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Baby Vervet Monkeys

What do students do after a Wildlfife course? 


The following text is an extract from a newsletter written by:

Frances Bell
Wildlife Student
ACS Distance Education

Please note any opinions expressed in the document are solely those of the author and are therefore independent from ACS Distance Education, its employees or affiliates.


August 2014

2014 has been a messy year – moving around a lot and not staying in any one place for very long.  Which means my newsletters hardly follow any logical order!  The year began with my very emotional goodbye to SANCCOB and all my fluffy babies, and the just as emotional return to my South African “family” back at CROW in Durban.  My time at CROW this year was split, since I spent time in Limpopo and Dullstroom between 2-month stints.

I did the usual “what was I thinking” flight from Capetown at the beginning of January - which entailed a 3am start - to arrive in Durban and get back to the centre around 9am. To say I was welcomed back with open arms is no exaggeration and I slotted straight back in as though I’d never been away. I was told to take my time settling in, but true to form I couldn’t wait to see what animals were there and how everyone was doing, so after dumping my bags I went up to the clinic and got right back into it.  My first day back and not only did I acquaint myself with all the animals at the centre and feed loads of babies, but also got to bath about a dozen baby vervet monkeys….awwwww!!

The weather was a force to be reckoned with… summer in Capetown can be on the warm side but Durban was something else again.  Even though temperatures weren’t so bad, the humidity was so high that I was sweating buckets just standing still.

After a few days I was back in charge of baby bird room, doing my usual with taking on late feeds; and I was given responsibility for bottle feeding a little blue duiker who was on his way to being weaned in preparation for release.  Levi and his friend, Lily, weren’t much bigger than a decent sized rabbit and I had to be constantly on my guard not to tread on their delicate little legs when they wove themselves around me.  Within a month Levi had been weaned off the bottle and then it was pretty much hands off in preparation for release – which happened while I was up in Limpopo so sadly, I didn’t get to see it.

Despite working extra hours, CROW at first seemed very quiet!  SANCCOB had been so busy for the bulk of my 14 months there, that coming back to a general rehab shelter seemed like a holiday camp by comparison.  Of course it’s not though… and once clinic Manager Estie reassured herself that I still knew what I was doing, I was given more responsibility, which meant I had not much in the way of free time.  I also gave myself extra work… like taking on post mortems which staff did not have time to do.  This turned out to make quite a positive contribution since we found out that lots of the birds, doves and pigeons in particular, that came in had heavy worm burdens; we were able to ward off respiratory infection epidemics by my findings in some post mortems and using those results to treat birds prophylactically; and we were able to console ourselves in some cases, where we assumed that stress had been the culprit as the cause of death but actually, deaths were due to internal injuries or systemic infections which we hadn’t been able to pick up.  Being back at CROW meant post mortems on species other than birds and before my very last day at the centre I was able to conduct autopsies on a nyala, vervet monkeys, dassies, a zebra foal as well as tortoises; and the inevitable range of birds including a gorgeous little malachite kingfisher.  The most awful case I think I had was a vervet monkey who’d been shot and who’d developed septicaemia and led a painful existence until a member of the public found her and brought her in.  


As always there are ups and downs with rehab work and I had my fair share of crap days mixed in with the awesome days.  Some days we lost a lot of animals, or had a lot brought in with injuries too severe for rehabilitation, which meant there was a lot of euthanasia to be performed.  Some days even staff found it hard and there was at least one occasion where I heard people comment that they didn’t want to do the job any more…. Of course that’s a knee-jerk reaction to a crap day, and we’re all back up and fighting as hard as we can for both the resident animals who need our care, and the very next case that comes in.


Releases are what make it all worthwhile and I also attended or assisted with my fair share of those.  My very first release back at CROW was of a whole heap of animals – a terrapin, loads of Egyptian geese and two little diederic cuckoos.  My next release was a troupe of vervet monkeys.  4am start for that one in order to catch them all up and de-worm them before crating them for transport.  One of the females had a wee baby, born only a few days earlier, who was not doing well so we took her for hand-rearing.  Did I feel privileged at having Monkey Mum Mabel hand me the baby and tell me to sort it out??  Also got taught how to handle the monkeys to crate them – luckily the one I assisted with was a big male who had been sedated, so not as dangerous as it sounds!  I didn’t get to work much with the monkeys… well you see, they liked me and started jumping all over me, which is not so great since we were trying to wean them off human contact so they could go back to the wild.  Unfortunately this meant that I was unable to go in with them even to place food in their enclosures – they’re quick and you’ve got be even quicker not to be latched onto.  We also briefly had two capuchin monkeys, rescued from the pet trade and awaiting a place in a sanctuary which was being organised by Nature Conservation.  Due to their exposure to people they were also very quick to latch on but the problem was, that if they didn’t feel like getting off they were prone to bite rather than be persuaded to go and do monkey stuff instead of cuddle.


Also got to go on some rescues.  Would it impress you if I told you I helped to rescue an antelope?  You’re picturing maybe a blesbok, maybe a kudu – you know, a genuine antelope, something big ……hmm actually it was a blue duiker but that’s entirely beside the point!  My most awkward rescue was of two little banded mongoose trapped under a block of flats.  Luckily there was enough space for me to crouch – it turned out that I was chosen to go and assist on this rescue because of being tiny! - and they didn’t run off into a less roomy part of the foundations before we had them scooped up in nets.  It seems mum had abandoned them at the ripe old age of 3 weeks so they needed bottles and lots of TLC.  Since I was so busy with birds I didn’t get to care for these guys, although I was involved in assessing them once we got them back to the clinic, and in giving subcut fluids.  However, getting more experience with mammals is on my agenda for when I go back to CROW – as I inevitably will at some point.

There are many upsetting events to deal with when you work in animal rehab, but you don’t often come up against things that happen on your doorstep that you can literally do nothing about.  One weekend an African family who live just one house away from the centre had a wedding celebration.  Sounds innocent, right?  Not so.

“Lobola”, or bride price, the equivalent of an old-fashioned dowry, is still practiced in South Africa.  I’d heard of it being a number of cattle given to the bride’s family by the bridegroom and I understood that this simply increased the size of the bride’s family’s herd.  In this instance it was sheep.

This is difficult to write about.  The whole weekend took on a nightmare quality that stays with me to this day.   The sheep – 9 of them – were hobbled and dumped on vacant ground literally just outside the centre’s gates.  They had no food, no water, no shelter.  I’m sure some of them were injured from the rough treatment they got.  Their ultimate end was to be sacrificed during the wedding celebration over the course of the weekend.  We tried everything.  We tried talking to the family head who treated us with contempt and threatened violence.  We called the police, the SPCA, Nature Conservation – anyone we could think of.  Since “lobola” is embedded as part of the black African’s constitutional rights, and they had permits, there was NOTHING anyone could do to get the animals confiscated.  The most we could do was get them moved so that they weren’t slaughtered on public ground.  The sheep were ritually slaughtered – I won’t say how because it’s too awful to contemplate - on the family’s property, after spending more than 24 hours deprived of food and water or the ability to move freely.  The whole thing haunts me.  I wonder what sort of activist I am if I’m not prepared to risk myself to save those sheep.  To me this is just another instance of animal welfare agencies failing the animals because of faulty legislation.  This must change.  What we have is not enough.  Animal welfare laws should be there to adequately protect all animals, no matter what species or circumstances, or what excuses for mistreatment that masquerade as “tradition”.


Before too long I was getting my hand-rearing “fix”, working crazy hours again and pretty much not sleeping… the result of all those months doing shiftwork with the penguins and fitting in so much study.  At one stage there were around 40 little babies who needed feeding every three hours – some of them were no more than tiny pink blobs and yes, I was in my element!  Two of my charges were Burchell’s coucal fledglings who I completely fell in love with – locally these are sometimes called porcupine birds due to some spikey feathers.  Those were released during my first two months at CROW but I then had another one come in.  Within a couple of days he was “talking” to me every time he saw me and when I opened the cage to feed him, would often as not hop onto me for comfort… not ideal in any sense.  When I got back to CROW he’d been moved down into the aviaries but though nicely “wilded”, would still respond to me – see, he knew his mama!   The smallest of the birds I looked after were tiny little bronze mannikin babies – even the adults weren’t much bigger than my thumb.  We also had a gorgeous Little Bee-eater baby – one volunteer wanted to call it Gordon but no way was I going to allow such an elegant creature such an ordinary name – she was clearly an Alexandra!  She was moved into the aviaries while I was off in Limpopo but sadly didn’t make it, and I’m not sure what the problem was. I was heart-broken about that.  We also had two purple-crested lourie babies who were still up in baby room when I went back in May.  Turns out they’d had dietary deficiencies so they weren’t growing and had awful feathers.  This had been addressed and they were on the road to recovery when I returned, but during the course of my stay there one of them developed a slipped tendon in his leg which could not be repaired, and had to be euthanased.  Tragic day for us all – we’d fussed and fidgeted over those babies for so long and it was devastating to have to make the decision and then carry it out.

Ideally of course there would be an operating theatre, and an avian specialist surgeon who perhaps could have done more to save the bird.  However CROW, like many animal rehab shelters, runs on a very tight budget totally funded by donations, and doesn’t have the resources to employ a full-time vet or equip an operating theatre.  There are very few avian specialists in private practice and even less of those who are willing to do pro bono work on wildlife.   The saviour for CROW and for wildlife might be the program that the South African Vet Council is considering putting in place, of placing newly qualified vets into practice with an NGO in their first year outside school.  It might also be a bonus for me personally – since, once qualified as a vet nurse, I could go and offer my services to assist the vet.

One of the great things about my visit to CROW this time was that I got more involved with other rescued wildlife such as genets.  There were three who wereroughly a month old and were still on bottles 4 times a day.  Their regular “mum” had some time off so passed their care onto me – so for a while my day started at 6am and finished at 9pm.  Two of the genets were quite nervy which is a good thing, but one of them, Tonka, had been rescued from a situation where she was being kept as a pet so was quite a friendly little thing.  It didn’t take her long to start perching on my shoulder to have her bottle – she’d sit there playing with my plait and purring in my ear and just generally being too cute for words.

We also had some unusual animals come in – well, unusual for me at least.  At one point we had two juvenile crowned cranes come, one of whom was very weak and wasn’t standing.  She was put into a sling to get her off her sternum and to try to build the muscles in her legs – this was successful and a few days later, once both birds were stable, they were transferred to the Crane Foundation where they would have a lot more crane company so could socialise before being released.  I also got more hands on work with birds of prey in a rehab situation which was very satisfying.  I could tell you I finally got to work with bats as well, but sadly the little banana bat and fruit bat that came in had irreparable breaks in their wings and had to be euthanased, so all I got to do with those two was conduct post mortems.  Besides that we had a hamerkop, and of course there were loads of mousebirds – some of whom had been pets and took every opportunity to get out of their cage and fly up onto your shoulder.  The trick was catching them to get them back in – they were happy to stay on my shoulders but were pretty quick about scuttling from one to the other to avoid being put back!  I also got to finally see the endangered Narina Trogon – sadly, one had to be euthanased as he had a broken back but the other was still doing OK when I left.

...  We had a couple of days where we had constant problems with power in the clinic which resulted in me taking all the birds in hotboxes up to my accommodation – talk about taking your work home with you!

Before I left CROW in February, we had a very sad case come in – a little zebra foal who we called Zane.  He was found at the Kenneth Stainbank reserve which is just a couple of hundred metres from CROW, was covered in ticks so was quite anaemic, had a lot of abscesses, was extremely dehydrated and suffering badly from hyperthermia.  He was rushed into the ICU and had literally round the clock care.  The initial challenge was to get his temperature down as quickly as was consistent with safety.  Once past that the next challenge was to get him hydrated.  While he was with us he developed colic and our consultant vet was called out several times to see him.  As usual I seemed to be rostered off whenever we had emergencies, so didn’t get to be involved in Zane’s immediate care – instead I was asked to take charge of the rest of the clinic while Estie and Sue stabilised him.  Once back on duty I took my place in the roster to provide round the clock monitoring – we did 3 hourly shifts and yes, I did take some of the less comfortable ones.  While not able to learn about providing critical emergency care, I was present for some of the vet visits so was able to learn a bit more about what symptoms Zane had and how they were treated.   Sadly, despite all our efforts, Zane didn’t make it and all I can say is, I’m glad I was there when he went.  I was on shift late at night with Sue when Zane had his final struggle.  Our vet had been out during the shift to administer anti-spasmodic drugs and more gastric fluids, but despite all this about half an hour later Zane gave up the fight and died with his head in Sue’s lap.

On my return to CROW at the end of April, I was immediately put in charge of – you guessed it, baby bird room!  Estie and Sue seemed to rely on me more and more to assist with medications and assessments – which was also right up my alley – and in addition, since the centre was relatively quiet, I was given the project of upgrading the flight aviaries.  Sadly this project wasn’t completed before I left, the main reason being that funds were not available to just go out and buy what I needed to get the aviaries to the standard I had in mind; the other problem being that external volunteer groups who pledged supplies and manpower didn’t end up delivering on their promises.  It would be interesting to go back now and see if my grand plans were able to be put into place.

What was really nice about the second half of my visit was that I got a cabin all to myself!  That enabled me to spread out all my stuff so I could study in peace and I finally completed the IUCN Redlist Assessors course I had begun back in Capetown, and took the exam.  Unsuccessfully, as it turns out – luckily it’s an open book exam and I was able to take it as many times as I needed to in order to achieve the pass rate of 75%.  In the end I had to take the exam 5 times…. So much interpretation and wading through regulations was involved that I’m not sure anyone could pass it the first time.  I also became a member of the International Wildlife Rehabilitators Council and undertook their Oil spill Response exam – which, after having been taught how to do it at SANCCOB, seemed like child’s play.  I was kicked out of the cabin at the very end of my stay but was offered a room by CROW’s PR guy and his wife for my last 5 days.   Strange being off the grounds but my stay there was very enjoyable.

I inadvertently formed a bit of a bond with one of our baby bulbuls, by “talking” to him – I whistled and he whistled back.  I’ve no idea what we were saying to each other but he seemed to enjoy the conversations!  He would only do it when he could hear me but not see me though – when he could see me he was more interested in flying up and down like a lunatic at the front of his cage on the off-chance that I might have some mealworms for him.  The funny thing was that before very long one or two of the staff were conversing with him as well….  I also very briefly had custody of a little ringneck parrot who loved to snuggle around my neck, head-butted my hand until I scratched him on the cheeks, and who hated going back in his cage.  He was sent to us in total error by Umgeni Bird Park – not only was he not indigenous wildlife, but the bird park were boarding him while his humans were on holiday.  Ooops!!!

I also saw the results of the clinic re-vamp project… it wasn’t completely finished until about a month into my stay, but there is now a lot of lovely new tiling, fresh paint, and an “ops” or admission/consultation room that’s a decent size to work in and that has lots of room to store necessary equipment.  There is also now a dedicated room for very tiny or very ill birds who need to be in hotboxes, leaving baby bird room for those who need more room, less heat, and are able to move into cages.  There was also a nice new “quiet” or ICU room and that was where I ended up spending a lot of time.   The grand opening was in mid-May and in some sort of twist which I never understood, the ribbon was cut by an animal nurse rather than the clinic manager – still trying to figure out the politics of that one!

During this part of my stay, CROW got in several seabirds.  Having spent all that time at SANCCOB dealing with nothing but seabirds made me something of a guru in Sue and Estie’s eyes so I was given full responsibility for rehabbing any seabird that came to us.  We had several cape cormorants and gannets, 3 terns, and the cutest little broad-billed prion.  We also had some kelp gulls come in but in most cases, these were so badly entwined in fishing gear, had hooks so deeply imbedded or had such nasty injuries from motor vehicle collisions that the most we could do for them was to euthanase.  Mostly the other seabirds were emaciated and dehydrated, with the non-appearance of the sardine “run” for the fourth year in a row being the main culprit.  I lost quite a few as unfortunately it was a case of too little too late – the birds were so emaciated that their organs had already begun to fail by the time they got to us.  I was responsible for rehabilitation plans for all the seabirds and under my instruction, several of our volunteers got together to build a makeshift seabird pen complete with pool.  One gannet came in heavily oiled and I was able to show the CROW team the SANCCOB methods of washing, as well as instruct them on seabird care in general.  So nice to be able to give something back to the centre instead of just being the one who was doing all the learning!

Obviously, there were a few seabird releases while I was there and at Estie’s request I even braved a boat ride to release two gannets and my precious little prion.  There are no words to describe the joy and deep satisfaction of seeing those birds back out where they belong.   My little prion - who worried me, because the day before release he crawled into my lap at feed time for a cuddle – took to flight and didn’t stop.  The last I saw him he was a blue-grey speck against the ocean and I hope he’s still out there somewhere filling his belly.  My gannets weren’t interested in going anywhere – they were content to bob on the ocean, bathing and preening, and sticking together.  Given that we had several gannets come in after those two were released, all of whom were emaciated, I hope they found enough fish to keep themselves alive.   We had been assured by local fishermen that there were sardines in the area but since we were less and less convinced as time went on, any gannets after that were sent to SANCCOB for final assessment and release.  My last release, on my last working day, was of two little swift terns who’d been in care.  This was a beach release (I do love beach releases!) and the birds were barely out of the box before they were flying round the estuary like they’d really missed the exercise.  Without so much as a thankyou, mind…. But then, that’s not why we do rehab, is it?  As for me, I wiped my eyes, binned a long thread of plastic I found lying on the foreshore and got back in the car for the drive back to CROW to look after the rest of my charges.

Needless to say with such intensive regimes for my seabirds and the other baby birds in my care, I had no time to be in the kitchen – in fact, Estie banned me from t
he kitchen although there were still occasions when I had to go in there to make sure new volunteers got food right for the birds.  I can’t say I was heartbroken about not chopping food.  One particularly nice job though, was raising a baby barn owl that came in – a tiny little ball of fluff with loads of attitude who, clearly, had to be named Wol after the owl in Winnie-the-Pooh.  When I left he’d been moved down to our ICU block and was completely disenchanted with people – just as we needed him to be. 

We all got very attached to a little chicken we had in… yes, a chicken!  OK he’snot wildlife but it was a rescue – he was one of a pair rescued from a batch of day old chicks that had been gassed.  We reared them both although one didn’t last very long – he developed a problem with his legs which, for all I know, is due to the way chickens have been genetically engineered these days so that they grow fast and can’t even support their own body weight.  The survivor of the pair, Charlie, kept going from strength to strength and ultimately he went on to live out his life with a bunch of other rescued chickens on a big game reserve.

And then before I knew it, my time was up.  I said my goodbyes…although since Sue and Estie insisted that I was never leaving, it was more like “see you later”.  Did my final rounds with the animals, and yes I cried at almost every enclosure, with baby bird room and my seabirds getting most of the tears.   Call me crazy but it’s become a tradition for me to tell every one of the animals that I don’t want to see them again – that I want them to get back out there, to be fat and healthy, and to make lots of babies of their own.

Another ridiculously early morning flight – though by now, I have figured out why I keep doing them.  It’s called being on a budget and with early morning flights literally half the price of daytime flights, it’s worth getting up early for.  This time I was off to a Predator Course, something I’d been looking forward to for months, and my final “swansong” in South Africa.  Hard to believe that my time there was coming to an end.

Update 3 October 2014:
The sad news reached me a couple of days ago that my oiled gannet died from aspergillosis, a particularly nasty fungal airsac infection.  He’d been relocated to SANCCOB for release along with another gannet admitted to CROW after my departure.  Such a shame as when I left he was doing so well, and I’ll never forget his attitude!  
RIP little buddy.”