Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Bryony's Born Free Blog

Bryony and Brutus Photo (c) BFF/Shamwari
Bryony and Brutus

Bryony Hedley, one of our supporters, visited the two Born Free sanctuaries within Shamwari Game Reserve during October 2010.  Here is Bryony’s blog of what was obviously a very inspiring experience.

"Have you ever had a big cat look you in the eye?  If you have, you will know they seem to see straight through you, right into your soul.  It happened to me with the beautiful Achee.  But more about her in a minute ...

It all started a very long time ago.  I was 10 years old and travelling back to England with my mother from our home in West Africa, when we heard a new film, Born Free, was being shown in the ship’s cinema.  It was enchanting and heartbreaking in equal measures.   Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers became my heroes, and Elsa, as I’m sure was the case for many other children, my inspiration. 

A few years later I saw the film An Elephant Called Slowly.  Again I was touched to the core.   Virginia and Bill’s hurt became my hurt as I watched their poignant reunion with Pole Pole, trying to reach out and touch her across a moat, and she them with her trunk.  And as every Born Free supporter knows, it was Pole Pole’s plight which inspired Virginia and Bill to form Zoo Check, now known as the Born Free Foundation.  I was one of their first members.  And knew I was in it for life.

My commitment was always sincere and heartfelt, but in my younger days I was too busy leading a ‘wild life’ of my own to devote myself fully to the ‘wildlife’ that really matters.  I had to get it out of my system I guess!   It took a visit to Shamwari last month for me to finally understand which direction I should be heading, and to fully comprehend that this life is not just about ‘me’, but the bigger picture.  And the bigger picture is, without doubt, to help secure the future of all animals in their rightful place – not in zoos, but free-roaming in the wild, where they belong.

So back to Achee and the other big cats!  Earlier this year I adopted Shada, a lioness rescued from a French circus.  For some reason she ‘spoke’ to me, and her picture has been in my kitchen ever since.  I booked a four night stay at Shamwari, and got in touch with Born Free to ask them whether it would be possible to visit their two rescue centres while I was there.   In response, I received more than I could ever have hoped for.

On my first morning, one of the couples at my lodge requested a visit to see the Born Free animals. So with three other couples we made our way to the Jean Byrd Centre, where we were greeted by a gentle and lovely man called Headman.  Having been warned before I left the UK that Shada was quite shy, often in hiding, and consequently that a sighting could not be guaranteed, there she was, for all to see, sleeping peacefully in the sun!  Headman said “Look how strong and beautiful she is!” Something none of us could fail to notice.  When I asked if she was lonely, he replied that she possibly was, and added that she cannot be integrated with another lioness, due to her antisocial nature.  However, the Born Free staff live in hope that one day they may find a male lion to join her – paws crossed this will happen!

Sada - photo Bryony Hedley
My first sighting of Shada

In the meantime Shada’s enclosure backs on to Brutus and Marina’s, so at least she has next door neighbours!  Although I couldn’t help wondering if she feels a little envious of what is obviously a very harmonious relationship between the two of them?  Then again, who am I to speculate what a lion thinks!  Perhaps, like me, she simply enjoys the privacy of her own company.

Brutus - photo Bryony Hedley
Brutus: “Let’s get serious!”
Marina - Photo Bryony Hedley
Marina smiling

Kuma the leopard was being elusive, as leopards usually are.  We could see his tail flicking under his shelter.  He was gnawing away on a large bone, far too busy to pay attention to a few curious humans!  Likewise Jools and her son Jerry were too busy sleeping in the sun to give us any action!

But it was my solo visits to the centres that were the real highlights for me.  Christine and Glen both welcomed me with open arms, and treated me to some rare and personal sightings of their precious big cat charges.  The same morning our group had visited the Jean Byrd centre, Christine collected me after my game drive and took me to the Julie Ward centre in the south of the reserve, where she handed me over to Glen.   Glen, the Animal Care Manager, has worked with Born Free for over ten years and he is awe-inspiring in the love and commitment he has for his ‘babies’.  His sensitivity, dedication and devotion shine out from every pore ... or maybe that should be ‘paw’?!

First he took me to see the leopard triplets, found motherless in the Sudan - Alam, Sami and Nimira.  Alam and Sami were sitting together on a wooden platform.  They looked so big and cuddly, and yet of course a cuddle would have been quite out of the question!  Here they are ...

Leopards - Photo Bryony Hedley
Alam on the left, Sami on the right
Sami - Photo Bryony Hedley
Sami: “Here’s looking at you kid!”

Glen explained that for all the staff they are not just animals – “more than that, they’re family, brother, sister.”  He added how hard it is sometimes being a caretaker, and how heartbreaking it can be when an animal reaches the end of their life and they have to let go. Something that makes his devotion to them all the more awesome, because he puts his animal family over and above his own feelings, and bears whatever sadness he has to with immense courage and grace.

Next we went to see Achee and Ma Juah.  That’s when Achee looked me straight in the eye, and straight into my heart.  Here she is.  As Glen said, “What a face!”

Achee - photo Bryony Hedley
Achee

Achee and Ma Juah’s story is now a happy one.  They came from different places, but have formed a special bond, Ma Juah having assumed the ‘big sister’ role, and thus being very protective towards Achee.  Achee got up for a drink while I was there, and although it was strange to see her roly-poly gait, due to skeletal problems resulting from a poor early diet (Ma Juah suffers similar problems), she seemed so contented, and that will be my lasting memory of her.

Ma Juah - Bryony Hedley
Ma Juah keeping an eye on us!
Achee - Bryony Hedley
When Achee got up, Ma Juah woke up!

Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet the pint-sized Sinbad.  He was lying in the shade of a tree, so all I was granted was the merest glimpse of his rust-coloured mane, and his dark-tipped tail flicking the flies away.  Sometimes you don’t need to see, to feel the power and beauty of these animals’ presence ...

The next day Christine took me back to the Jean Byrd centre.   This time Shada was being a shady lady – it was so hot that afternoon.  Even the temptation of a nice juicy bone could only bring her out momentarily, before she slinked back into the cool of an acacia tree.  Thank goodness for a good zoom ... I love these photos ...

  • Shada - photo Bryony Hedley
  • Shada - photo Bryony Hedley

We spent a long time with Brutus and Marina.  When Brutus first arrived in the reserve, having been rescued from a French circus, he spent two days just sitting in the corner of his enclosure, never having felt the earth under his paws before.  He had been confined to a concrete trailer, less than 2 metres square.  Shocking and desperately sad, but to see him relishing the relative freedom he now enjoys is wonderful.  And after all, freedom is only relative.  If you are born free, you expect to stay free.  However, if you are born in captivity, then the concept of freedom does not exist, except perhaps for an inexplicable and deep-rooted longing for something denied and yet so far unknown.  So what Brutus and the other Born Free big cats experience now, having been rescued from their various appalling and confining conditions, IS freedom to them.  Anyone who sees them and feels sorry because, in their eyes, they are still ‘captive’ should think again. Anyone who understands cats, big or small, will recognise that these cats are truly content and happy where they are.  And in one sense they are freer here, for here they have the luxury to just ‘be’, without the usual threats that come with a life in the wild.   At least now they have been given the chance to live out the rest of their days free from confinement, and let’s not forget they are still wild at heart!

This time I was lucky enough to see Kuma face to face for a few fleeting moments before he snuck off with a disapproving snarl!  My, what teeth!

Kuma - Photo Bryony hedley

So that is the story of my visit to Shamwari, but it is by no means the end.  All the animals I’ve met have given me such a strong message, which has been impossible to ignore.  They have filled my heart so deeply I know they will never, ever let me go.  A dear friend put it very succinctly: “Bryony, you owe it to the animals.”  As do we all.  My path in life is now very clear – from now on, it’s animals all the way!

My heartfelt thanks to Glen for his wonderful and inspiring company ... to Tricia in the UK, whose dedication to Born Free is total and unwavering, and special thanks to Christine for her friendship, encouragement, enthusiasm and support, and for taking so much time out of her busy day to share with me her immense passion and commitment.  I have so much respect for them all, along with everyone else who works so tirelessly on the animals’ behalf, saving these beautiful creatures from the most appalling conditions and giving them the best possible chance to live out the rest of their days in comfort and freedom.  We all owe you so much!

I will close this blog with my all-time favourite quote from The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.  What is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

I owe my thanks to Achee too, for it was she who looked me straight in the eye, immediately found her way to my heart, and, in doing so, made me see rightly."

Bryony Hedley, November 2010

And don't forget you can adopt some of the big cats

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906


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