Archive for the ‘Animal Welfare’ Category

Zoo Veterinarian Blogs from Uganda Part 2

by | February 20th, 2015

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Andrea Goodnight, and volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Sharon Gottfried, are working with the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) in Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), Uganda this February. They will be assisting UCP veterinarian, Dr. Ludwig Siefert, in his daily conservation activities, while also conducting a study to evaluate stress hormone levels in African lions in the park.

February 17 (afternoon)

Back to a different reality…

Our next stop is one of the enclaves (villages) within the park. When QENP was created in 1952, multiple villages existed. Instead of relocating the residents, the government allowed these enclaves to remain, and traditional fishing or pastoral cattle herding continues today. These enclaves contain 30,000 people. Add the 70,000 in villages bordering the park, and human-wildlife conflict is inevitable.

Corral-lights_webDr. Siefert explains that the people in this enclave have made some positive changes to mitigate the problems caused by predators. We visit with Eliphaz, a community leader who has lost chickens and cattle to a leopard. Working with UCP, Eliphaz has constructed a better corral for the cattle, complete with solar powered flashing lights to detract predators. We deliver more lights for him and others in the community. He thanks us graciously, especially mentioning Oakland Zoo and its support for UCP’s community projects.

Hen-house_webUnfortunately, Dr. Siefert points out the henhouse behind Eliphaz’s house, shaking his head. The door is falling off the hinges, and there are holes in the walls. “Why hasn’t he fixed it? This is not the poorest village…he can afford to make those changes.” Apparently work ethic is a little different in the enclaves than in some other parts of the world. Yet another challenge to overcome…

We make plans to meet again with Eliphaz and representatives of the community to discuss conflict mitigation, but our next appointment awaits, and Dr. Siefert insists on promptness.

The UWA headquarters is located outside of QENP. It is a simple concrete structure with a main reception area and several offices. We are greeted warmly and sit down to wait for the Conservation Area Manager…and we wait. There is a slight breeze through the open window, and a little flycatcher bird sits on the ledge, apparently interested in joining the conservation negotiations. We keep waiting. Multiple office workers and wardens come in and out of the office…and we wait. An hour later, the Area Manager appears, ushering us into his office, not in any apparent hurry. There is a saying here that comes to mind. TIA – “This is Africa!”

Village-visit_webAttending the meeting are the Conservation Area Manager, the UWA veterinarian, and a UWA tourism representative. For the next 30 minutes, Dr. Siefert presents his ideas for improved human-wildlife coexistence in QENP, then the Area Manager reviews them, slowly, point-by-point. A discussion ensues, with general agreement that these are good ideas and should be implemented; however, written proposals are needed and must then be reviewed. We leave the meeting feeling neutral and unsatisfied – was this simply politics or will changes really occur? Tomorrow is the next step…proposals to write…

 

 

Wed/Thurs Feb 18/19

Down time and prep time…

Traditional-hut_webWednesday morning, James takes a tourist group on a lion tracking adventure. Alas, there are not enough seats in the vehicle, so we are left behind. We spend a relaxing day at the Mywea Lodge, discussing and writing about the events of the last several days.

In the evening, we accompany James on another venture to try to find a male lion. As we drive through a different section of the park, James warns, “take care, watch yourself!” to avoid the thorny bushes overtaking the road. He explains that these plants are extremely invasive, offer minimal food for prey, and prevent people from seeing the animals. This situation is yet another example of how the park’s natural ecosystem is collapsing. There is no lion sighting this evening and we head back to our room as a thunderstorm rolls in.

Sample-processing_webThursday dawns brighter as the overnight rain has largely cleared the air. For the first time since arriving, we see the towering Rwenzori mountain range north of the park. After breakfast, we enter Dr. Siefert’s lab to experiment with our sample preparation technique. We will be testing the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in fecal samples from lions. Unfortunately, this hormone degrades very quickly, so we must preserve the feces in order to bring the samples to the laboratory in the US.

Our hope is to determine the relative stress levels of the lions in QENP, especially as related to human activity. With this information, Dr. Siefert and the UWA may be able to make better management recommendations. A few hours later, we settle on our preliminary fecal preservation method, which includes a spaetzle press “borrowed” from Dr. Siefert’s kitchen! (Funnily enough, he doesn’t want it back!)

Crafts_webWe take a break from our scientific endeavors this afternoon to visit a local women’s group located in the shadow of the Rwenzori chain. The women welcome us warmly and show us their traditional huts. We learn how make and store cheese, and how the rennet (leftovers from cheese making) is used as a skin lotion. Supported by UCP, the women also make and sell crafts, many of which we purchase!

The day draws to a close with errands in the nearest large town, Kasese. There is constant motion in town – people walking, on bicycles, or on motorcycles – women carrying brightly colored market bags and children with their school books. It is hot and dusty today, just as I have always imagined Africa. We marvel at the sights, and fall into bed in the evening exhausted yet exhilarated.

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Goodnight travels to Uganda to help lions!

by | February 20th, 2015

IMG_6012Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Andrea Goodnight, and volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Sharon Gottfried, are working with the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda this February. They will be assisting UCP veterinarian, Dr. Ludwig Siefert, in his daily conservation activities, while also conducting a study to evaluate stress hormone levels in African lions in the park.

 Days 1-2

 Getting There…

Dubai

Dubai

We left SFO on Thursday Feb 12 at 4pm, to arrive 15 hours later in Dubai on Friday Feb 13 at 7pm. The astute among you may wonder about my math…nope, it’s not wrong – we’re just time traveling! During the long layover we learned some history while viewing the highlights of Dubai: the Al-Faruk mosque, Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world at 1820 feet), lavish hotels (rooms from $500 – $35,000 per night), and finally stopped to dip our fingers in the Arabian Sea at Jumeirah Beach! Dubai is a city of lights – strings of lights engulf entire buildings, drip from palm trees, and dance on top of towers, leaving us to wonder if Dubai’s residents ever experience stars twinkling in the night sky…and how different Uganda’s nights are likely to be…

Days 3-4

Still Getting There…

Back to the enormous, ultramodern Dubai International Airport for the second leg of the journey. Six hours later we arrive in a different world, complete with only one small paved airstrip, a simple airport terminal, and friendly Ugandan faces and voices. “You are most welcome!” we hear as we make our way through immigration. It is too late in the afternoon to drive to QENP, so we stay in Entebbe, a modern African city, for the night. Our guesthouse is comfortable and

Dr Gottfried with a village child.

Dr Gottfried with a village child.

welcoming, the back garden a mecca for multitudes of songbirds, geckos, and mosquitos!

Village children who climbed into the driver's seat of our van and the chaos that ensued as they explored the van!

Village children who climbed into the driver’s seat of our van and the chaos that ensued as they explored the van!

Day 4 begins before sunrise, as we meet our driver, Peter, to begin the 8-hour journey through the Ugandan countryside to QENP. Today is Sunday, and people are headed to church services, walking along the side of the road, the women wearing their finest dresses – the brightly colored fabrics are a sharp contrast to the general tan haze that hangs in the air. We pass villages with names such as Mbarara, Bushenyi, and Ruburizi, each consisting of dusty red dirt streets, homes, shops, and lots of people on motorbikes. I feel a long way from home…

Typical Ugandan village

Typical Ugandan village

We make a final stop in a village just outside the park gates where Dr. Siefert will meet us. As if they have specialized radar detection, the village children appear out of nowhere, tapping at the windows, holding our hands, and asking for sweets. They are infatuated with our pale skin, earrings, Dr. Gottfried’s tattoos, and my toenail polish! Lucky for us, Dr. Siefert soon arrives, the driver shoos the children away, and we are ready for a conservation adventure.

 

(Still) Day 4

Work begins…

After a quick check-in to our simple hostel accommodations, we sit down with Dr. Seifert and his research assistant, James, for a briefing about the current situation in the park: these are the real African conservation dilemmas.

QENP is located in the southwestern corner of Uganda, covering an area of approximately 764 square miles of the Rift Valley Floor, including Lakes George and Edward. Most of the parkland is grassland savannah, with stunning views of the Virunga and Rwenzori mountains (on clear days). Featuring one of the highest biodiversity ratings of the world’s national parks, QENP is home to approximately 100 mammal species and over 500 bird species. Sounds like paradise, right?Ele dust bathMongoose in lodge

Unfortunately, this biodiversity is in severe distress. There is currently a drought in the park, huge sections of the park are burned, the lakes are overfished, and many of the apex predators have been poisoned by people in the surrounding villages.

We head out to track one specific lioness that needs her radio collar replaced. The changes in the park since I first saw it almost 4 years ago are shocking. The land is black underneath dry remains of grasses, with minimal new vegetation. A heavy gray haze hangs in the air – smoke from nearby fires. A few Uganda kob and gazelle stand amidst the charred area, quickly darting away when our research vehicle nears. Dr. Siefert remarks, “They never used to run away like that. They are more worried about us since the fires.”

We continue through the park, James, Dr. Gottfried and I on the top of the truck, antenna in hand, hoping to hear the lionesses’ signal. Ultimately this evening, we don’t find her, but we do see a few promising signs that not all is lost. A group of at least 20 elephants stops our progress down one section of road! Apparently, the elephant population has not been as affected as others by the changes in the park.

This first evening is a sobering reminder of why we are here. There is much work to be accomplished: change human actions, reverse the damage, and repopulate the park. As we debrief after tracking, Dr. Siefert reveals that these changes may be almost impossible to make in time to prevent complete extinction of many of the parks’ animals; however, he will continue the mission tomorrow – as long as tomorrows keep coming.

Tuesday Feb 17 (morning)

It’s another tomorrow…

Unfortunately, there’s very bad news this morning. A young male lion crossed the border from Tanzania yesterday afternoon and entered a village. The residents surrounded the lion and pelted it with stones. The lion retaliated and a villager was killed. At that point, the wildlife ranger had no choice but to euthanize the lion. Dr. Siefert had been called, but we simply could not get to the village in time to intervene and relocate the lion.Papa

In a somber mood, Dr. Siefert, James, Dr. Gottfried and I must take some tourists on a morning game drive to track lions. We drive deep into the northeastern corner of the park. On the way, our mood lifts a little…I spot a creature with a distinctive loping gait far across the savannah. It’s a hyena, returning to its daytime resting spot after a night of hunting! Hyenas are so critically endangered in QENP that Dr. Siefert knows of only 1 female and 2 males left. Maybe this sighting is a good omen?

For the next several hours, we partially forget the conservation challenges and enjoy the natural beauty of the parklands and the animals. We visit 3 groups of lions. Sharon’s group usually consists of 10 animals, both females and cubs. Today we see 3 females, lounging in the grass. The Uganda kob call out alarms while we observe, clearly nervous about the lion presence. The second group contains the three large males: Papa, Omukama, and Rudi. While Rudi keeps out of sight in the brush, the others lay in the sun, bellies bulging from the kill they must have made overnight. Finally, we move into a wetland area and find another group of 8 females and cubs, hiding from the midday sun in the brush, waiting to ambush any stray kob that ventures too close. Lions on the savannah can be difficult to see: Dr. Seifert points out another cub in the tree that even James missed while radiotracking!

Omukama

Omukama

It’s midday and the sun is beating down, heating up the savannah. We must leave this amazing place for a while, but today there is more positive energy. Despite all the challenges, some animals are thriving. Now we must press on to our next engagement…convincing the locals that this mission is worthwhile.

Next installment: village visit and meeting with the Uganda Wildlife Authority!

 

 

 

Oakland Zoo ZooKeepers to Madagascar!

by | February 18th, 2015

Madagascar

Madagascar.

When you see that word, what do you think? I will guess most of you will say “that DreamWorks cartoon!” King Julian!” or “I like to move it, move it!”

As a keeper at Oakland Zoo, I care for two species of lemur; Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and Sclater’s lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons) and I think of the word “Madagascar” a little different than most. I immediately think of lemurs as well as orchids, chameleons, rainforests, fossa and many, many other unique and endangered species.1

There’s no place in the world like Madagascar. Formed over 88 million years ago, it is the world’s 4th largest island and 90% of its animals are found nowhere else on the planet! Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be able to visit such an amazing destination, but, indeed I did!

In November of 2014 my supervisor Margaret Rousser and I were invited by the director and founder of Centre ValBio, Dr. Patricia Wright, to visit her research center in Ranomafana National Park and assist in the capture and data collection of the park’s Milne-Edward sifaka’s (Propithecus edwardsi).

After a 27 hour flight from San Francisco and a 10 hour drive from Antananarivo, the country’s capitol, we finally reached the rainforest and Centre ValBio. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Mysterious. Downright awesome. These are the words that went through my mind as we arrived.

After resting up overnight after our long flight and equally exhaustive drive we were ready to see the park.

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Along the length of the eastern Madagascan coast runs a narrow and steep escarpment containing much of the island’s remaining tropical lowland forest. Ranomafana National Park is located on this escarpment. The terrain is extremely hilly and trekking through the forest is challenging as the majority of the time you are ascending or descending these hills. My favorite areas were the ridge trails. Once you reach the ridges, you get a break from the extreme climbing and get to enjoy the views on either side of the hills.

On our first visit into Ranomafana Park with Dr. Wright, Margaret and I were able to see 5 different species of lemurs! To say we were lucky is not enough. Dr. Wright has been studying lemurs in this location for 30 years and was pleased and surprised at seeing so many lemur species on a single visit. We capped our perfect lemur day with an interesting evening, observing students collect data on the world’s smallest primate, a mouse lemur.3

After a few days waiting for the government to finally approve the permits required to capture the Milne-Edwards sifaka’s, we were on our way back into the forest! After a grueling 5 hour hike to one of the park’s most remote sites we arrived to find the lemurs, ready for their exams and new collars. The trackers, who spend much of their time in the forest observing the whereabouts of the different lemur groups and know the individuals intimately, had anesthetized a group of three adults, one male, two females and two infants!

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Margaret and I jumped into our roles immediately! Margaret led a group of graduate students, instructing them on obtaining body measurements along with hair, ectoparasite and fecal collection. I helped the vet with physical exams, blood collection and removal and replacement of new ID collars. This was a most amazing experience. The adult lemurs are given anesthesia to avoid undo stress as they are wild animals unused to being handled by humans. This ensures their safety as well as the humans’ handling them. The infant lemurs are not anesthetized and stay on their moms until the physical exam is performed. The babies are then held by a human until their mother is done with her exam and they are quickly returned to her. It may seem this is too stressful for the animal but the babies seem to feel secure as long as they have an adult primate to cling too. They contentedly sat in our arms, looking at all the things happening around them with no struggling our stressful vocalizations.

We stayed that night camping in the rainforest, which was an adventure in itself, with the lovely pit toilet and cute little leeches!  The next morning we awoke to the sounds of black and white ruffed lemur groups vocalizing around us. The Milne-Edwards sifakas were checked by the vet to ensure they all had recovered fully from the previous day and then the trackers returned them to the same location they had been captured so the lemurs could resume their normal daily life.

The rest of us returned to Centre ValBio’s laboratory where we began processing samples taken from the animals.

The second group we helped with a few days later was just as exciting but luckily only a 30 minute hike to the site instead of 5 hours! We had one adult male, two adult females and one infant. Again, all went well, and once recovered, the animals were returned to their original location.

Once done with our Ranomafana animal captures Margaret and I had a few days to see a little more of Madagascar when we traveled 4 hours by car to visit a village which ran their own lemur sanctuary. This was very exciting for us because at this location they only had one species- ring tailed lemurs!

Anja Community Reserve covers about 75 acres and nearly 300 RT lemurs call it home. It is completely operated by the villagers, who protect the forest, serve as guides and perform administrative tasks.

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

We arrived at dusk and could hear the lemurs calling to each other in the forest below our hotel, I got goose bumps as I immediately recognized the calls as they are the same vocalization I hear from my lemurs at Oakland Zoo! Early the next morning Margaret and I along with a guide and a tracker, headed into the reserve. I was soon choked up with joy as we encountered our first wild lemur group! These lemurs have all been desensitized to the proximity of humans and Margaret and I were able to get quite close. It was amazing to sit in the forest as 100s of lemurs meandered, scampered, jumped, vocalized and foraged all around us. Our guides had a vast knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna as this was their own backyard. They could spot a tiny chameleon who looked like a little twig to me, or another one that was the same green as the leaf he was sitting on!

November was the perfect time to visit Madagascar as there were many babies to be seen. So many cute little guys were riding their moms, daring to be brave and jumping to the ground only to be surprised by a blowing leaf and running back to the safety of momma’s back! It was interesting to see the large troupes of lemurs of all different ages combing the forest together. The older animals were much more interested in foraging for tasty fruit while the youngsters played tag through the trees!

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Overall, the trip to Madagascar was an unforgettable journey. Seeing the country, its animals and people was a life changing event. I can’t wait to return to the beautiful Island and continue to see more of the amazing and unique things it has to offer!

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper: Coming Back Home

by | February 11th, 2015

Just when I’ve started to feel I’ve found my place here at Lola ya Bonobo, it is already time to depart. I truly miss my pets and the animals I care for at Oakland Zoo, but I really wish I had a little more time here. Particularly since I don’t really speak any French, it was hard to get to know people initially. However, after a week or two, we all became comfortable enough to fill in language barriers with hand gestures. Plus, I’ve picked up a little more French during my stay. It’s more than enough to build friendships. I’ve also become more comfortable to jump in and offer help when I can.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

On grounds, there is a never-ending supply of bamboo, I can’t believe how big it can get! The diameter of the bigger stalks is too large for me to reach both of my hands around and have them touch. In the past at Oakland Zoo, I’ve cut bamboo and drilled holes into it to hide peanut butter and jam for the sun bears and siamangs. The cost of these food items is very expensive in DRC, it is not realistic for me to suggest that. However, the bonobos do receive a daily supply of peanuts. I suggested making peanut puzzle feeders with sections of bamboo. Raphael (veterinarian) and Emile (keeper) help me to do this.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

While the sanctuary does have a drill on hand, there is no saw. Emile takes a machete to cut the bamboo sections. I want to offer to do it, so Emile can get back to his work and not have to baby-sit me. Raphael asks him in French if I can do the chopping. Emile’s translated reply is, “Sure, if you want to cut yourself, no problem.” He’s teasing…a little bit. I think. It’s also definitely a cultural issue, women don’t use tools like machetes here. I want to protest, but I am pretty accident-prone anyways. I’m just going to let this one go.

When we have seven bamboo sections of different sizes, Emile leaves and says it is okay for me to drill the holes. There are several other keepers in the area and I am uncomfortably aware they are all watching me drill, which isn’t easy. The dull bit isn’t big enough to make a good size hole for the peanuts, so I have to drill several times for one hole on the curved surface of the bamboo. Sometimes the power button on this ancient device gets stuck and the drill keeps going at full blast, all on its own. When I finish and Raphael and I are inspecting the holes, Nsimba, one of the women who prepares the bonobo diets here, says, “Strong!” and points to me, flexing her arms. I thank her and try to be cool about it, but I’m secretly giddy, hoping I’ve inspired female empowerment. If only a little bit.

Untitled3Raphael and I take the bamboo to the juvenile nursery, after filling them with a lot of peanuts. The reaction varies quite a bit. Some of the juveniles immediately use the bamboo to display or as a ladder to climb. A few immediately find something better to do, but four are all about them. It’s pretty amusing to watch when they accidentally get several peanuts to fall out, as you can see them realize what it’s all about. Singi spends a good 25 minutes with his (an eternity for a juvenile bonobo mind). This young male is referred to by the Mamas as being “cray cray,” some American slang they’ve picked up. Before the adult female, Kisantu (mentioned in an earlier blog), was put into the juvenile enclosure to recover from illness, it was safe to go in with the juveniles. Well, sort of. These bonobos are around 4-6 years old and are not only getting really strong, but also *realizing* how strong they are. They’re relentless and Singi is the roughest. I only went into the juvenile enclosure once before Kisantu was moved there- Singi gave me quite the run for my money. Anyone who thinks it is a good idea to have an ape as a pet should have to spend one hour with Singi. They’d opt for a goldfish pretty quickly.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Now, to see Singi thoughtfully turning over the bamboo, poking at the hole where he knows the peanuts could come out, he is a different animal. After the first minute or so, in proper bonobo fashion, he has sex with it. After that, his entire focus is on turning it over and over, at different angles, to get the peanuts.

My last full day at the sanctuary is a Sunday, which I’m happy about because it is bread and butter day. During a time when the sanctuary was getting charged astronomical prices for produce (see previous blog post that talks about the seed distribution program), they needed a way to make sure the bonobos were getting enough calories. The bonobos were supplemented with bread rolls and butter. By butter, I mean a very soft margarine that comes in bulk tubs and is produced in Kinshasa. The bonobos *love* it. Now that the sanctuary is getting a better deal on produce, they still offer the bread and butter one time a week as a special treat. Similar techniques are used in zoos as well. For example, at Oakland Zoo the sun bears get a treat mix sprinkled throughout their exhibit that contains peanuts, dried fruit, plain popcorn and cereal. This encourages foraging behavior and makes it worthwhile for the bears to put forth the effort to seek it. Also, who doesn’t like getting “fun food” every once in a while?

Bread and butter day!

Bread and butter day!

11

A Group 1 bonobo hits the jackpot on the bread treat.

Here at the sanctuary, the bonobos definitely go a little nuts on bread and butter day. When the media talks about bonobos (which is pretty rare), they love to refer to them as the “Make love, not war ape.” This is very much an oversimplification based on bonobos using sex to diffuse social tensions, but no one would use that phrase on bread and butter day. While there still are a few bonobos having sex and no serious violent aggression breaks out, it is mostly every bonobo for his or herself. The most dominant bonobos can be seen carrying handfuls of the torn-up rolls. The keepers try their best to make sure there is enough for everyone and spread it out as far as they are able, but there is still a lot of displaying and loud vocalizations. The human equivalent would be someone sprinkling a large amount of money over a busy city street.

I can’t put into words how grateful I am for my short time here. The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of political issues, cultural tensions and frequent violent outbursts in the country to protest the government. The U.S. government travel warnings’ website continues to advise Americans not to come here. You also have to worry about illness, like the multiple strains of malaria found here. One form, cerebral malaria, attacks the brain and kills you in days if not caught and treated properly. Even smaller things, like sitting on the porch at evening to eat dinner means you have to be okay with bugs the length of your hand possibly flying blindly right at you and bouncing off your head. However, I feel I’ve only become a better person for being exposed to a style of living very different from the country I grew-up in. Also, at least for me, the benefits of being here far outweigh the costs or risks.

Untitled11The conservation status of the bonobo is bleak. Their remaining range is only one section of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated there are 5,000 left, but no one can say for sure as it is too dangerous to complete a wildlife census in parts of their range. While hunting or keeping a bonobo comes with a severe punishment (10 years in prison and/or an $8,500 fine), it’s a big country with a lot of other issues going on to deal with. Bonobos continue to be actively hunted and slaughtered for meat, witchcraft practices and to capture young infants to sell on the black market. Being the only sanctuary available for orphaned bonobos to go to, Lola ya Bonobo is truly a place worthy of recognition and support. If you would like to learn more about the sanctuary or find out how you can help, please visit: www.friendsofbonobos.org.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 7

by | February 2nd, 2015

The past two days have been national holidays and so the staff at the sanctuary is at a minimum. For the initial week, the sanctuary had many people: Board members from the U.S. based Friends of Bonobos, a Belgian woman working with homeless children and of course Fanny, Raphael and Claudine. After the bonobos go to sleep, there has been so much to do in the evenings, quite the party. Now it is just Gaspard and I and the sanctuary seems very quiet. We make plans to do a couple day trips outside the sanctuary, as we’ve pretty much just been in our own little world here.

Lac de Ma Valle

Lac de Ma Valle

Claudine had suggested we go see the Lac De Ma Ville, a nearby lake with a walking path around it and a small restaurant. Papa Jean, who is in charge of the kitchen, is going into the nearby village to shop at the market, we tag along with him so he can show us the way.

I’m really excited and a little nervous. Everything I read about the DRC before coming here was largely negative. When I spoke to people who had already been here, they reassured me current conflict was in the eastern part of this huge country. It would be like worrying about going to California because of conflict in New York. However, if you look at travel warnings posted by the United States’ government, it basically tells you not to go to DRC. Everywhere you look in the Kinshasa area, you see armed guards, who are well-known for making up “fees” to pass certain places. I feel like I have no sense of what it is
really going to be like, with so much conflicting information. We have Papa Jean with us for the beginning part, so that’s good enough for me.

The First Black President of The United States of America

There is a fee to enter the lake area, 1,000 Congolese Francs, which is a little over one U.S. dollar. Gaspard and I take a $20 bill to exchange at the market, as that is the only size currency either of us have. Papa Jean goes to his usual market stand and after a lot of discussion, the woman exchanges the money for us. We also buy 5 mangostains from her (a tasty Congolese fruit) and she puts them in a plastic bag for us. I look at the picture on the bag and am surprised to see a familiar face: President Barack Obama. Underneath his picture and title, it reads, “The First Black USA President!!! Priemier Naicra USA President!!” I recall when I was in Uganda a few years back, there was also Obama merchandise everywhere. The woman selling us the fruit sees my reaction and laughs, saying, “Oui, Obama.”

There is a road that leads to the entry of the park, Papa Jean is going to walk that part with us as well. I’m really glad he does, as I look over under a tree and meet eyes with an armed guard who says sternly to me, “Vous-allez vous?” He wants to know where we are going. When Papa Jean intercedes and explains, the guard says in English, “It’s okay.” We continue to the entrance to the lake area and say goodbye to Papa Jean.

Vital’o, a Soda Bottled

Vital’o, a Soda Bottled

After walking another long, winding road, we come to the lake. It is beautiful and twisted, with lots of break-off points. We learn later it is an artificial lake, created by missionaries for whatever reason. We’ve already walked quite a long ways by the time we get down to the lake and we come to the restaurant. A woman appears and quickly ushers us to sit down. We weren’t planning on it, but decide to anyways and each order a Vital’o, a soda bottled in Kinshasa. It’s neon pink and tastes like artificial strawberry with a lot of sugar. In the scorching heat and after such a long walk, it’s delicious.

We’ve already walked a decent amount and it is 6km to walk around the entire lake. Not that bad, except it is so hot and muggy. Along the shoreline at the restaurant, there are some of the ricketiest looking pedal boats I’ve ever seen. They appear to be completely made of metal. They float? After some quick discussion, we opt to rent a boat instead of doing the walk. With each turn of the foot pedals, the boat makes a rusty metal noise that sounds like a dying animal, begging to be put out of its misery. It’s a blast and also somewhat cooler to be out on the water.

After the lake, we walk back down the road to the village. Instead of walking the rest of the way back to the sanctuary, we decide to buy a ride on a motorbike. I have reservations about this. I took a couple in Uganda and I know how fast the drivers can go. The roads here are so bad, I’m amazed anyone drives a motorbike on them at all. We face huge puddles and potholes, as well as broken debris on a muddy, slick road for the whole route. I decide to view it as an adventure and go for it. Also, I don’t feel like walking anymore that day.

We make it back safely to the sanctuary and the ride is actually quite pleasant, as the driver goes slow. Maybe it’s because of the dangerous condition of the road. Or maybe it is because my fingernails are digging into his side the whole way.

The pastors.

The pastors.

Inside the church. The men in the lighter green tops are the altar boys.

Inside the church. The men in the lighter green tops are the altar boys.

The next day, Gaspard and I attend church with Didier’s daughters. His job is assistant cook and commissary manager, so he gets in early everyday to get a head start. He walks us to his home, which is probably about two miles away. When little kids see us, they shout, “Mndele!” This is Lingala for “white person.” There is a different Lingala word for a person of Chinese descent and that is because there is a large Chinese presence in the Congo.

 

When we reach his home, it is sort of crazy. A woman is raking their dirt yard, while two little kids run around. One of them is only wearing a pink reflective vest, like something you would wear in America to be seen at night. Many adults come out of Didier’s home to see us, then disappear back inside. The home is cement and the same size as my studio apartment back home. How many people live there?

Two young women, teenagers, come out. Like most Congolese, they are dressed very well. One girl is all in white and is spotless. How on Earth does she do that? It is very humid here, but still. Everywhere you walk is a reddish clay-like dirt. I step outside and I’m instantly dirty and sweaty, but personal appearance is highly valued in the Congo. Everywhere you go, in the poorest areas (which is most areas), people are still wearing clean, well-fitted clothing. The women have the most colorful garments, either traditional or Western-style.

Didier had assured us his daughters go to church every Sunday, but that is not the vibe I am getting from them. Gaspard tries to converse with them in French, but they give short answers and seem a little annoyed. He translates to me only that they said, “It’s a really long walk.”

An hour and a half later, we have covered a lot of distance, all uphill. I feel like I am going to pass-out. It definitely was worth it though. The whole walk was well away from the main road, we follow small footpaths through many rural villages. Chickens and cats run freely everywhere, every so often someone has a stand out with goods to sell. Everything is so busy and alive, I wonder where everyone is going. A couple people ask Gaspard who we are and what we are doing. When they ask me, I just look to Gaspard as a way to ask for help. We later joke that people probably assumed we are a couple and come from a country where the woman isn’t allowed to talk to strangers.

along the walk to the church. The green hills in DRC remind me of the hills in Rwanda.

along the walk to the church. The green hills in DRC remind me of the hills in Rwanda.

By the time we are nearing the top of the hill, I feel so miserable that I’m no longer paying attention to saying “M’bote!” to those we pass. Gaspard nudges me and points up. A giant church steeple is coming out from the trees ahead. Thank.. Goodness.

On the way, we had passed several churches with people singing. They were all built like Didier’s home, looking more like a  cement shack than anything else. I had secretly yearned to just attend that church. Why did we have to walk so far?? Now I see why. The church is huge and beautiful, clearly coming from missionary funding. It is a Christian Catholic church. Being from Minnesota, I was raised Lutheran, but I have attended a few Catholic masses before and this one is very similar to those. The big difference is the dancing and color, a definite African flare on a Western tradition. Multiple pastors an altar boys come down the aisle at the start of the ceremony. A huge choir sings and sways in place, while the altar boys dance in a way that reminds me of my favorite 90’s boy bands. Any misery I was feeling is swept away in awe.

Another difference is audience participation in the songs. In the West, the congregation all firmly  clutches their hymnals and follows along with the song. Here, everyone knows the words to all the songs and they clap along. I try to follow along, but it is more complicated than clapping on the beat.

One of Didier’s daughters taps me and makes a motion  that says I can take pictures. Cool! We had been warned not to take pictures of anyone we saw in the village. I think the majority of Westerners that come to Congo are journalists, seeking a story that is probably too elaborate or complicated to make a 3 minute news clip. Probably because of this, most of the locals think foreigners who take their picture will sell them for thousands of dollars back home and so they get really mad if they see someone taking their picture. Apparently, that rule doesn’t apply to the church. When I glance around and see other congregation members taking pictures, I go for it.

The church we attended.

The church we attended.

When the service ends two hours later, we head back home. I can really tell the girls are eager to be rid of us. They walk in front of us and gossip in quiet Lingala. The journey back is much more pleasant, as it is all downhill. It only takes us about an hour to get back to the sanctuary. The girls walk in with us, looking to say hello to their father. Gaspard and I sit down and guzzle water. He offers them some and they take it, but neither drink . Hoooow are they not dying of thirst?

All in all, it is a trip that is definitely worth the effort, but maybe just one time. I in fake seriousness ask Gaspard if he wants to go again next Sunday and his smile freezes, but then we both break into laughter.

sk Gaspard if he wants to go again next Sunday and his smile freezes, but then we both break into laughter.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 5

by | January 30th, 2015

During my first tour of Lola ya Bonobo, I met the bonobos in Group 1 and Group 3, but it was getting too dark to walk out to Group 2’s enclosure. I was in such a daze from my arduous journey and in shock from actually being with the bonobos, I think I just happily trailed behind Fanny (the manager) and Raphael (the veterinarian) with a doofy smile on my face. Gaspard, the Belgian student staying at the sanctuary, was telling me about the sanctuary’s history, why different husbandry decisions had been made, etc. I tried to take in as much as I could, but I was far from my full-functioning mental capacity.

From left to right, Mama Yvonne (in charge of the nursery and a soon-to-be head keeper), me and Susie, ethologist on staff.

From left to right, Mama Yvonne (in charge of the nursery and a soon-to-be head keeper), me and Susie, ethologist on staff.

I thought we were headed back to the veranda of the kitchen area for dinner, but instead we went into the night house of the Group 1 bonobos. During the day, each group of bonobos has acres and acres of land to wander, but at night the bonobos are called into indoor quarters with hammocks. This is partially a safety issue, since there is only one keeper at night to keep an eye on all the bonobos and the night house is more secure. It also provides a good opportunity for the staff to get a closer look at the bonobos for medical reasons. While bonobos are known for being much more laidback and less aggressive than chimpanzees, they are still wild animals and still sometimes settle disputes with physical aggression. Females are the dominant sex and if an up-and-coming male gets a bit too big for his britches, the females will join together to correct the situation. It isn’t unheard of for a bonobo to get a serious bite wound or lose the tip of a finger in such an altercation. It is an important lesson for keepers to know, not to forget what an adult bonobo is capable of if they get frightened or upset by something.

However, we did not enter to the night house to see Group 1, as they had not been called inside yet. We were stopping by to check on Kisantu. This 16 year old female had recently fallen very ill. The keepers first noticed on December 22nd that she was walking in an odd fashion- she swayed, almost as if she was drunk. This caused some panic, as when a bonobo contracts EMCV (described in a previous post), she will show this exact symptom and the virus has historically been fatal within hours for bonobos at the sanctuary. Kisantu was brought inside with her daughter, Liyaka, and separated from the rest of the group so Raphael could get a closer look. She did not die, but her symptoms worsened and having her daughter present became too complicated. Although Liyaka would have “aunties” to look after her in Group 1 (other females in the group, who form very close bonds), the staff was hesitant to put a young juvenile back in the group without her mother keeping an eye on her. It was decided the daughter would be placed in the juvenile group of orphans while Kistantu was being treated.

As the days passed, Kisantu continued to worsen, eventually being too weak to get out of her hammock. There were suspicions that she had contracted a parasite that attacks the brain, which would explain her neurological symptoms. She was given the medicine for this, but still, nothing was for certain. Raphael decided he needed to get a sample of her blood to send to a company with the proper equipment to analyze, but to do so safely, Kisantu would need to be anesthetized. She was darted and the procedure was quick, but two hours then passed and she was not waking up, an unfortunate risk of anesthesia. Suddenly, she stopped breathing. Raphael had to physically breathe for her by standing behind her, placing his fingers under her ribs and moving the rib cage to work her diaphragm and lungs while someone ran to grab an oxygen tank and mask to give her very high levels of oxygen. Miraculously, it was successful and she recovered from the anesthesia. For several days, it seemed as though she was even improving.

This was about the time I arrived at the sanctuary. Kisantu had just begun to go down-hill again. The first time I saw her in her night house, she was laying in a hammock and was clearly very restless. She did not have the strength to get up and walk, but continually tossed and turned in her hammock, reminding me of a human who could not fall asleep. Every once in a while, she would involuntarily twitch. When her name was called gently by Fanny, her eyes followed the voice, but then she would look straight up, not really focusing on anything. Everyone was very worried and frustrated. There is no place in the Democratic Republic of Congo to send bonobo blood for medical testing. Bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA, so they do not receive medicine used on cats or dogs and blood tests are not analyzed in the same manner as domesticated animals. They are analyzed the same way as humans, illnesses are treated with human medicine. However, labs in Kinshasa that analyze human blood refuse to analyze non-human blood, as they feel it is a contamination risk. Kisantu’s blood samples have to be sent all the way to Europe and it takes weeks to get the results back. There is very little the staff can do, but wait and hope. Kisantu is so weak, she is unable to feed herself, so the staff risk going in her enclosure with her to hand her food directly. Sometimes, she finds the energy to attempt to aggressively grab at Raphael’s hand. Being the veterinarian is not an easy job. Raphael is responsible for treating the bonobos’ ailments, but they typically just remember him as the man who does awful things to them. He has to not take it personally, despite his obvious love for them.

We leave Kisantu to rest, but the thought of her stays with me. The next day, I visit her again when Fanny goes down. She is even worse today, laying on the floor in a twisted manner and rolling over repeatedly in frustration. It is heart-breaking. I cautiously ask Raphael if he has ever had to euthanize a bonobo. He hasn’t, but Kisantu has come back once already from a bad state. He wants to give her more time.

The next day at lunch, Claudine is at the sanctuary and she asks me if I have visited Kisantu yet that day. I say I haven’t, I wasn’t sure if it was okay for me to go in that area, I didn’t want to step on toes while she is being treated. “My dear, you are a zookeeper! You can go anywhere that you like,” she replies in that alluring French accent.  “Besides,” she adds, “she is bored. It will be nice for her.” My empty chair wobbles in its place, as I am already on my way.

Today she is a bit better, back in the hammock with food remains underneath her. She’s eating! I gently call her name and she looks at me, making a single bonobo squeak. It is heartbreaking. The expression on her face is one of exhaustion and frustration. Raphael comes in and I optimistically state the obvious, that she is doing better. He tells me she hasn’t drank anything, she is refusing the bottle from anyone who offers. This isn’t really surprising, as she has been darted frequently and also given food and water with bad tasting pills inside. These are attempts to treat her and ease her suffering with pain medication, but to Kisantu, it is more misery. She’s done.

“I want to try something,” Raphael says.  He brings back a bottle of water and a bottle of milk and hands them to me, then asks me to try to get her to drink and he leaves. Being the vet, Kisantu is clearly agitated whenever he is near, suspecting he is going to try some new shenanigan. But I’m a new person, Kisantu has no affiliations of me and medical procedures. I sit quietly, gently calling her name. Most of the time, she ignores me. Every once in a while, she squeaks a reply or glances over at me. I switch between offering milk and offering water. Nothing.

Kisantu (on the far right) in the juvenile yard, eating sugarcane.

Kisantu (on the far right) in the juvenile yard, eating sugarcane.

All of a sudden, she grabs the side of her hammock and with every ounce of strength she can muster, slowly pulls herself up. She reaches for a bar on her enclosure, her hand is shaky. Once she manages to hold herself in place, she awkwardly leans forward to the bars and places her lips on the mouth of the bottle that I am holding between the bars. Then she drinks. And drinks. And drinks. I dare not move a muscle, I just keep holding the bottle up. Finally she fills her mouth with milk and collapses back into the hammock. She holds the milk in her mouth and some of it streams out the sides. It looks like she is savoring it. “Rafi! She drank!” I shout down the hall to the lab, where he is working. He pops his head out and is clearly stoked, but does not come down to see. Kisantu is back for water this time and he doesn’t want to distract her.

It’s almost as if she has just realized how thirsty she was. She continually makes the strenuous effort to pull herself up and have another go, each time completely filling her mouth before she collapses back into the hammock. I stay with her all afternoon and she drinks 3.75 bottles of water and 1 bottle of milk. She starts to climb from her lower hammock she has been in, to the upper hammock and back down again. Being hydrated is making her feel a lot better. I try to lure her to the adjoining enclosure, where she can have a clean hammock and not have to sit in her food remains. Very slowly, she finds her feet and though wobbly, she purposefully marches to the clean hammock and collapses into it. From the outside, I push the door between the two rooms shut, so Kisantu’s old room can be cleaned and giddily hurry to tell Raphael. Soon Fanny arrives from Kinshasa with Gatorade (very expensive to get here) and Kisantu drinks 2 bottles of that. Everyone is celebrating, Kisantu is recovering.

 

I know I’ve mentioned this previously, but the people at Lola ya Bonobo are the kindest ever. Everyone compliments me and gives me far more credit than I deserve. Even Claudine says, “I heard you saved my Kisantu. Thank-you.” Basically, I got to swoop in and be the good guy, I wasn’t here for the arduous treatments that have been occurring for weeks. Poor Rafael has slept overnight in the night house on Kisantu’s worst nights, checking on her hourly. However, I would be a liar if I didn’t say it felt really, really good to be a small part of Kisantu’s recovery.

Kisantu (looking at the camera) relaxing outside in the juvenile enclosure, with Liyaka playing to the left.

Kisantu (looking at the camera) relaxing outside in the juvenile enclosure, with Liyaka playing to the left.

The next couple of days, Kisantu gets better and better. Susie, the ethologist, makes the call that it is time for Liyaka to be reunited with her mother, but just for one night. When that goes well, Kisantu gets to go outside for a few hours in the juvenile group, along with Liyaka. She is still very weak and only walks when necessary. The rambunctious juveniles are not very sympathetic to her condition and Kisantu is separated to give her a chance to eat in peace. As of yesterday, Kisantu is now living with the juveniles 24 hours a day. Every day she gets a bit stronger, but it will probably be a while before she can be reintroduced to Group 1. Currently, there are a few coming-of-age males in that group who are eager to show-off their strength. The females keep them in-line, but it is better for Kisantu if she has her strength back before she has to deal with all the drama. Seeing her lounge in the sun, munching on some sugarcane with her daughter playing nearby is pretty special. With so little money and resources, Raphael and the staff have truly accomplished a miracle in Kisantu’s recovery.