Shad’s big adventure (part 4)

When you go into the woods next time, walk deep into the thicket then stand perfectly still and you might hear the sound of a bird chirping its daily news to a friend in another tree or the snap of a twig trodden on by a deer as it munches through leaves and acorns.  John and I have often wandered through the local woodlands which form part of the South Downs in Sussex and heard the birds sing and the rustle of the wind blowing through the trees.  Standing in the woods many hundreds of years ago we would have heard the grunts and tail slaps of a family of beavers, the barking howls of a pack of wolves or the hissing and chattering of a Eurasian lynx cat.  Sadly due to the intensification of agriculture and human hunting activities many the UK’s indigenous wild mammal populations such as wolves, brown bears, lynx and beavers are now extinct.  This is why I get so excited about the wildlife that still exists in the woods today like the badgers, foxes, otters, rabbits, wood lice, harvest mice, wagtails, buzzards and tawny owls who rely on each other in complex ways and need our protection to survive.

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In India the forest surrounding the Agra Bear Rescue Facility managed by Wildlife SOS is alive with squawks, tweets, clicks, growls, wails, screeches and squeaks from the enormous variety of animals that live there.  Their bizarre noises reminded me of those made by tennis players during the Wimbledon finals!   The sloth bears that live at the centre have all been rescued from a nomadic tribe called the Kalandar people who traditionally used them as ‘dancing bears’ for hundreds of years.  This brutal practice involves poaching the cubs from the wild (usually killing the mother), piercing their soft sensitive muzzles with a hot poker and pushing a rope through it which is tugged in order to force them to jump up and down in pain for the entertainment of onlookers.  Hard to believe isn’t it?!

Life at the end of a rope was all these bears knew and many can be seen rocking, pacing and swaying, demonstrating stress behaviours seen in large mammals that have been taken captive and held in poor conditions.  The good news is that Wildlife SOS are doing an excellent job of providing veterinary care to heal their physical wounds and a stimulating natural environment to heal their emotional wounds, and they’ll never have to endure such cruelty again.  To help the bears, Wildlife SOS keepers have installed pools in every enclosure for splashing and general merriment and frames and trees for climbing.  There are also daily enrichment activities such as foraging for their favourite fruits in boxes or feeders and munching on a honey and ant bar.  Nice!

There is plenty of love to go around at Wildlife SOS and all orphaned, abandoned or injured animals are welcomed with open arms, just like the hyena that wandered innocently into a village looking for food and was attacked by the ignorant villagers or the baby deer who lost her mum in a forest fire.  The wild monkeys who live in the trees often steal leftover melons from the sloth bears that are too busy rolling around in the grass to notice, and a blind parakeet that obviously could not survive in the wild lives happily in the office and is taken outside daily for some fresh air.  Wildlife SOS is a sanctuary for many beautiful lives that would otherwise have been lost and their dedication to the environment goes some way towards undoing the damage done by humans who exploit and persecute animals in the name of entertainment, religion or profit.  You can help too by never paying to watch, ride or pet wild animals used in the tourist industry because if you saw the terrible events that occur behind the scenes you would be shocked to the core.

Shad’s big adventure (part 3)

The Taj Mahal is one of the great wonders of the modern world and although I’m not normally given to romantic notions, the thought of visiting this beautiful marble structure brought out the philosopher in me.  I was looking forward to contemplating the vaulted dome and drawing inspiration from the ornate spires that extended up from the walls but unfortunately as is often the case in life, things didn’t quite go as planned.  I managed to survive the turbulent taxi ride through the narrow cobbled streets and despite the lack of pavements and alarming number of cows, dogs and people mingling with the traffic, we didn’t hit anything.  My coping strategy was not particularly brave, I simply shut my eyes until the raucous honking of car horns was replaced by a rhythmic humming of a single car engine.  When I opened my eyes I found we had reached a long empty highway and the taxi driver thought it was his turn to shut his eyes.  I meowed like mad, nipping him on the ear periodically in order to ensure he stayed awake and by the time we reached our destination my nerves were run ragged.

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With renewed enthusiasm, I hopped out of the taxi and made my way towards the huge ivory-white edifice looming before me but an orange man with a loud shirt kept smiling at me, throwing me compliments and trying to make conversation despite my obvious unwillingness to participate.  This smooth operator was an unofficial tour guide trying to sell me his exclusive VIP services and apparently despite his mastery of English, he could not comprehend the word ‘no’.   After scaring me into agreement with his tales of evil pickpockets and ferocious muggings, I let him escort me more as my personal bodyguard than anything else.  Apparently the palace was commissioned in 1631 by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor of India, after the death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal during the birth of their 14th child.  It was built on the banks of the Yamuna River and took 22 years and 22,000 labourers to construct.  When Shah Jahan died in 1666, his body was placed in a tomb next to that of his beloved Persian princess.

As I wandered around the palace and its surrounding buildings, I admired the way the walls and ceilings were decorated with artistic calligraphy, elaborate geometric forms and detailed depictions of flowers and vines carved into the stone inlays.  Bizarrely, there was a distinct lack of signposts or information boards throughout the complex which proved to be a potential problem when I realised that my tour guide had abandoned me.  Thankfully my superb sense of smell enabled me to navigate my way through the crowds of tourists as I trotted towards the exit.  I should add that despite my remaining on full alert for pickpockets, it appears the only crook on site was that dodgy tour guide.  I waved goodbye to the police officers guarding the outskirts of the palace and spotted my crazy cab driver with a friendly smile on his face and a bowl of water in his hand.  I gave him an appreciative purr and gulped the fresh water hoping it would give me courage for the wild ride back to my digs.

Shad’s big adventure (part 2)

My feline friends were shocked when I told them that I wanted to visit Wildlife SOS because it’s in India, a long way from home and a surprising turn of events for a cat who enjoys his home comforts and prefers not to overexert himself unduly.  But the allure of the rescued pachyderms was proving hard to resist and I was curious about their natures and the lives they now lead.  John took the most convincing as he was obviously worried (although at the time I didn’t understand why) but he eventually agreed and was delighted that I was about to embark on my first big adventure.  The preparations were a gargantuan task – insurance, visa, tickets, travel arrangements, safety issues, health implications, access to food and water, car drivers, vaccinations, communication with home, etc.  But after months of planning, I set off with my backpack ready to experience everything that my quest had to offer.

I asked a few people to take some snaps of me on the way and you can see me snoozing with my blanket on the plane and chatting with the air stewardesses in these photographs.   My driver met me at the airport and as I started the 4 hour ride to my first stop, I understood John’s concerns.  The roads were chaotic with cars driving in every direction, missing each other by a whisker and honking their horns incessantly while cows and stray dogs wove their dangerous way through the traffic and motorbikes zoomed past carrying 3 or 4 people at a time with no helmets and babies in tow.  Piles of rubble and litter lined the streets while swarms of people went about their daily business in the stifling heat.

My first night in India was spent at a hotel in Rajasthan so that I could visit Ranthambore National Park the next day, an area designated as a protected habitat for a range of the country’s indigenous wildlife from palm squirrels to porcupines, pythons to hyenas.  The jeep arrived the next morning for the tour and I hopped on to the front seat as the rear row was occupied.  To my horror the seat belt didn’t work and I was not prepared to risk life and limb so a gentleman in the back agreed to swap places with me.  This turned out to be a wise move as the jeep drove like the clappers all the way to the entrance of the park.   At this point the jeep slowed down just enough for me to take in the bleak terrain, an eerie mix of barren sandy earth speckled with bunches of dry yellow grass and dead-looking saplings.  Here and there, a water hole was hidden in the desolate landscape and even a lake shimmered quietly surrounded by lush green trees which were lucky enough to find a means of quenching their thirst.  Animals gathered at the ponds including spotted dear, blue bull antelope, peacocks, monitor lizards and a myriad of smaller birds like bright green parakeets, little black and white wagtails, crows, sparrows and finches.

The highlight of the tour was the fantastic sighting of a beautiful tigress wandering through the dry grasslands marking her territory by spraying on nearby vegetation.  Unfortunately the sighting caused a frenzy of activity when the jeeps in the area all converged towards this amazing animal but thankfully she took it in her stride, looking over her shoulder from time to time without showing any signs of obvious stress.  I gazed in awe at this magnificent member of my species and the jeeps followed her at a reasonable distance until she sauntered off into the forest.  She was truly stunning, lean, untamed and radiant, and I wished there were more of them but sadly they are dramatically decreasing in numbers thanks largely to poaching to meet the demands of humans who believe in the medieval principles that form the basis of Chinese medicine.  So there I was, lost in the wonder of the moment, contemplating the splendour and complexity of the world’s ecosystem, when the jeeps suddenly  revved up their engines and began hurtling away at breakneck speed.  Bumping and skidding across the rubble on the paths, my bottom left the seat on several occasions and I gripped on to the side bar as though my life depended on it.  Dust flew up from the tyres and the jeeps one behind another like a giant snake tore towards the exit.  Apparently they were in a hurry because they were late and had to be out of the park by 7pm so that the tigers could enjoy some peace and quiet, the drivers are heavily fined if they fail to leave on time.  It was a fur-raising ride but we made it to the borders of the park with seconds to spare and I breathed a sigh of relief until I saw how much dirt was on my coat and realised I’d have to spend the next 2 hours licking it all off.

Unfortunately Video very jumpy difficult to it still in these jeeps

Shad’s big adventure (part 1)

Its nose is much longer and stronger than mine although mine is better at picking up scent, its ears are much bigger and flappier than mine although mine can swivel, and its tail is much lengthier and bristlier than mine although mine can puff up when I’m startled.  You’d be hard pushed to find any similarities between my furry feline form and the gracious grey bulk of an elephant, but my fascination with these gentle giants from the elephantidae family go back a long way.  It could be the delicate balance of strength and gentility that intrigues me, or the emotional intelligence and supportive social activities of the herd that is so beguiling.  To satisfy my elephant infatuation, I watch nature documentaries on the television with John and I follow the stories of the Asian elephants rescued by the animal welfare charity Wildlife SOS in India.

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Most recently the story of Rhea, a 53 year old circus elephant kept chained to one concrete spot unless she was performing unnatural tricks for her ignorant audience.  Rhea lived with 2 other elephants called Mia and Sita for decades and would have formed strong emotional bonds with these elephants while they were trapped together in those miserable conditions.  Mia and Sita were rescued in November last year by Wildlife SOS and taken to their Elephant Care and Conservation Centre in Mathura near New Delhi but due to legal complications, Rhea was left behind.  Alone for 5 months without her best friends she must have doubted she would ever see them again but Wildlife SOS worked tirelessly and never forgot the promise they made to her to return and secure her freedom.  Finally in April the elephant ambulance made the 350km trip back to Tamil Nadu to rescue Rhea and reunite her with her companions.  I remember watching the video of that magical moment when she saw her ‘sisters’ again, their heads came slowly together and their trunks intertwined, eyes twinkling with delight.  The 3 elephants in these pictures are Mia, Sita and Rhea and they enjoy spending every moment of their days together as they recover from their years of sorrow and pain, deprived of food and water and beaten into submission.  Now they have shade and sand, food and veterinary care, and their own private paddling pool.

Most of the elephants at the Wildlife SOS Elephant Care Centre are taken for long walks every day by their keepers where they can be free to explore their surroundings and experience soft earth under their feet often for the first time in years.  Unfortunately most of the elephants have painful foot conditions that require daily treatment because of the abnormal lives they endured before.  Rhea would have spent years on her feet never being allowed to lay down which might be why I love to look at the picture of her laying by her sand pile with her 2 friends Mia and Sita beside her, able to relax and take a snooze for the first time in decades.  She snores by the way!

Looking after the elephants is hard work – preparing 25 kg of fruit and 100 kg of fodder per elephant per day takes an awful lot of chopping, bundling and carting around.  The keepers also hoist bunches of fodder up to the rafters to mimic the trees and the elephants love to stretch their trunks high to grab the juiciest bits.  Phoolkali puts the huge reeds of grass into her mouth with her trunk and strips the leaves off which she chews happily while she discards the tough stem.  She also enjoys sugar cane treats along with her walking buddy Asha who also loves peanuts.  Talking of peanuts, 6 year old Peanut (seen here with her devoted keeper) is the youngest elephant to be rescued by Wildlife SOS also from a circus, although many of the elephants were liberated from desperate lives as begging elephants or tourist attractions, being ridden by holidaymakers who clearly had no idea of the monstrous treatment an elephant receives in order to become compliant.  Now these magnificent and forgiving animals have a chance to be who they are, to get wet every day and flick sand on their backs and bellies, to chomp on thirst-quenching fruit and snuggle with their friends.