Day 633 – 23 November, 2016
My first assignment of project work was the tortoise camp, also known as torture camp. To house desert tortoises, we were tasked with building a wading pool and enclosure in the hot desert sun. One group was busied with manually digging holes for thick posts to go around the outside of the pen. My group was designated to lay stones at the bottom of what would soon be a wading pool. To no surprise, we were given conflicting instructions on exactly how to lay the stones a couple of different times so we had to go back and fix our work so even after three hours, we had made little progress. The only upside is that I thoroughly worked my hamstrings lifting and moving heavy stones, but I was glad that some other group would be finishing the job on another day. (Interestingly enough, the work progressed so slowly that the next time tortoise camp appeared on my schedule, we were actually asked to REMOVE half of the stones because the pool had been deemed too large. #lifeofavolunteer).
Another day of project work had us sent out to carnivore camp in the bush with no shade to cut thorn bushes with a dull machete and a rusty saw. We had to build a thorn fence around one of the cheetah enclosures to shield their new neighbors (wild dogs) from view. No way around it, this sucked, but it had to be done.
Arguably the most important daily activity around the farm is food prep. With so many mouths to feed, preparing food for all the animals is a big task and much less “fun” than I imagined it to be. For the vegetarians (e.g., warthogs, tortoises, porcupines, rock dassies), they get some combination of carrots, apples, cabbage, tomatoes, or potatoes. For the carnivores (jackals, wild dogs, all the cats big and small), it’s a much bloodier affair with a horse heart or a slab of a rib cage. And the omnivores (baboons, vervets, genets, striped polecat, mongooses, meerkats) get milletpap balls, a corn based starch cooked into a paste, mixed with carrots, cabbage, apple, and especially for the baboons, all of our human leftovers stirred into a slurry of rotting veggies and meat (one day the leftovers were primarily beets turning the mixture into a bright fuchsia). All of this is massaged together before being formed into softball-size balls that can theoretically be heaved over the baboon enclosure fence. Unfortunately, not all the volunteer ball makers are adept at making balls so they often fall apart mid throw, raining down the foul contents on the unsuspecting ball throwers the following day.
The same animals around the farm that need to be fed twice daily also need their enclosures cleaned daily. It wasn’t such a horrible chore because you do get to spend quality time with all the animals even while you are cleaning up poo and leftover food from the day before. The enclosure cleaners get to feed many of the animals while they are cleaning so as to keep them occupied and out of the way. When I volunteered to clean the porcupine enclosure, our team leader had decided not to feed them that morning. She said that they hadn’t been eating during the day because it was too hot and we were wasting too much food. So I climbed in empty-handed and was promptly accosted by the tame porcupine, Taz, who wanted to know exactly where his food was. Ummm…. He didn’t have to ask twice. I wasn’t too keen on a prick from one of his beautifully violent-looking quills so I tossed in a pumpkin for my own safety. And he loved it.
Enrichment toys or rewards are also built for many of the animals in captivity. It’s important to make sure that captive animals aren’t stressed or anxious and that they are generally happy in their new homes so volunteers take turns building new ladders for the vervet monkeys or stacking tires for the baboons, or in my case, painting a new house for the meerkats. Meerkats, Abbott and Costella, loved their new house.
Night security is a task that is not nearly enough rewarded and in some cases, a bit dreaded by the volunteers. You mean you’re going to drop us off in the bush in the middle of nowhere and we’re supposed to call you if someone shows up with guns? We were watching for poachers who are not uncommon in this part of Namibia. Not watching really, but listening for cars driving slowly without the lights on or perhaps a pack of dogs on the hunt. I hate staying up all night. No, I despise it. It takes me days to recover. I value sleep way too much. But we all would have to do it at some time or another so I soldiered on in spite of my loathing for sleep deprivation. The reality of night security was not half bad. My tower was shared with Mirjiam for the night and we were just outside of the leopard enclosure. Equipped with mattresses and sleeping bags, it was cozy yet sufficient. We were about six meters off the ground, making the inevitable toilet break a real chore. We were given hot chocolate, two spotlights, and a radio and told they would pick us up in the morning. Twelve hours on duty in two hour shifts, we were treated to the roaring leopards, the grunting antelopes, and a Picasso sunrise that made it all worthwhile.