Sometimes I can’t believe the types of opportunities life throws at me.
When I was younger I was like most kids- overly excited about the zoo and the idea of getting to see animals that I normally would never get to see. I was also different from most kids in that I didn’t get to experience the zoo all that often – my Dad was really against it. I think I got to sneak to the zoo once or twice on school field trips, but I don’t have any vivid memories of this. I didn’t understand why he never wanted to go? I wanted to go to the zoo like everybody else. It wasn’t until I grew up that I started to really understand all these things about my dad that I used to think were odd. Animals are not meant to be kept in captivity for human entertainment purposes. The more I grew up the more I understood the weight of this, and struggled with it as well. Where do we find a balance between satisfying our desire to observe and learn about animals and not hold them as captive prisoners?
Fast forward several years and now I live and work in Africa. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Southern Africa is Kruger National Park- several thousand acres of land that has been fenced off to protect the wild life contained therein and patrolled by park rangers to scare off poachers. Although parks like Kruger exist, poachers still find their way in and several species of animals have either been killed off or are facing extinction. In Kruger, visitors can only drive through the park (staying inside their cars the entire time of course), but through your windows you’re lucky if you can spot the Big 5- lions, leopard, elephants, rhinos and buffalo. This is an exhilarating experience, creeping at a slow 5MPH speed hoping to see some animal activity. I didn’t spot all of the Big 5 when I drove through, but we did manage to see rhinos, hippos, impala, spring bock, monkeys, baboons, giraffes, buffalo, wildebeests, zebras and a ton of elephants. The elephants, being enormous and dominating, didn’t seem scared of us and they would roam within a couple feet of the cars, but the rest of the animals would scurry away the moment they noticed humans nearby. While it was amazing to see these animals going about their daily business and living in their natural habitats, it still felt very distant- quite literally it was distant, we’re trapped in a car peering through our windows trying to get a good look. While this is a much less manipulative way of seeing animals than the zoo, I still hadn’t quite fulfilled my need for animal interaction (I’m a kinetic learner, I need direct contact, what can I say). But all this was about to change…
Relatively near my village I found an animal sanctuary. This space of land is reserved for rescue animals brought in for sanctuary, rehabilitation, and most of them stay permanently due to the realities of poaching and extinction. Rescues brought in range from snakes and birds to lions and tigers. One cool thing about this place is that it functions predominantly through the help of volunteers, so naturally I find myself frequenting this place and they’ve trained me on how to properly feed and interact with the animals. As I’m writing this I’m realizing I don’t have many photos, which is probably a good thing that I’m not snapping pictures when I should be worrying about asserting dominance with the lions, so I’ll try my best to describe the animals I spend time with. ..
I don’t spend a lot of time with the snakes because they freak me out. The monkeys are adorable but pretty bipolar. Half the time they leap towards me with excited intrigue- rather, they’re more excited about my jewelry than anything else. They love shiny things and constantly try to snatch off any jewelry I’m wearing. One of them actually broke a ring off of my finger one time- he was THAT serious about shiny things. And when they’re not interested in being jewel thieves, they don’t seem interested in interacting with me very much.
Timon is the resident meerkat and she is a snuggle bunny! She leans into my chest where it’s warm and loves being scratched on the head. She also makes adorable little gerbil noises. ❤ swoon!
Pumba is also a girl and honestly warthogs are probably the ugliest animal I’ve ever seen. (But I always tell her she’s pretty because who doesn’t need a good compliment once in a while?!) Have you ever watched a pig or hog take a mud bath? She loves when I carve out a hole in the dirt a few inches deep and fill it with water, then she trots over to it and rolls around until she’s absolutely caked in mud. It’s the grossest thing! Warthogs are funny little creatures. And quite skittish too.
The cheetahs are the most loving animals in the whole place. They’re a couple named Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is a little more friendly, but Romeo stays close by and demands a solid chin scratching every now and then. And my god, the purring! They purr so loudly it’s like someone’s beating a drum. My cat allergies go insane around them so I’m always sure I properly wash up after visiting the love cats.
Speaking of big cats, the sanctuary cares for over a dozen rescue lions and tigers, but there are 2 that I totally adore. White tigers are endangered, they no longer exist in the wild sadly due to poaching so they can only live and breed now in captivity. White lions also face this same endangerment. Here we have a few of these rare white lions and tigers and we’re trying to help continue the species but it’s difficult. Saber is a white tiger and loves to be loved, he’s the first tiger I’ve ever interacted with and bottle fed. Yes, I literally take a baby bottle full of milk and bottle feed a grown ass tiger. He’s a big baby. He also loves to swim! Well, this is normal actually. Tigers in the wild naturally climb into any body of water they see fit to cool themselves off in from the African heat. There’s a pool nearby that he frequents, and one day I’ll get trained on how to handle a tiger in water then I’ll drum up the courage to swim with him. Until then, I’ll stick to the bottle feedings.
One of my other faves is a lion named Solo. He’s about a year old so he’s massive in size but still acts like a cub. He asserts his strength and demands that I play with him all the time. He’s also still bottle feeding and this is probably the only time he’s not interested in pawing at me. When he stands on his hind legs he’s tall enough to use my head as an arm rest. WHAT. Most of the animal trainers get some battle scars from play time with Solo. I have yet to experience the wrath of those claws and I hope I never do.
There’s a lot of lion cubs that pass through. Sometimes it’ll just be 1 single rescue, other times a litter of 4 or 5 cubs. We’ll care for and rehabilitate them for as long as we can support them, but the reality is that is it bloody expensive and difficult to house and feed several grown lions at once so the cubs will most likely they’ll be given to another sanctuary or facility that can afford to give them the care they need. But the fun part is- there’s always lion cubs around to play with! They’re pretty lazy and sleep a lot of the time (like most baby animals), and eat constantly, but play time is always fun. They’re just like puppies or kittens, small, furry, they fit in your lap and nibble anything and everything. Cubs haven’t learned how to control and retract their claws yet, so they’re little lion claws are constantly snagging on things. Don’t have any dangly clothing or jewelry around the cubs- they’ll rip it right off! There’s no greater feeling of contentment then having a lion cub purring in your lap as you’re rubbing its belly and it’s falling asleep. Pure bliss.
Oh, and I have to mention Baloo, our black bear! He’s basically with us permanently because where are we supposed to put a black bear?! He takes play time to a whole new level. He’s half my size but twice my strength. And he’s not even full grown yet. Bears naturally spend like 2/3 of their lives standing on their hind legs as they use their front legs like ‘arms’ to scavenge trees for food. But if you’re name is Baloo then you use your ‘arms’ to wrestle Koko everytime she’s around. He runs on his hind legs, and climbs trees and would probably climb my legs if I didn’t stop him. He seriously refuses to do anything but play or eat. It’s the cutest thing. And he’s the messiest eater I’ve ever seen. Probably half of his milk bottle ends up spraying out the sides of his mouth and onto me or dribbling down his face and all over his chest. He tries to hold the bottle with his arms, he’s basically a bear baby.
When I stay there I sleep in a tent in the camp- which is thankfully fenced and separated from where the animals are. But as I lay in my tent at night I can hear the roars of the lions. This is an insane experience- sleeping through the sounds of lions.
There’s some lions and tigers only certain experienced trainers interact with, mostly because ones that are rescued when they’re older aren’t used to humans and they can be aggressive. While baby rescues end up being raised by humans so as long as I exude an energy of love and calmness they’ll be comfortable with me and want to play.
By volunteering here and I finally feel like I’m getting the animal experience I’ve always desired. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) may seem scary and intimidating but the truth is, they’re gentle giants and they just want love like the rest of us. Through animal sanctuaries that strive to save these beautiful creatures from poaching, I get to have direct interaction with them. These animals are loving and playful. Only in animal sanctuaries would I get this kind of wholesome experience that places like Kruger and the zoo lack.
All around the world animal conservationists are struggling to rescue endangered species and stomp out poaching. If you’re looking to support this conservation work, trying looking up animal rescue and sanctuary facilities in your area that you can volunteer at. Go play with some animals! It seriously is life-changing.
Pheonix, Arizona recently became added to the list of about 60 U.S. cities that have a desire to put an end to puppy an kitten mills by passing a law that requires all pet stores to only offer rescue animals for adoption!
Here’s a list of a few of the larger global reputable animal sanctuaries!