When I first set my feet on African soil I was full excitement and expectations. Finally I would see a living breathing leopard! That was pretty much what I thought about the journey to Harnas Wildlife Foundation. Harnas is a sanctuary for rescued wild animals and was founded by the Van der Merwe family ( you can read the full story behind the farm here ). When I first got there, boy I was not disappointed. However, it was not the leopards that I would connect fully with, but rather a tiny, smelly little creature with extremely sharp teeth.
One of the big projects at Harnas is the Wild Dog Project where the aim is to help the very much endangered African Wild Dog. There are less than 5000 wild dogs left in the wild and these are limited to about 14 countries and only six of these currently have populations over 100 dogs. It is therefore safe to say that the situation regarding the wild dogs is very serious. You can read more about the aims and how they believe that the program will help wild dogs at their website .
I had not been on the farm for very long when I was approached by one of the experienced volunteers. She had heard from the staff that I was experienced with dogs and knew very well how to raise a puppy. She therefore asked if I was willing to be in charge of a wild dog puppy since she would be leaving in a short time. The puppy’s name was Jabu and he recently had become an orphan. At first, to be honest, I was skeptical. Would I really want to tie myself to a needy little creature the entirety of the time I would spend on the farm? To make a long story short, I have now several scars on my knuckles due to razor sharp teeth and I do not regret any single one of them.
I would usually feed him first thing in the morning, then another time at lunch and a final time right before dinner. After a while I would share the feeding schedule with another volunteer so I was not tied up every single day. This helped me a lot since I had a lot of other duties on the farm.
As my time on the farm progressed, Jabu grew bigger and so did his appetite for biting fingers. The staff at Harnas therefore saw it fit to provide him with a playmate of the canine sort. Also, at this time I had full responsibility for Jabu as many of the volunteers that I’d arrived with had left. During my 5th week, I get called to the parking lot as one of the coordinators steps out of the car. In his arms he has the most beautiful mixed breed puppy I had ever seen. Her fur was a light golden beige and she had dark markings on her face. Later, she was named Tara and she became Jabu’s best friend.
Tara was probably the animal I connected with the most at Harnas. Being a domesticated animal, she would latch herself on to me more easily than Jabu ever did. I would spend every free minute inside the enclosure they shared, I’d even skip lunches to nap in the dirt with the two puppies using me as a mattress. It was also very entertaining to observe the relationship that developed between the two puppies. Despite the fact that Jabu could probably set Tara in her place anytime, he never did. Instead he let her boss him around and take full control over the enclosure (it must be the female dominance thing, right?). Nonetheless, as time went on you could see the bond growing stronger and when I left they were pretty much equals and behaved as best friends.
The most fascinating thing for me as a zoologist during this period is how despite Jabu being raised by humans and having a domesticated dog as a companion, his natural instincts where very strong. He would use the same calling patterns to me as he would to his mother during feeding time. He would also communicate with Tara in the same way. A few weeks after I left the farm they were separated because Jabu grew to big and too dangerous to be around. He got moved into a different enclosure with another lone wild dog named Tom. As far as I know, they are still together in that enclosure. Tara got adopted and ended up in Germany somewhere, which makes me very happy to be honest.
The bittersweet end to this story is that if I were to go back to Harnas now, Jabu would not remember me. The fact that I bottle-fed him for two months does not matter, it is in the natural behaviour of wild dogs to have very wild instincts when they become mature. This means that pups raised by humans will not become influenced by them and change behaviour. It is sad that your best friend will not recognise you when you cross paths again, but in the end as long as it is good for him and other individuals of his species I am happy about it.