The conviction by a few foreigners that the boulevards of Johannesburg are wandered by untamed life is often ridiculed as ignorance.
Which is, obviously, partly evident. One isn’t frequently pursued by a cheetah as you advance toward the Gautrain station.
But behind the city’s many shrubs, in its leafy trees and suburban gardens, lurk a plethora of wild creatures feasting on the city’s many offerings – from rats and mice to Parktown prawns and smaller insects.
Bats and owls are commonly spotted in the city’s suburbs, but foxes, genets, meerkats, and the odd porcupine or caracal make the busy city of gold their homes.
Add to that the many exotic wild animals that are kept as pets and you find a city living up to its reputation of one of the world’s biggest urban jungles.
On the outskirts of the city, in Glenferness, close to Midrand, after passing upmarket shopping centres and corporate buildings, one finds a short stretch of a dirt road that leads to the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Centre (JWVC) – the first of its kind in that it funds a wildlife veterinary hospital that exclusively treats indigenous wildlife, free of charge.
It is an unassuming place at first glance, with no obvious indication of the sheer variety of wildlife being nursed in its many enclosures.
Dr Karin Lourens is the center’s resident veterinarian and one of the founders of the JWVC, along with wildlife rehabilitation specialists Penelope Morkel and Nicci Wright, opening its doors in March last year.
In addition to Lourens, Morkel, and Wright, assistants and volunteers also contribute to the running of the hospital.
While Lourens had been a suburban veterinarian for close to two decades, she has specialized in wild animals for the past seven years and is heading toward her master’s degree that focuses on the normal serum chemistry and hematology levels in the African pangolin.
Lourens is keen to introduce the many creatures she and her team of rehabilitation experts and assistants care for.
But on the otter side…
The first is a six-month-old African clawless otter that emerges from her shelter, keenly embracing her human visitors. She brushes up to one almost like a domestic cat, curls with pleasure as she receives belly rubs while nibbling at one’s fingers like a canine pup.
“She was kept on a leash by her owners and taken for walks in shopping centers in Fouriesburg before she was confiscated by the SPCA,” Lourens says.
The otter was then taken in by the JWVC, where the process of readying her for an independent existence can take up to two years.
“They stay with their mums for two years [in nature] and have to be taught to eat and swim.”
Once she is a year old, she would be introduced to a larger, pre-release enclosure, Lourens explains. After some encouragement, she would ultimately just reintegrate into the wild.
And this is what the center does for all its animals. It is not a petting zoo or an exotic pet shop. Each animal that can be nursed back to health or raised to an appropriate age is released into the wild.
According to Lourens, wild animals, especially mammals, are never really imprinted, meaning that they never become fully tame or accept humans. “They wild up quite quickly.”
The center currently hosts around 60 animals ranging from tortoises and bats to a porcupine and pangolins.
Most animals confiscated
“Most of the animals have been confiscated,” Lourens says.
Meerkats, especially, are popular pets until they become aggressive and troublesome. “People don’t realize that these are herd animals, they like to be together.” This explains why they become aggressive when kept on their own, often attacking other domestic pets and humans. And reintroducing them to other meerkats can take as long as eight months because they are some of the most aggressive animals on earth, believe it or not.
Around the corner of the meerkat enclosure is a Cape Fox, kept by people who thought it was a jackal. After it was mauled by its owners’ domestic dogs, she was taken to a Fourways vet before landing up at the JWVH.
Not all wild animals are confiscated, though.
“We’ve found foxes in Soweto, for example.”
In another enclosure, a juvenile genet curiously approaches us, effortlessly making its way down a branch to inspect her unknown visitors. She is one of four currently kept at the center.
As her three mates look on, the only genet brave enough to approach us brushes its head against my hand and welcomes a few strokes to its soft spotted fur. Its mannerisms could easily be compared to that of felines, but they are not family of cats by a long shot.
“Genets are found all over Joburg,” Lourens says.
“They are nocturnal and live in trees. They feed on rodents and especially Parktown prawns. Those are their favorites. People who keep chickens find them problematic, though. It’s like a KFC for them.”
Killed for body parts
A pair of vervet monkeys welcomes us next, although the male takes great displeasure in my presence.
“He knows you are male,” explains Lourens.
“He doesn’t like you being here. If you had a beard, it would be even worse.”
I’m silently relieved that I took a shave the day before.
Apart from being kept as pets, vervet monkeys are often also killed for their body parts by sangomas.
“Sometimes their arms are cut off while they’re still alive.”
The monkeys were brought here following a sting operation in collaboration with the SPCA and the SAPS.
The monkeys end up at a rehabilitation center in Tzaneen, which specializes in primates.
Here they are kept in quarantine for a month to ensure they don’t have tuberculosis – a disease they contract from contact with humans.
A baby Nile crocodile peeks from its enclosure. Bought as an exotic pet, this reptile is one of many that end up at rehab centers once owners realize they can’t take care of them – especially when they grow up. “When they reach about 1.5 meters, people call us in a panic to come and fetch them… They are very dangerous. They end up eating people’s cats, for example.”
The problem, according to Lourens, is that people don’t need permits to keep exotic animals as pets.
“You can keep a tiger if you want. You only need permits for indigenous animals.”
Lourens can’t hide her dislike for institutions that “rehabilitate” wild animals but don’t release them back into the wild, instead of using the animals as tourist attractions.
‘A sanctuary is just a zoo’
“While many of these have good intentions, it’s never a good idea to raise wild animals to be petted and touched by the public. A sanctuary is just another name for a zoo.
“Every animal we take in must be released into the wild. If it cannot be nursed back to health, it, unfortunately, needs to be euthanized.”
My 13-year-old companion and I are shown a trio of barn owls, one of a few owl species being treated at the center.
“Owls are great at pest control because they feed on mice and rats.”
In a separate enclosure, some spotted eagle owls stare at us with huge, piercing, bright eyes.
These are often spotted in Joburg.
“Urban areas attract a lot of wild animals because it is so filthy here. It attracts vermin and these animals feed on it.”
After being shown a variety of different species of bat, my young companion and I are introduced to Porcie, a young porcupine who curiously nibbles at the points of my shoes. It scurries about and I take care to stay out of the way of its quills.
“They don’t shoot their quills like arrows,” Lourens puts my mind at ease.
“They would push themselves into whatever threatens them, and the quills remain behind.”
Lourens’ true love is the pangolin, an animal that she has been studying closely and is passionate about conserving. On the wall of the surgery hangs an impressive painting of the animal etched against the African sunset, signed by Johan Lourens – our guide’s father.
Lourens opens a large wooden box and in it, for the first time, I lay my eyes on the elusive, magnificent creature. This particular specimen was confiscated from a man who wanted to sell it for R1 million.
The JWVH relies only on donations for its survival and needs at least R80 000 per month to keep its doors open. Taking care of the pangolins alone costs R1 000 per day per animal. These donations all come from private individuals.
“Our big aim is to find a corporate sponsor to get involved. We’re using our own vehicles [to relocate animals] and we have expensive equipment.”
Lourens says she loves her work. “Every day is different. It’s never boring. I love everything about it.”
Taking the dirt road back to Main Road and quickly driving past a Pick n Pay and KFC outlet in Lone Hill, it feels surreal to have, minutes before, been surrounded by a zoological motley crew, right in the middle of Johannesburg, who – through the sheer dedication of Lourens and her team – will soon be back where they belong: in nature.
If you would like to get involved, find the JWVH here and here.