Thursday, August 1, 2013

A lion's eyes

Brutus and Nala - yes, I took this photo

Hello, all!  Sorry I’ve been out of touch for a while.  The past week wasn’t so great for me (or my family) and I had this awesome blog post all planned out, but never got around to it.  My family had to put my cat down last week, which was really hard for me since I am so far away.  I’ve had Lucky since I was 7 years old and he has always been MY kitty.  Even since the beginning, for some reason he chose me.  And I felt so horrible that I wasn’t able to be there with him when he passed.  I always thought he would be around to nip at my kids’ heels like he did mine when I was young (and sometimes when I was grown up, too, just for the heck of it – because he was a cat, why the heck not?).  But he lived to be a ripe old age of 16 and I’m glad he didn’t have to suffer.  It will definitely make going home hard and him not being there to say hi when I walk in the door.

Then to top the week off I got extremely sick and had to take two days off of work to recover.  I’m pretty sure it was a sudden bout of the stomach flu, which I haven’t had since I was in the 4th grade.  I have fond memories of running around the hospital with Mom (when she used to work there) throwing up in front of elevators, into the entrance of the bathroom and then missing the toilet entirely.  It’s definitely different not having your mom to take care of you when you’re feeling especially crappy so far from home.  But my family here did a fantastic job taking care of me.  Paul and Cam sent me right back to bed when I got up the morning after spending the whole night bent over the toilet.  Elzette brought me nausea medication, Roman (an awesome volunteer from Switzerland) checked up on me three times in one day, Jason brought me Sprite, and of course Karel would bend over backwards for any need I had.  He was constantly coming to see how I was, running around to get me water and soft drinks, making sure that I ate, and then sitting with me and talking with me until I couldn’t stay awake any longer.  Even Paul came and checked up on me the second day of my sickness to make sure I was eating and not throwing up anymore.  He made fantastic impressions of me bending over and throwing up, doing his best to give me a laugh and make me feel better.  My new family here definitely puts the “fun” in “dysfunctional,” and that’s a fact!

Most of you already know this, but just in case you didn’t see my big announcement over Facebook last week I wanted you all to know that the lion park has offered me a full time job.  So I am currently in the process of figuring out everything I need to do to be able to move here and live and work here.  I am terribly excited!  I never dreamed that this place would become my home and the piece of heaven I have been searching for so long, but I’m sure you’ve been able to pick up on how happy I am here.  It had always been my plan to come here for the experience, and then return to the US to find a job at a similar place with this fantastic work experience under my belt.  But the job happened here, in the place that I’ve loved since I first stepped foot on solid ground, surrounded by the lions and tigers that I have fallen in love with.  The lions and tigers that have come to know who I am, to recognize me and my voice.  They may not love me the way I love them, but I find myself so incredibly blessed to have found this place and a path laid so perfectly at my feet.

Now, back to the animals!  I have a few experiences to relay to you from the past couple of weeks, so I hope you enjoy hearing about these awesome experiences that just continue to make my cup overflow.    

As you may remember, I have been working with the animals at Chimp Haven as well as the lions.  Well there are two caracals over there that were actually hand raised by their previous owners, but due to spotty care and inconsistent feedings/enclosure cleanings on our end, we weren’t sure if they could handle human contact anymore.  (Caracals, by the way, are a smaller species of big cat – not much bigger than a regular housecat, but much more muscular and faster)  Cam asked me to go in with them to see if they could still handle being around people.  This was a big step not only for me, but for the cats themselves.  It also meant a lot to me that Cam trusts me enough to take such a big risk.  First, we separated the two cats (one gets jealous if the other gets attention, so we will never go in with both at once), then Jan (the park manager of Chimp Haven) and I went in together.  We were in and out pretty quick, because the female we were in with gave Jan a nip and we didn’t want to push our luck.  A few days later, I was told to go in on my own.  I separated the two, then took a big breath and went in.  Cindy (the nice female) met me at the door immediately.  She rubbed against my legs just like a regular cat would, purred and followed me around my work.  She lets me pet her along her back and sides (their fur is very coarse, similar to what a yellow lab’s coat would feel like) and while I pet her, she stood on my feet and my broom so I couldn’t go anywhere until she said so.  Then she let me go about my work (cleaning out the water, picking up poo, looking for bones etc.) and just sat there and watched me.  When I was ready to go, she came back for a few more pats before going on her way.  It was a truly incredible experience and I was excited about it all day.  Cam, after hearing about my success and excitement, told me that he would like me to get more involved with the chimps, more hand’s on.   He has told me that the chimps really like me and my presence and the next step is for me to spend time with them face to face (through a fence of course).  So all exciting things, gaining new experience with different types of animals. 

Then this week I had an amazing experience with a couple of the lions.  I was busy at work between fences, so basically there was just the lion fence and electric wire between the lions and me.  I was working on scraping old names off the adoption boards by Brutus and Nala, which are two young white lions.  They were laying in the way back of their enclosure while I was scraping away.  Nala spotted me and got up immediately, walking her way down along the fence to stop right in front of me.  The thing about white lions is that they are quite a bit bigger than regular lions, so Nala stands quite tall as it is.  But she is tall enough to actually arch her neck over the top wire of the electric fence.  And that was exactly what she did.  She made eye contact with me and was just standing there watching me and smelling me.  I of course greeted her and started talking to her, she was so interested in me being so close.  Her face was literally inches from me, I could have reached through and patted her head if I wanted to (but of course am not stupid).  Then she started talking back.  Just a very soft moan in the back of the throat, not a threatening growl or a roar.  It was absolutely incredible.  Then Brutus wanted to see what was so interesting and came over to say hi, too.  The cool thing about these two is that they have blue eyes, which are so different to look into than the yellow/amber pools of raw electric power of the brown lions’ eyes.  It is absolutely captivating.

An incredible shot of Asad I took the other day

I mean I honestly have the coolest job.  I get to work with incredible animals every day, and work FOR them.  I get to be their caregiver.  And I get to have these amazing experiences every single day.  Nothing compares to walking alongside a lion just an arm’s breadth away, he looks over at you as you walk together, then he starts roaring and roars until your walk together is done.  That roar reverberates through your chest, infuses you with such power and is unlike any animal/human relationship in the world.  These are wild, fully grown, intelligent LIONS.  And I get to be with them every day.  It is everything and more than I ever hoped it would be.

So, dear family and friends, I hope that you are all well and enjoying your summer.  I am definitely enjoying my winter here in South Africa (currently sunny and 90 without a cloud in sight) surrounded by the most amazing creatures that God could ever have created. 


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