously.

May 21, 2011

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

-Roald Dahl 

No longer on foodprep, I got to ride around in a meat-filled truck again. This time, I saw the carnivores which are about to be released. I also spotted the lions and a desert fox.  At each stop, I heard the animals’ stories – mother shot by poacher, rescued beside a road, surrendered by someone who was trying to create a housepet out of a cheetah – The stories are interesting and remind me that animal conservation is still an uphill battle here. My favorite animal success story belongs to Shauna, one of the baby baboons. In Namibia, a baboon is classified as a "pest" and shooting a baboon is perfectly legal. A local saw an adult baboon and shot her dead. When he approached the carcass, he saw her stomach moving. An emergency c-section later, Shauna was prematurely born. She lives a healthy life in the baby baboon enclosure, with the only evidence of her awkward entrance into the world being a few disfigured toes where the bullet that killed her mother grazed her foot.

Still uncomfortable with the unpredictability of the baboons, I volunteered to go on the junior baboon walk. The junior baboons are not yet fully grown, but are approaching the size of adults. Before the walk, we were given a few guidelines:

1.    Never say ‘no’ to a baboon

2.    If they take something of yours, it’s not yours anymore

3.    Don’t scream, yell, or show anxiety

4.    If they bite, calmly find a coordinator to help.

Needless to say, I was very nervous. Baboons are much stronger and more dangerous than I anticipated they would be. Before the walk, we all emptied our pockets and removed our hats, glasses, and anything a baboon could easily grab. The coordinators opened the cage and 11 baboons rushed out toward the dirt path. One of them, Troy, held my hand and looked up at me, so I swung him across my body and up to my shoulders. There, he sat calmly for the majority of the walk, playing with my hair and watching the other baboons play on the ground. I could see him yawn in our shadow. We took a break at an old tree. The volunteers sat in the sand while the baboons climbed (and occasionally fell from) the tree. Every once in awhile, a baboon would walk over to me and dig into my pockets. One was particularly interested in the braid in my hair and proceeded to eat my hair tie. Across the path, a baboon was grooming another volunteer’s hair. Very curious and very brilliant creatures. Troy, my personal favorite, was a huge fan of wrapping his arms around volunteers for big bear hugs. The baboons communicate through a clicking/yakking/screeching language, depending on their level of aggression at the time. After the walk, I feel significantly more comfortable with these strange and fascinating animals, which love to hold hands and walk on their hind legs like awkward toddlers.

This afternoon was my first veterinary medicine experience in Africa. Chiquita, one of the tame cheetahs that lives in the enclosure directly behind my room, needed to have a tooth filled. For about two hours, we learned about common anesthetics, procedures for darting animals, and the differences in anesthetizing different species. We took turns preparing the darts and loading the dart gun. We each shot at the target and answered questions about the lecture material. This educational hands-on experience is the reason I chose to travel with Enkosini. After calculating the appropriate concentrations and volumes of the mixture of medicine for the dart, we darted Chiquita and carried her to the medical center. There, I stood two feet away from the procedure, loving every minute. Without proper modern medical devices, individuals were assigned tasks to monitor Chiquita throughout the anesthesia. African vet medicine is certainly different from the medicine I'm used to, but it's still entirely sufficient.

May 20, 2011

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
-Lewis Carroll

I must be a character in the Lion King. This morning, the duiker joined us for breakfast as goats and sheep bleated in the background. On foodprep duty, I started the morning by preparing food mash – fruit, vegetables, and a corn mash called mielepap. After I fed the baby baboons their bottles, I walked around the enclosure with Rudy, the youngest, on my head, arms gripping my face and my hair. I fed the kid goats and lambs as the adult baboons smacked their lips at me – supposedly it’s a sign of friendship.

With 30lb buckets in hand, I maneuvered through crowds of hens, turkeys, and geese on my way to the adult baboon enclosure. Meerkats rolled back on their haunches and closed their eyes as the sun warmed their bellies. A dog and a cat wander around the rabbit pen, and goat carcasses sit outside the freezer for the cats’ breakfasts. Simone, one of the bushmen, was herding the goats out to pasture. We asked him if it was okay to put a horse in with the goats. He responded with a smile. We turn the horse out and ask, “Are you sure that’s okay? Will the horse step on the babies?” He emphatically responded, “Yes!” Panicked, we rush to catch the horse, but he smiled and waved us off. I guess the Bushman's click language doesn’t have much in common with English, but it sure is a shocking language. It sounds primitive and interesting.

Right before lunch, my chore was “carnivore feed”. We drove down dirt roads, watching warthogs cross in front of us and doing our best to ignore the smell of the dead goat and the pile of miscellaneous animal legs sitting in the truck’s bed. Although the lions weren’t hungry enough to approach the fence, I got to throw meat to the leopards and a herd of wild dogs.

Still on foodprep after lunch, I fed the horses and was rewarded with a baby baboon walk. The five babies frolicked through the brush, occasionally raising their tiny hands, asking to be picked up. They like sitting on your hips or wrapping their gangly arms around your head. They search frantically for clovers and only eat the leaves when they stumble upon them. Their occasional tantrums remind me that they aren’t, in fact, the humans I sometimes mistake them to be. Their intelligence astounds me, though. They can open pockets in search of sweets, and they have very obvious social standards. Often, they misbehave, picking at volunteers’ pockets until the leader glances over. At that point, the baboon will immediately hug the volunteer. Their intelligence really is shocking.

Around 5pm (African time is very flexible), one of the staff members gives us a presentation on some aspect of life at N/a’ankusê. The topics range from wildlife immobilization to species-specific lectures to NamibRand, the research aspect which tracks the relocated released carnivores. Today’s presentation was on self-sustainability. Although sustainability has a heavy emphasis in first world countries, I see the greatest need in places like Namibia, where every resource is limited and treasured.

At N/a’ankusê, self-sustainability is essential to survive. All of the shower water is recycled and is used for the vegetable garden and to flush the toilets. The farm is powered by solar energy from several solar panels. Consequently, showers are only warm at dinnertime when the panels have been gathering energy all day. Often, electronics plugged into outlets take two or three times longer to charge. Finally, the farm has cattle which provide the milk and meat for volunteers and animals. The milk is un-pasteurized, and it’s common for volunteers to get sick at the beginning of their stay.

After we learned about N/a’ankusê’s sustainability efforts, it was time for the braai, a Namibian barbeque. We all sat around a fire, cooking miscellaneous and unidentified types of meats.

I’ve only been here for a few days, but I’m already recognizing two themes of discussion:

1.    Which baboon peed or defecated on which volunteer while it sat on their shoulders.

2.    Which type of meat we’re eating. The more experienced volunteers often settle on donkey or kudu, which always elicits a gag for me. A former vegetarian, I’m still having trouble stomaching beef, much less more traditional Namibian meats. Entering a new culture, I told myself,  means I have to eat whatever is placed in front of me, even if I have to eat with my eyes closed for the time being.

Immersion isn’t always difficult, though. Perhaps my favorite thing about Namibia is its sky. Filled with perfect clouds during the day, it’s a photographer’s dream lighting. Even better is the Namibian night sky. Remote from any cities, the sanctuary is covered with the most beautiful sky of stars every night. The wind carries the day’s clouds away by sunset (around 5:30pm), exposing more constellations than I could possibly imagine. The Milky Way has never been clearer. Orion and the dippers are rotated from their positions in the Northern Hemisphere. Best of all, without city lights to wash out the stars, shooting stars are less of a rarity

May 19, 2011

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
-Marcel Proust
Walking through South Africa’s main airport, I think I just witnessed the commercial aspect of African wildlife. Shops selling zebra pelts line the terminals. I felt the hide to check for authenticity. Unbelievable.

Finally – Namibia! This land is beautiful – rugged and isolated – but stunning. After a rough drive through mud puddles and gigantic potholes, I arrived at N/a’ankusê, Namibia’s wildlife sanctuary. There, I was overwhelmed by animals. Within 10 minutes of my arrival, I’d petted a cheetah, held a baby baboon’s hand, and saw the end of a sheep’s life. On the short tour of the farm, we saw a children’s schoolhouse which instructs the bushmen’s preschool children. Picasso, the parrot in front of the office mimics the kids as they run out of the classroom.

The volunteers live in small 3-bed cinderblock rooms named after African wildlife. I’m in the Oryx room with Heloise, a professional pianist from Southern France, and Delyth, one of the many volunteers from the UK. Surprisingly, many, if not most, of the volunteers are from Europe and Australia.  For lunch, we ate an African dietary staple: meat. The group decided it was donkey. I stifled a gag. Three hours ago, I was sitting in a lawn chair in the sun, reading a book. A duiker named Sylvie was sunbathing in the grass beside me. Two seconds ago, as I was writing this in my journal, Sylvie placed her head in my idle left hand, completely startling me but eliciting a smile. I suppose even exotics can be gentle.

This afternoon, I had volunteer induction where I learned how to act safely around exotics and heard the stories of some of N/a’ankusê’s animals. N/a’ankusê means “Heaven/God looks over us” in Bushman language. The sanctuary was started by Marlice in 2005 in an effort to harmonize humans and wildlife. She promotes the release of wildlife and “conservation through innovation”. The conservation model advocates five themes: animal sanctuary, rehabilitation, translocation, education, and research. Just after the induction, I was sitting on the floor of the foodprep room, holding the hand of Elvis, a baby baboon that finds sanctuary here at N/a’ankusê.

With the sun about to set behind the bush, I sit happy and anxiously anticipating one event in particular: border control. A 4 ½ hour horseback ride around the sanctuary’s borders, border control duty allows for the best of all worlds – riding a horse while watching the free-roaming zebras, giraffes, and other exotics graze. I signed up for the first opening. As if the day wasn’t wonderful enough, I learned my first few words in Bushman language, and I got to eat dinner beneath a sky with the most stars I’ve ever seen in my life. 

May 18, 2011

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist. That is all.
-Oscar Wilde

African tribal music greeted me as I boarded the enormous “Airbus” and prepared for the long overnight flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. African blankets and socks waited on the seats. As I was slipping on a pair of socks I brought with me, I was beginning to realize just how much of the world I’ve already been lucky enough to see – I wear alpaca wool socks from Peru and a Claddagh ring from Ireland. Above me rests my backpack from Rome filled with American books. I have a funny feeling I’ll be finding a third home in this entirely foreign culture…if I can survive this flight.

Flying at over 10,000m altitude, I found some new friends: a Vandy grad who spotted my VU sweatshirt, a Salvation Army musical missionary group, and a number of fellow 20-somethings with similar empty wallets and dreams of making an impact at their volunteer location, all of us popping Doxycycline pills to ward off malaria while discussing why we chose to fly across the Atlantic in an effort to make the world a better place. Beside me, Nadalie talks about the three months she’ll be working for basic human rights in Namibia, and I’m beginning to realize that this is it – the experience – the reason why people fly across the world to find inspiration and to feed off of others’ passions.

Hello, Africa.

Last November, I completed an application to receive a summer stipend from Vanderbilt. As one of Vanderbilt's Chancellor's Scholars, I was offered opportunity to use $5,000 to become a more cultured citizen of the world. Aware of this stipend since my enrollment at Vandy, I researched countless opportunities over the three year period leading up to the summer after junior year (the summer in which the stipend is supposed to be used). Of all of the ways to use the stipend, I knew I wanted two things: 1. volunteer work  and 2. animals. So, I began researching.

As a pre-veterinary student with nearly 2,000 hours of pre-veterinary shadowing experience, I have a decent amount of experience with dogs, cats, horses, and other common domestic and farm animals. I can clean cages, stalls, and litter boxes with the best of them. I've assisted with surgeries, performed wellness exams and lab tests, bandaged wounds, and drawn blood. These animals have never scared me. The only problem: put me in front of an exotic animal, and I freeze. I told myself, "this has to change". My search was, thus, narrowed down to volunteer experiences with exotic animals (lions, cheetahs, baboons, zebras, elephants, leopards, etc). Needless to say, that eliminated a large portion of the world.

Finally, although I sought volunteer work with exotics, I also knew I wanted to be integrated into a completely foreign society. I wanted to be working alongside the citizens of the land, whether or not I had to overcome a language or cultural barrier. After a semester abroad in Ireland, I hungered for more immersion and a more global perspective. Again, the options decreased.

One day in Barnes and Noble, I stumbled upon a book "500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference" - if you haven't read it, pick up a copy. It will be well worth it. I narrowed down the options to sites in Africa and India until I finally settled on the Enkosini Eco Experience, a non-profit based in South Africa. Though the tuition was expensive, this site advertised the direct hands-on experience with African wildlife which I craved. Furthermore, I would be striving for wildlife conservation alongside Namibian locals and Bushmen. I applied.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when I received an e-mail saying: "Greetings from sunny South Africa! We welcome you to Enkosini Eco Experience and look forward to having you join our amazing wildlife and marine conservation projects." I immediately created lists, obviously. First, my objectives:

  • deepen my desire to do volunteer work
  • clarify post-graduate goals (vet school, international service, etc)
  • promote conservation of nature and animals
  • become experienced with exotic wildlife
  • explore global veterinary medicine practices
  • make contacts with veterinarians across the globe
  • develop a deeper ecological understanding of human actions' impact on wild animals
  • immerse myself in Namibian culture

Second, my project's questions. One of the stipend requirements is to address specific questions during the four weeks of immersion.

  • How does veterinary medicine vary globally?
  • How can I apply the concepts learned to my future career?
  • How can wildlife be protected in an age in which they are considered "problem animals" that disrupt livestock and agricultural industries?
  • Currently, farmers trap and shoot troublesome wildlife. Can a balance between farmers and wildlife be reached? If so, then how can peace be attained? (watch this to gain a better idea of what I mean: http://www.ted.com/talks/john_kasaona_from_poachers_to_caretakers.htmlweeblylink_new_window)
  • How can service work be integrated into a career in the traditional workforce?
  • How can the general concepts of animal conservation be applied to domestic and livestock animal care?
  • Is it imperative that wildlife be handled with minimum contact, or can hands-on daily contact be an effective method of rehabilitation and rescue?
  • What are the similarities and differences between American and Namibian lifestyles, histories, religions, cultures, and opinions toward animals?

In two days, I set off for Windhoek, Namibia. There, I'll be transported by Naankuse staff to Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary, where I'll spend two weeks rehabilitating exotics and feeding the animals that roam on the sanctuary's land.

After two weeks, I'll go to Gobabis, Namibia, a remote desertland east of Windhoek, where I anticipate many stunning vistas and daily chores including feeding the cheetahs and baboons and surrogate parenting of abandoned baby animals.

For the next month, I'll be carrying one backpack full of life's essentials: journal, sleeping bag, daypack, work gloves, books, passport, immunization record, some clothes, sunscreen, and my camera. With very limited, if any, contact with the outside world, I'll become best friends with my brown leather journal and the DSLR camera which will (hopefully) document the sands of Namibia and the creatures which roam them. If I can access the internet during my time in Namibia, I'll be sure to update this blog. For now...
I bless the rains down in Africa.
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.