One of These Is Not Like The Other

By Sabrina Romeo

Throughout my travels, I have been lucky enough to work alongside and experience many different animal rehabilitation centers in multiple countries. After receiving an interactive tour at the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre, my idea of the “perfect” rehabilitation center shifted. Not only was the foundation of their center based on cheesy tourist misconceptions, but also there was an obvious lack of transparency in what they truly do there in regards to animal care. This thought took me back to a few summers ago when I volunteered at the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary in Bequia, an island apart of St. Vincent & the Grenadines. The differences of intent underlying each facility were visibly evident within taking the first few steps into Moholoholo and made for an inquisitive tour.

The Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary has one of the most profound backstories I have heard yet as for how an animal sanctuary/rehab started. It is a one-man funded animal sanctuary located right on the beach, off the beaten path of where tourists might go. The actual facility is a basic warehouse-type building that consists of massive ponds that are full with sea turtles, storage for food, a water pump directly from the ocean, a skylight window and that’s it. It wasn’t run-down, but it was easy to see that the main focus was just to ensure sea turtle well being with aesthetic on the end of the priority list. As a volunteer, we were given a clear explanation of exactly what he did there and were shown every inch of the facility in order to get a full understanding of just how much work he does for them. He explained that his work involves monitoring the beaches, checking nests for eggs, and protecting eggs and adult turtles from poachers. His biggest project, which is what we helped with, was with juvenile sea turtles where he collected them as young, raised the until they were strong enough to survive on their own and released them into the ocean,. This plan ensures that almost all of the thousands of eggs he has collected make it back into the ocean and reach maturity. It was beautiful to see first-hand the release of many of these turtles and take part in all forms of care he provides them.

You can see his plan for sea turtle rehabilitation involves no breeding, no profit, no exploitation of animals; just a beautiful place actually trying to right the wrongs of animal-human interactions. No charade, no attraction aspect or cheesy façade put on to fool us. He even gave us a realistic look into what these sea turtles actually go through and what he had done to them in the past. Of course, there is no way to know a animal rehabilitation center’s true intentions other than fully experience it for yourself, but unlike the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, I did not need an immersive encounter in Moholoholo to understand what their true goal was.

At Moholoholo, I cannot say the experience was quite as transformative as the Old Hegg. We enter the gates to be greeted by a tourist store, coffee shop and a gory museum with taxidermy animals in horrible conditions demonstrating human impacts. The man in charge gave a huge spiel filled with inaccurate facts, cheesy jokes and hyperbolized stories about all of the “great” work they do there to prevent anymore harm to the animals they encounter. However after two weeks straight of conditioning myself to see through all of the tourist traps, this façade was easy to see right through. They talked about how they bring cheetahs to hunting conferences to try to show them what beautiful animals they are killing, but didn’t quite touch on how they actually steal baby cheetahs from their mothers and use them as a ploy to attempt to educate people. They claim that they help facilitate the relationship between farmers and leopards in their field, but actually end up keeping the animals isolated for months after capturing them in order to try to “condition” them to not want to interact with humans anymore. How they do that? To be determined.

A few things they were open about was that they hunt local animals, like warthogs and impalas, to feed the animals in their care. They also said that they do intend on releasing a lot of the animals, but finding a home in a reserve for a reportedly aggressive leopard that roams to eat dogs in villages is not always a walk in the park. As for their permanent residents, they did disclose the fact that the animals we were seeing on the tour were in fact going to live the rest of their lives in their enclosures. Other than a few transparent facts, the single foundational practice I found was that they (claim) to appropriately feed their animals with their natural habits in mind, barring the snacks they feed them to get them to come to the fence for tourists. That is about as good as it got for direct representation of what they actually do for these animals. We were not shown any facilities or what they would refer to as “the back”, where they claim to keep their short- term residents. Overall, the routine they provided us as visitors was scripted and more focused on spewing as many facts out as possible about the species we saw rather than telling us the story of each specific animal.

What I take away from each experience is that no animal sanctuary is perfect, but there is a way to go about things that actually benefits the animals they come in contact with. As a tourist or visitor, there has to be a level of honesty that doesn’t necessarily need to be full transparency, but at least some realistic view on what the facility provides. Each center had less than ideal conditions because there will never be a way for an animal to be living in perfect conditions unless it is truly out in the wild. However, places like the Old Hegg Sanctuary do a hell of a job getting their facility to be as close to the wild as possible. The Moholoholo Animal Rehabilitation Center was a disheartening experience that really just left me feeling like there is so much education left in the world to provide animals with the best care, in and out of captivity. Although the two facilities I have compared are vastly different, they both related to animal care. If Moholoholo is the only experience tourists have regarding animal rehabilitation, they may be blinded by false information, contributing to a bigger problem.

Natalie Miller