Lions and cheetahs and dogs - oh my! by Erin Rainey
I am under no illusions that the lifestyle to which I became accustomed to in Africa is not the norm. On one hand, it was liberating to find out just how little of the 'mod cons' I really needed to survive. I didn't know what Instagram was until I came home in 2013, I still have no idea who won or played in any AFL Grand Final from 2008-2012 and I'm sure I'd still have no idea who One Direction are if I'd stayed in Africa (#thirdworldbenefits). On the other hand, I did have to constantly stop and remind myself that the activities that became part of my job were beyond the scope of anything I would probably ever get the chance to do again. Although the most incredible experiences I had were a result of a lot of trust and a light sprinkle of insanity, there was a lot of hindsight in my job, like "in hindsight, I'm surprised that didn't end in disaster".
Teaching a pissed off, fully grown lioness to walk again after a lower back injury following a fight with another lion is definitely a unique experience. After complicated back surgery, the decision to start some sort of rehab was made. We had to get quite creative as the rehab had to rely on her motivation to move. At 180kg, I wasn't keen on allowing her to use me as structural support. And yes, she had teeth and claws and was in a lot of pain which made her rightfully cranky, so there was that. It took several months to gain Elsa's trust. At first, just the sound of my voice pissed her off, so we'd just sit in silence on either side of the fence. As her pained eased and the rehab started to show results, she would allow me closer. The pinnacle of trust was sitting along side her and brushing her coat. She LOVED to be brushed. At one stage, we had a visiting German Vet who specialized in alternative therapies and he suggested trialling acupuncture as well. All well and good for him because it took many months to gain a good relationship with Elsa so it wasn't possible for the vet to administer the treatment so my instruction consisted of the vet describing what I should feel for and just a "quick, hard flick of the needle." Although Elsa has since passed at the ripe age of 23, she did learn to walk again even if it was only short lived. I remember trying to coax her to get up and getting frustrated because it didn't matter what I waved under her nose, she wasn't having a bar of it. Then she started to move, pushing herself up from her front legs and then her hind legs lifted and she started staggering towards me at quite a pace. "Oh shit! Elsa can walk! Oh f*#%!" I forgot all my training, instinct kicked in and I ran. Elsa eventually lost her balance and fell to her side but she looked so confused and heartbroken that I had run from her.
We had a lot of film crews visit the foundation. And they had a lot of strange requests. I've stood in my bright yellow Tweety Pie pj's at 6am in an enclosure with nothing but a large (but nowhere near adequate) stick to defend myself and a cameraman from a pack of wild dogs that'd been riled up 'for effect.' Wild dogs have been well studied for their social and hunting habits. I'll leave those details for Sir David Attenborough to fill you in on but I will just let you know that the scientific name for the African wild dog is lycaon pictus. Lycaon is a character of Greek mythology who was punished after 'acquiring' and then offering human entrails to Zeus. It's this desire to 'acquire' that always makes me nervous around these dogs.
A large but essentially useless stick wasn't the most ridiculous form of self defense utilized to protect the welfare of high paying film crews with expensive equipment either. How about a wheelbarrow with a few rocks thrown into it? Our lions were terrified of it. "You stand there and if he come, you run at him, shaking and yelling. You got it, lady?" Frikkie casually instructed me as he let said fully grown lion out of the truck. Aaaaaand action!
The most bizarre was probably when we had a Japanese TV crew visit to film a segment for what was apparently one of the most popular 'light entertainment' shows in Japan. Now these are the people that blessed the world with Takeshi's Castle so when they came to us and said the host wanted to race a cheetah like it was the 100m final at the Olympics, all you can do is say, "Sure. Seems legit."
When I first visited Africa as a volunteer, sleep outs were a huge highlight. You'd take a a pee stained sleeping bag (although hand raised, none of these animals were house trained), lay down in the dirt and wait. If you were lucky, the furry object of your affection would saunter over and throw all of its weight onto you and that's how they (but most likely not you) sleep for the night. When there's a fully grown cheetah perched on your chest, purring loudly and nuzzled into your neck or you're being spooned by a couple of pre-adolescent lions, sleep becomes quite counter productive to the whole experience. Plus there's the pee. When you're pinned down by 50kg of cat, you just have to grin and bare it. Then it goes cold. Mint. You try to slowly slide your leg or arm out from under the cat and reposition yourself but this is of much discomfort for your furry bedfellow and you cop a paw to the face and instead just accept the fact you're now marinating in (what feels like) several litres of cat pee.