Enslaved by animals: the true story of a wildlife rehab dog.

by Chris Mercer.

(formerly of the Kalahari Raptor and Predator Sanctuary, South Africa.  Co-author with Beverley Pervan of the book “For the Love of Wildlife.”)

Shumba sniffing the Jackal pupShumba with Meerkat pals

Shumba and meerkat pals

Bev and I used to run a wildlife sanctuary and rehabilitation center in a remote part of the Kalahari semi-desert area of South Africa. Actually we did not run the sanctuary, although we owned it and paid for everything out of our declining savings.  The animals did.

Our friends and children might worry about us, but actually we don’t have any friends and our grown-up kids have long since fled the solitude to mount their assault upon the global economy.

Alright, we were a friendless, childless couple who found ourselves being held in thrall by a repressive system of rules inherent in living with animals.

As with any management structure, there was a hierarchy at the Kalahari Raptor Centre.  Perhaps like corporate hierarchies, our hierarchy shifted and varied according to new arrivals and departures.  The arrival of a lion, for example, would seriously affect the existing order of things.

We had two massive Boerbull dogs, who weighed a sizeable 75 kgs each.  The male dog, Shumba, had assumed management duties, and believed that he ruled the roost.  Actually, he only ruled for 98% of the time, because we were visited occasionally (about 2%) of the time by a colony of meerkats, and although not much larger than a rat, these fearless little attack machines would confront even a Boerbull.  If you spend your time killing scorpions and snakes, then who is afraid of a dog?

Shumba (meaning ‘lion’ in some African language) was a trade unionist per excellence, and required the most scrupulous adherence to the Rules of the hierarchy at all times.  For example, it was not uncommon for me to be under the car struggling to tighten an oil filter, and to find myself unable to turn the wrench because of a football-sized head peering up to see that I did not strip the threads.

Every wild refugee who arrived at our center in need of care was compelled to be introduced to, and sniffed at, by the manager (Shumba), by way of introduction.  This was a Rule, and it enabled Shumba to complete the guest information list in his head, against which all future social interaction with the animal would be determined.

At one time we opened our arms (and our pockets) to a pair of jackal pups, whose mother had just paid the ultimate price for doing what was natural in a material world.  Jackals are dogs too, being members of the canid species.  Before her untimely departure, their mother had obviously trained her children very well, because at the mere sight of the canine manager of the center, the pups put on such a polished display of abject groveling, that he must have felt fulfilled.  They put their pointy ears back in submission and wriggled and squirmed up to him, their bushy tails thumping the ground or swinging wildly.  Then they darted little licks at his fleshy jowls and climaxed the show by flinging themselves down on their backs at his front paws, begging for acceptance.  The Boss received the acrobatic display of servility with elegant aplomb, and then cast about their camp until he aroma-located their half-empty food bowl.

Thereafter the relationship between the 75 kg Boerbull and the tiny jackal pups fell well within the strictest interpretation of the Rules.  Whenever they caught sight of their canine master, the alert pups would drop whatever bone or tennis ball with which they were playing, and prostrate themselves at his front paws, tails thumping madly.  In return they received the grudging acceptance of the master.  They were allocated a place in the hierarchy, above the cat and the caracal (lynx) kittens but below the adult caracal, who not only insubordinately failed to flinch when subjected to a display of snarling by Shumba, but actually showed mutinous intent to give as good as he got.  The bat-eared foxes were ranked above the cat as well, especially the rehabbed fox who rejected the call of the wild for the comforts of a regular supply of mealworms and the use of our bed at night.

All the animals instinctively knew the hierarchy and the Rules.  The order may not have been codified, but it was nonetheless certain.  At one time or another, we have been informed by all the animals individually that we were at the bottom of the pecking order.   For example, if the fox wanted the foot of the bed, then Bev and I were allowed full movement (which at our age is not much).

If rain fell upon the iron roof, causing Her Nibs to become nervous, she moved up to the middle of the bed, and we had each to make do with a side strip.  However, in the event of a noisy electrical storm and the flashing of lightning, the barometric fox moved right up to the pillows.  Our comfort was not considered and we were expected to arrange ourselves around her.

Our bedroom had a sliding glass door on one side, and a large window from ceiling to floor, on the other.   Shumba therefore chose to sleep, in all weather, outside our window in the Kalahari sand.  We did give him a comfortable bed of his own in the shed but only because we did not know the Rules.  In our ignorance we did not know that it is a fundamental Rule that eye contact must be possible at all times, even when we are sleeping. That is the way of the pack.

Once a week we used to go into town for an expeditionary shop for the benefit of the occupants of the center.  Shumba would stand at the gate like a sentry, watching us leave.  It was not a sad look we got, which might be flattering, but rather an alert look, warning us that we were breaking the Rule about maintaining constant eye contact, and that only bad things could come of it.  He was quite right there, for great financial damage attended every such trip.  Upon our return, there was a restrained show of pleasure that we were once more back to bondage within the Rules.

It is a popular misuse of language that romanticizes dog culture in our developed society.  Take the following passage and then replace some words with those chosen from another perspective to see what we mean.

Popular version:  People keep dogs because they need them in some way or another.  However once we have dogs, they show us such selfless devotion that we cannot help loving them.  Once the paw prints are allowed in the home, in no time they become imprinted upon our hearts.  So in effect dogs become our moral tutors.

Correct version:  People keep dogs because they are suckers for the underdog.  However, once we have a dog, it takes over the house.  Once the paw prints are allowed in the home, in no time they become imprinted upon our necks, keeping us down.  We become their slaves.

Of course, some humans will always fight tyranny.  As we would tell Shumba when he was particularly overbearing, for every human who sees a dog as a cherished member of the family, there were still those for whom a dog is merely a security system tied to a backyard chain.

He was supremely unfazed by our subtle threat, and as we wrote this piece, was lying in the sun on the sand outside our office, keeping eye contact through the large window. He was relaxed because everyone was in his proper place and the world was as it should be.  Now watch some human come along and screw up the whole system.


Written in January 2004, shortly before Bev and I retired.


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