Some stories about some encounters I've had with some animals of some country called South Africa.
On my second day in South Africa, we trainees had a few hours to ourselves to explore the college campus. We'd all seen an old, concrete watertower on the edge of campus, and rumor from previous volunteers was that failure to climb this tower before the end of training would result in eternal regret.
During our free time, we made our way over to the tower, which I estimate was about 100 yards high. One by one, people climbed to the top and telled down, "You absolutely have to see this!" But I couldn't shake the image of slipping off the ladder and hitting every steel support on the way down. By the time it was my turn to climb, I was absolutely certain that I'd die, and death just didn't seem worth it.
I had a few nightmares about the water tower that night, each featuring a more gruesome bone-breaking noise than the previous. I woke up an hour before sunrise and couldn't get back to sleep. I got up to wander around the campus for a bit.
I'd decided that if by the time I got to the tower, if there were people there, I would climb it. After all, I was here for adventure, and I had to get used to overcoming fear and discomfort. To my dismay, when I arrived, there were two trainees sitting at the top.
So I started climbing. By the time I realized what I was doing, it was too late to change my mind. It was only going to be worse going back down, because I was going to have to look down and see how high off the ground I was. I focused on the rungs in front of me and made my way to the top.
At the top of the tower, inside the concrete drum, my fear was at its peak. Falling from this height, at best, would result in severe mangling. Every detail seemed to suggest that I would soon be dead. The sweat on my hands made it hard to grasp the rungs. The cool wind rushing up from below was drying out my eyes. My feet ached from stepping on the thin rungs.
At the very moment that I was most certain that I was going to die, the owl who lived in the drum decided that he didn't want me in his nest. He flew between my body and the ladder, back and forth, wailing and clawing wildly. I made a conscious effort to hang on as tightly as possible while I leaned back and gave him room to get away. He didn't want to get away. He harried me a bit longer. I was somehow going to have to fight back. Between the terror and the adrenaline, I managed to muster the willpower to take a hand off the ladder and gently brush the owl away.
When he was finally gone, I pulled myself the last twenty feet to the top of the tower and plopped myself down. I looked to see if I'd peed my pants. I hadn't!
The two trainees at the top -- Matson and Kristen R. -- were completely unaware that anything had happened. For the next half hour, I sat up there with them; they were waiting for the sun rise. The morning light was enough to watch the owl go off and catch a mouse.
About ten minutes before the sun came up, I'd caught my breath, and my heart rate was back to normal. I didn't want to watch the sunrise, so I calmly made the climb down and went back to the dorms.
I'd see that owl a number of times again during my training at the college. Every time, someone would comment on how cool it was to watch an owl hunt, or what a beautiful creature it was. If only they knew.
The campus was swarming with stray cats. During lunch, the cats would make their way to the Americans who were eating outside and beg for scraps. At first, they ate whatever we gave them: carrot scraps, cookie crumbs, break crusts, whatever. After they fattened up, though, they started to get picky. They would only eat meat.
Among the swarm was a mother/son pair. Our first week at the college, the mother was very nurturing to her son. When she got a scrap, she'd get it away from the other cats and share it with her kitten. As the weeks went on, however, Mama clearly grew annoyed. At first, she would only share non-meat scraps. Then she stopped sharing altogether.
But Baby didn't realize what he was supposed to do. Instead of going to the Americans and begging for food, he started to attack his mother every time she got food. She was a lot tougher than he was, though, so he never got to eat much.
I thought the mother's message was clear: baby kitty had to grow up and learn to take care of himself. Mama wasn't going to be around forever, and even if she were, she didn't have to energy to take care of him.
Finally, after a few agonizing weeks of watching the little cat fail to learn to beg, he had a breakthrough. He figured it out. He was hungry enough to eat the scraps that the other cats didn't want. And once he got his energy up, he was even bold enough to fight for meat scraps. He won some too.
One day during lunch, Baby and Mama made their way around the corner to where I was sitting. They were walking together and seemed to be getting along fine. How nice, I thought, that after all the savage beatings, Baby and Mama still get along.
And is if they'd heard my thoughts, they both turned to look at me. Mama sat down and Baby made his way over to me to beg for some food. He'd learned! How exciting! I picked a little piece of sausage off my spathlo and tossed it to him.
Mama instantly caught Baby with a full-on body tackle. There was hissing. There was clawing. There was much kicking up of dust. Finally, Baby ran away and Mama wolfed down the chunk of meat.
Gray the Dog
In SA, animals are treated much differently than they would be in the States. As you can imagine, people aren't as willing to fork over hundreds of dollars to cure their dog's case of worms, for instance.
In fact, the most common treatment of a pet dog that we've seen is that the dog gets chained up outside all day. He gets some food, gets some water, and generally is neither miserable nor thrilled with life. The people here aren't cruel to animals; they just don't treat them the same way Americans do: like their own offspring.
During our first visit to our site, I found cowering in the back yard a dark gray dog. She looked emaciated, and was apparently terrified of everything. When I went over to pet the dog, someone from the house yelled at me not to touch her, no one knows where she's been.
Every time we saw the dog, it would run up to me, as excited as I've ever seen a dog. It would cheer me on as I walked to the pit toilet or fed the chickens our vegetable scraps. And although she was happy, she was also clearly terrified that I would boot her in the head.
If I was with someone when I saw the dog, they would give me a reason not to touch or feed her. She had killed a goat (although there was apparently no missing goat or a corpse to substantiate the claim). She had rabies. She belonged to a witch.
I thought about it for a long time. Would it be worth it to watch out for this dog? If I taught her that people weren't trouble, I'd be doing her a dis-service. No one in the community seemed to want her around, and if any of the things people had said about her were true, her best bet would be just to run off into the desert and learn to live there.
So for a week, I ignored the dog or chased her away every time I saw her.
But I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was hardly an ethical dilemma: she was just a dog, and many dogs in SA have it a lot worse. I had no obligation to this dog, and encouraging her to take care of herself (in the style of the Mama cat) was probably the best thing I could do for her.
But one day, when she made her way up to me, she wasn't going very fast. She looked sick and even thinner than usual. I just didn't have it in me to turn her down.
So I grabbed a Weet-Bix, put some peanut butter onto it and tossed it to her. Two bites, gone.
I went inside and felt guilty for a few minutes. Lauren came in and said, "I know I probably shouldn't have, but I snuck that gray dog some food this morning." Before this moment, Lauren and I had never talked about feeding that dog. I was pleasantly surprised to see that someone else had taken notice, even if it was an American.
The next day, when I went to the backyard where Gray usually relaxed, I saw a bowl with some bogobe and meat scraps. Our host father had put it there.
My theory about no one caring about the dog had been blown away.
Now, she gets all our scraps, and a Weet-Bix on special occasions.