Playing foster mother to Kenya's orphaned wildlife
New York — FOR more than 20 years Daphne Sheldrick served as foster mother to a mixed herd of orphans -- elephants, rhinos, impalas, warthogs, zebras, and mongooses among them. Her husband, David, was the first game warden of Kenya's Tsavo National Park, a preserve about the size of Massachusetts located between Nairobi and Mombasa. After his passing, the new Kenya government allowed this third-generation Kenyan to build a small house in Nairobi National Park, where she lives today surrounded by wild animals that come visiting day and night. Her only pet is a cat she has named Horrible, because he tries to kill birds. ``I'm training him not to do that,'' she explained in an interview at CBS headquarters here. She had come to this country to help promote a television program about her life in Kenya: The Orphan Animals of Tsavo (CBS, Tuesday, 8-9 p.m.).
The impeccably groomed Mrs. Sheldrick looks as if she might be as much at home in an American suburb as she is in her cottage in the wild. But few suburban housewives have ``lions which come right up to the house, since there are no fences between me and the animals of the park.'' According to Sheldrick there are also giraffes, buffaloes, antelopes, cheetahs, impalas, leopards, rhinos, and warthogs, all of which come at night to drink at the salty lake next to the house. ``Some of the animals come around to show me their new children. They're all good friends. I recognize and say hello to them when I come across them in my walks through the park.''
She says she has no fear of the animals. ``When you understand them, there's nothing to be afraid of. There are rules, of course, which you must obey, things you mustn't do in the wild situation, proper ways to behave in the bush. You must also learn the language of the birds, so when there is something dangerous around like a lion you can get a warning by just listening to the birds. You would never go into the bush where a buffalo or rhino might be lurking, who would charge out of a sense of fear and surprise. I find it more unnerving being in the big cities. I'd much rather be stuck in amongst a herd of elephants. It's actually safer in the bush than in New York City.''
``The Orphan Animals of Tsavo'' is a leisurely safari through 30 years of Sheldrick's life among the animals, recorded by old friend and cinematographer Simon Trevor, who was responsible for much of the unsurpassed African photography in ``Out of Africa.'' For the TV show's producer, Survival Anglia Ltd., Trevor has collected delightfully relaxed early and recent footage of Sheldrick and the animals for a fond video photo album of a disappearing Africa. It shows Sheldrick doing everything from feeding baby rhinos and elephants to midwifing an impala.
Sheldrick is especially concerned these days about the African rhino, which is one of the continent's most endangered species. In addition to her work with the Sheldrick Appeal, an organization that engages in wildlife projects in memory of her late husband, she is a patron of Rhino Rescue, which is collecting funds to save the rhino from extinction by placing the few remaining animals in sanctuaries where they can breed before being released into the wild.
``When my husband first came to Tsavo 30 years ago, it was just bush, a wilderness with no roads,'' she says. ``He turned it into a national park. While he was doing that, I found I had an unusual family to raise besides our two daughters: animals which, through natural disasters and poaching, were parentless. Rangers brought abandoned babies to my doorstep, and I found myself rearing them and then training them to return to the wild.
``The impala you see in the film had 10 offspring, and she came back each time to make sure I was present at the births. I was able to see how she brought them up and to follow the development of the offspring and the links they kept with their mother throughout their life.''
Today Sheldrick lives alone with her cat in the national park, since her daughters have grown up and are living outside Kenya. But she visits her foster children in Tsavo (pronounced without the ``t'') regularly. Eleanor, the elephant shown often in the film, is still there, and now, at 27 years, she's a major tourist attraction since Sheldrick wrote a book about her a few years ago. Eleanor helped Sheldrick with all the animals. But she, too, adopted the baby elephants. ``I cared for them for six to nine months, after which Eleanor would take over the companionship side. It was perfect cooperation between a human and an elephant.''
Sheldrick found that feeding the young was not just a matter of giving them cow's milk. ``It took me 20 years to figure out what to feed a newborn elephant. They must be fed only milk for around nine months, nothing else. But cow's milk is death to them because the fat in elephant's milk is quite different to the fat in cow's milk. So I learned to feed them with a mix of fat-free cow's milk, adding coconut and soybean oil and vitamins. The rest is sincere love and constant companionship. A baby elephant is born among a herd of relatives and is never alone, feeding every three hours. The secret of my success with elephants was becoming a mother figure.
``The hardest part was saying goodbye. You must never look on wild creatures as pets -- they belong in the wild situation, not to you. David always said to me that I had to be unselfish enough to say goodbye. My daughters, too, adored the animals, and they had to learn to say goodbye.''
Might it be that by mothering wild creatures, Sheldrick was harming their chance for survival in the wild?
She shakes her head no. ``All animals are programmed to a certain extent,'' she says. ``The survival instinct is innate but has to be honed by exposure to a wild situation. We tried to do that as we raised them. Certainly they were brought up with a handicap, but they learn very quickly. Don't forget that at Tsavo there were no fences; so the animals could wander anywhere they wished for 150 miles around when they were let out of the stables. Gradually they would go farther and farther . . . .''
Sheldrick feels that her experience over the past 30 years has proved that ``it is possible to have a relationship with a wild animal and not turn it into a pussycat. They know they've been befriended and often want to be friendly in return. To be totally trusted by a wild creature is a profoundly moving experience.''