The Four Legged Safe Haven

By Lindsay Cocotis

Early on in our travels through South Africa, we left our studies at Wits Rural for the day and stopped at a Non-Profit animal sanctuary in Hoedspruit. It was probably one of my favorite days on the trip, as we got to see so many gorgeous animals getting ready to be rehabilitated to get back out into the wild, or simply being taken care of if the option for release back into the wild was not possible. Our group spent about two hours total driving around their make-shift safari, and I could not take my eyes off the gorgeous animals.

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The sanctuary not only preserves certain animals that were saved from imminent death in the wild, like the newborn leopard cubs brought in after their mother was shot, but they also work to breed cheetahs specifically to then release into the wild and increase their natural population in South Africa. I felt very comforted and encouraged that places are still working to preserve these beautiful and rare species. 

However, not all of my group feel the same way about the ideals surrounding the intentions and execution of the sanctuary. Many of my peers discussed that they thought the sanctuary wasn’t doing what was right for the animals and that they shouldn’t be keeping them in captivity. They also added that it was suspicious that our guide knew a lot about the animals themselves but not a lot about Kruger National Park or mentioned any of the complexities surrounding the politics of it all and deeper issues of poaching. Maybe I am just naïve or more trusting of these types of organizations, but I did not feel the same way on multiple of these topics.

I agree with my group that our guide was definitely not seeing the whole picture and suggested that poachers are simply bad people who don’t see a species’ worth. However, most cases for poachers surround the reality that poachers are desperate for money to feed their families and don’t have many other choices than to be coursed into illegal hunting and therefore they usually don’t actually want to kill these creatures. However, I don’t think that our guides’ misrepresentation really involved the sanctuary itself and more had to do with the fact that he is trained on the knowledge and information regarding the animals themselves and has not been formally trained in the socio-political aspects of these endangered species.

Additionally, our group discussed the fact that breeding animals often entails a very unhealthy practice. However, I felt our guide really explained the reality that not only are cheetahs one of the easiest species to get rehabilitated for the wild while having been in captivity but that the sanctuary also works extremely hard to not inner-breed and instead mix the genes of their captive cheetahs with other cheetah families in outside places. With the wild cheetah population decreasing exponentially, due in part to their large vulnerability to predators, the work put into increasing these numbers even little by little is vital for the species’ survival. This work for the cheetah population does not really benefit the sanctuary in the end, which was something a lot of my group was skeptical of.

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Another aspect of the tour that made me comfortable with the fact that these animals reside here is the fact that each of them had a reason for being brought there. For example, the leopards that were there were rescued after their mother was shot by a farmer very recently after they were born. These leopard cubs couldn’t have survived on their own in the wild due to not being able to hunt yet and therefore their only chance of survival was in captivity, which is sad but also realistic. Additionally, the sanctuary had two male lions residing there as well that happened to be the “1%” while their mother gave birth to them wild in captivity. The reality with this situation is that the mother was injured years ago and therefore would not survive in the wild and while being taken to the sanctuary and placed on birth control, due it’s only 99% accuracy and the luck of chance, these two boys were born. Due to both these species not being able to be released back into the wild after spending time or even just being born in captivity, the veterinarians were left with no choice.

Another point to my argument is that it costs an enormous amount of money per animal that they keep in the sanctuary and it does not cost barely anything for admission into the place. The definition of being a non-profit is that your goal is not to make money but instead to better the ideals that your organization stands for, which is exactly what they stated they do. I could not imagine, even with all their donations, that it is economically beneficial to them to keep each of these animals here and that they would make a lot more money simply selling one of their three Rhinos.

With all the issues surrounding zoos and such, it is still important in the long run to have places were animals can be seen by the public. Our society needs to be able to see these animals themselves in order to relate their existence to something physical of which they can actually care about and encourage their preservation. Seeing pictures of them on the internet is often not enough and most people cannot afford to go on an expensive safari were the trackers can guarantee you will see every animal you want to. There needs to be some places for the average person to be able to see these animals and what better way to do this than for them to be rescued animals where instead of letting them stay in the wild and wait for their imminent death, they can instead be cared for and live a long and healthy life while also letting people experience their beauty up close and have their lives worth something so much more.

In the end, I don’t think the sanctuary was as ill-intentioned as a lot of my peers were preaching. Though it may have some problems, I really do see them as doing their best and that they really do care for each of the species preservation as a whole and the ecosystems harmony. Nothing is perfect but with a little hope and a lot of effort, hopefully some things can get pretty close to that.

Natalie Miller