In all my dealings with animal specialists over the years – veterinarians, wildlife researchers, conservationists, NGO officials, sanctuary and national park managers, as well as pet owners besotted with their charges, never have I met a person so in tune with the animal world.
Not actually a trained veterinarian, Christiane (not her real name) had a near mystical communication with animals, and a smooth and seamless way of handling them that sometimes left me aghast.
I had watched her calm down upset and anxious pecking birds of prey, kicking baby impala, butting antelope and biting predators, all with just a gentle touch and a few soft words. I had watched her administer medicines and injections to them as expertly as any doctor, somehow quelling any fear or pain that would inflict. I had heard her silently and in words express her great love for them, all of them; and this had great impact on me, and us.
I had brought my daughter, then nine-years-old, to the sanctuary where Christiane worked to volunteer at the adjoining clinic, not far from our home. Here wild animals with all kinds of problems and injuries were given shelter and care, and medical treatment if needed. A variety of animals were in enclosures at any one time – a vulture blinded in one eye, an injured impala – hit by a car, a wayward flamingo that had lost its way on its migration route, an orphaned duiker.
None, however, captured our hearts as did James, the baby warthog.
Christiane had rescued him from a coursing river during a tumultuous thunderstorm in the park, during which his mother and siblings had been swept away and drowned. Bringing the tiny, soaked, shivering piglet to the clinic, she discovered that he was blind.
She brought him to her home, dried him and hit upon a milk formula he would accept. Seeing his trauma and fear, she took him into her bed where he could be cuddled and comforted through the night.
She gave him the name ‘James’, and made it her personal mission to nurse him to good health and well-being at home. After some months, she brought him to the clinic where he would wander about, bumping into fences and doors and other animals, following Christiane around like a little lost puppy. James’ affection for Christiane was apparent, as was her deep love for him.
Christiane assigned my daughter the task of taking James for long walks in the park where he could feed on grasses and roots, to supplement the diet of carrots, apples and other fruits and vegetables he was given at the clinic.
James loved his walks; and his pleasure in the freedom of movement in the bush was palpable. We grew to love the walks too, and in time also came to love James very much.
James knew my daughter’s voice; and as soon as we would arrive, he would run to her for pets, nudging her pockets for any treats we might have brought.
Christiane spoke to him as one would to a small child; and I swear he understood all that she said.
“I’m thinking of getting James a seeing-eye dog,” she told me one day.
When I responded in disbelief, there came an indignant rebuke: “Why not? If people have seeing-eye dogs, why shouldn’t James? It will help him move around with ease.”
Several years passed, and our Sunday morning volunteer visits grew more and more pleasant, and meaningful. We had long chats with Christiane, about animals, conservation and Nature; and I could see my daughter absorbing her impassioned brand of knowledge and wisdom. In time it became apparent to me what a profound influence Christiane had had on my daughter.
A move from Botswana in my daughter’s secondary school years took us away from Christiane and James.
Some time later, we received an email from her.
"I had a dream the night James died. He appeared to me in a golden light and he had an angel with him. He walked towards me and said that he had come to find me. I asked him why he wasn't in his enclosure and he replied that he had left his body for good. I told him that I loved him very much, and he said that he was happy and would be taken care of by the angel that was with him. I woke up thinking it was a bad dream, but the next day the vet emailed me to tell me James had died the night before. I cried for days...
"I want to thank you for being James' benefactor and very good friend. I know that James' role on earth was very special. I believe he was sent here as a bridge between humans and animals. I know that you saw his specialness and responded to that.
"It is a terrible thing to love wild and domestic animals and then to have them pass away. It is heart-breaking. What I have learnt in my career is to love them all, deeply, with no barriers or constraints, but to enjoy the short time we have with them. The gift of friendship between animals and humans is so precious. I know that wherever James is now, it is a loving place, a warm place, a safer place, and he is no longer blind but can see all the dazzling colours that surround him.
“Thank you for being James' most special friend."
© copyright: Linda Pfotenhauer