Following a breakfast of a lovely fried egg and the most welcome surprise of bright orange melon (a first!), our main Lion Manager Cara put her two closed fists out in front of another volunteer and me and asked us to choose. The other volunteer Carol picked one fist which, when opened, had nothing inside – so I got the mysterious silver ring … which meant I was the lucky volunteer who got to take medical notes during the upcoming lion operation! I was instantly giddy … being entrusted with simple things like jotting down the time the lion was darted and when he went under from the heavy drugs. Perhaps these activities sounds banal, but I’ve come to care so deeply for these cats that being able to provide any kind of assistance has become highly meaningful. All the more so when I regard how the people who work here care for these animals.
I have been struck since day one by the deep concern and passion displayed by every member of the Lion Encounter staff. Watching the lion handlers – whether it’s Kennedy or Trywell or Happy or Sunday – walk with these cats day after day is like viewing fathers caring for their children. They stroke them softly as they glide by – or reprimand them just sternly enough when they are acting “naughty” (i.e. giving a volunteer an overly interested look or moving quickly toward a guest walking nearby).
Everyone is equally caring with all facets of this operation. “Enclosure cleaning” is a big part of most days – meaning walking through areas looking for and gathering lion poo and discarded bones from previous feeds. These big, strong men walk with us volunteers, surveying the dry earth – picking up tiny shards of femurs and using thin sticks to gather the smallest remnants of poo. It might sound odd to note this – but I am always struck by the attention they bring to every task … forever ensuring these lions have the most optimal surroundings possible.
So when we all heard that Ndulu, one of the male lions, needed a minor operation, it was no surprise that fifteen of us (volunteers and staff) surrounded the two vets as they probed and removed a small growth from his side. At two and a half, Ndulu has had several small procedures like this – Cara simply calls him a “lumpy lion” … and the hope is that this latest growth is also benign. Regardless, four of the handlers gently picked Ndulu up after he fell to the earth from the effects of the strong tranquilizer dart and carried him to a shady area – some of them covering him with their bodies during the procedure to keep him as cool as possible. All of us silently watched as the vet used his scalpel and then delicate stitches to tend to this beautiful cat. It is a sight I’ll never forget.
I’ve had tears in my eyes several times since my arrival here in Africa … during my sunrise visits to the neighboring elephants as I watch a mother wrap her trunk around her tiny daughter or as I sit watching a delicate vervet monkey with just one leg valiantly hobble along after his brothers and sisters. And I have no doubt I’ll tear up when have to leave these amazing cats and the people who care for them. I’m just grateful that most of my tears are coming from joy and amazement. That what we are all doing here is making a difference. That, hopefully, the care and feeding provided by my new African friends (as well as staff and volunteers from around the world) will help sustain and improve the plight of lions in Africa. This would be a dream come true.