It has been one of those nerve-wracking, heart-wrenching times here at the Trust where we have had to put aside our own selfish need to keep our animals safe and sound and in a controlled environment, and give them the greatest gift we can – their freedom. This has by far been one of the most agonising decisions, as we have three serval at the release site, mother and two offspring (who are young adults already) and have already released the father, Mufasa in the area in February of this year. If Mufasa’s release was anything to be measured by, one could easily understand our constant battle with the pros and cons of this release. To recap for those readers who do not know the full story:
Mufasa was hand raised by myself (Lisa) and obviously a bond had developed over time, between us. As a human, I am always surprised at my own selfishness in wanting to keep all the animals I raise – just so that I know they are safe forever, and that I know that every day they have food, warmth and what I think they need. But do we as humans really know what these wild creatures need? With each release I am sure a piece of my heart goes with each one of these animals, who have become part of my family. However, when I finally do have the joy of seeing them, walking freely in what is their new freedom – I realise that there is still, so much that we do not understand and that being wild is a gift beyond measure, which as humans, we can give to our fellow mammals, whom we share this planet with. Releasing is a very emotional step which I continue to struggle with even after doing it for so many years. Each animal who takes their first steps into the wild, makes my heart stop and my mind full of what can go wrong. It is so difficult being wild, when you are born into it. So to be captive born, with all the theoretical warmth and comfort that goes with that, and then enter into this new world, has so much against these captive born animals. Have we prepared them sufficiently, will they know how to react to all the new dangerous situations that they might find themselves in? Only time, will tell and we will be the first to report back to you re the adventures in the wild.
And so the gate of the enclosure was opened on the 28th February 2009 and Mufasa strode purposefully out to claim his wild heritage!
Mufasa was collared, so that we could track his movements and keep a protective eye on him in this new chapter of his life. However – this sense of security was to be short-lived, as he could no longer be detected after the third day of being out! And this has been the same situation to this current date – Mufasa has still not been detected in any form shape or manner since March 2009. When looking for a release site, a strict criteria has been developed and on top of the list is HUMAN MANAGEMENT. Whilst being involved with the releasing of animals we have seen time and time again that the people who are on the ground are at first very excited to get involved with receiving our animals – but perhaps do not quiet understand the level of commitment and dedication that is required in order to return an animal back into the wild. With Mufasa, there unfortunately was a change over in management and the tracking of him was overlooked for a two week period. During the first month the animal has to be tracked daily – this was not done and hence Mufasa’s signal was lost!
So now the dilemma – what do we do with the remaining three? Arwen has been wearing a collar in the release boma for the same length of time as Mufasa and the Chishakwe Management have reported mixed strengths of its transmitting capability. Evenstar, the young male would prove to be the best candidate to be collared for release, as he is full size and due to his easy-going nature would possibly be easier to track and he is not intimidated by people in his vicinity, as opposed to his mother Arwen and sister Quickbeam who are both relatively shy cats.
So, a decision was made to only collar Evenstar, to remove Arwen’s old collar and then to release all three at the same time. The exercise began with Evenstar first, to knock him down with an oral sedative and them top him up with an injectable one so that he could be collared, measured and given all the relevant vaccines, and to be honest, give him what could possibly be one last touch. The only hiccup in this whole procedure is that it was performed under a constant damp drizzle, as the December rains had made an appearance and certainly did not seem to want to let up! However, releasing of cats is best done when the rains arrive as there will be plenty of prey out there for them.
Next were the two girls, Quickbeam appeared to have more resistance to the oral sedative and so we decided to rather give her the rabies vaccination with a pole syringe rather than have her fully unconscious.
Arwen proved to be the hardest to work with as she is incredibly elusive, so making sure she took the oral sedative fully proved to be a challenge. She too fought the drug and so had to finally be sedated with further drugs via a pole syringe. It was in these moments of dealing with Arwen under sedation that I finally realised that what we were doing for her was the kindest and greatest gift for this animal. Arwen has physically dropped a fair amount of condition in the preceding months, despite being dewormed and her food being increased. On removing the collar we also saw that it had been rubbing on her neck, knotting the fur and must have been uncomfortable to some degree. I felt sick knowing that I had imposed this discomfort on this animal against her will (although she accepted the collar and did not fight it). I also knew at that point that I would never put another collar on her again. Was Arwen trying to tell us that she had quiet simply, lost interest in life and wanted to be free?! To her the safety of the release enclosure was becoming more and more like a prison, and she was losing interest in life rapidly.
After all the procedures were done, it was time to let the cats all recover from the ordeal. We gave them a full day to allow all drugs to work out of their systems and to give them a very good feed! First on the menu…….. fresh guinea fowl!
The following day was the day of the release. Evenstar was to be the first to venture out the gate, having briefly re-acquainted with his mother and sister in the main enclosure. Watching him stride tenaciously through the gate was like watching your child head off to university – only for Even, this is the University of Life! We followed him like anxious parents, a fair enough distance away so as not to intimidate him, but just enough to maintain contact, albeit through the rhythmic beep of his collar. After about an hour it was apparent that he was going to take his time getting to know the immediate vicinity, so it was time to concentrate on the girls.
They however, did not seem as keen as Evenstar to venture out the gate under an audience; in fact they plain refused to go out even with the main gate open at 3 meters wide! So, passive tactics were employed – they were left to settle, for a couple of hours whilst we went back to the drawing board to sort out a camera trap. Coming back in the late afternoon – we set up the trap at the gate, and everyone left the area except me. We decided the fewer observers the more likely the girls would venture out at their own speed so I settled down in an unobtrusive spot to see what the girls would do.
Curiosity certainly overcame Quick as after a fair number of times sweeping past the wide open gate she decided to venture out. Her flicking tail reflected her indecisiveness, but she eventually stepped over the boundary, majestic little princess! Not even ten minutes into her new adventure, Quick had a close encounter of the wild kind – a pair of black-back jackal boys who were obviously regulars in the area. They trotted up to her firmly, ears flat, teeth bare, emitting little growly snarls and backs arched. Their demeanour was not necessarily fully aggressive, but they were indignant about this new arrival on their turf. Quick remained aloof and regal – held her ground and stretched that elegant neck just a little higher and longer than normal so she could look down on them. Her only hint of unease was the swishing of the tail tip. I, the heart in the mouth anxious human, camera tightly gripped in hand, held the moment for as long as I could before the wave of utter horrific imagination of “what could happen” overcame me. The only response I could fully justify (which thankfully was not to run and shout at the jackals like a hysterical human) was to do a poor impression of an impala snort! I am pleased to say that this produced the desired result of the jackals breaking their intense scrutiny of Quick and trotting off. Quick however did shoot me a rather withering look – you know the “I had it under control” type.
After that Quick continued her slow inspection of the “wild” and I was especially excited to note that she was heading in the same direction as her brother, Evenstar. I stayed put, watching for as long as I could in the fading light.
Arwen chose to remain as private as possible, not showing herself near the gate during the time I sat and waited. Again being human, I suppose I sought the self-gratification of seeing her walk free, whilst it was a moment for her to savour and her alone. We did manage to get a hint and a blur of a cat exiting the release boma much later that evening on the camera trap, which to our best presumption, was Arwen finally taking steps towards her independence.
From that day till this current date, there has been no conclusive sign of either Quick or Arwen. Evenstar has been tracked and found to be ranging further and further away, until the point that he has not been detected for over a week, possibly longer by the time our Readers see this report.
From a research point of view, this really has not been an ideal release. When there is no successful post release monitoring, it creates a gap in the information that we are trying to gather. But, perhaps this in itself is the lesson for these particular servals and in this specific situation. When one chooses the best circumstance for the individual animal, it is not always to say that the “science” will necessarily follow. Perhaps however the hardest reality of this whole event is to realise that freedom cannot be compartmentalized, it cannot be tamed with a tracking collar, or modified with behaviour training. When an animal accepts that freedom – it is all-consuming and forever. We as the people, who work with animals and feel it important enough to give them, this gift, must realise that it is the hardest and yet most unselfish thing we can do for them. There is also no guarantee that it will work or that the animal will strive in his or her new found freedom. We can only wait, watch and hope.