10 January 2011
Those people who like ghost stories will tell you that midnight is the supposed “Bewitching Hour”. People who work with sick animals know that the real bewitching hour is actually sometime between two and five in the morning; that is when the grim reaper will come. At that time, it is coldest, darkest, the animal’s metabolism is slowest, and they feel most alone. And that is why, in the week before Christmas, we were camping out at night at Safia, the lioness’, enclosure. She was a very sick cat.
It all started on the Monday, the week before, when her carer told us she had vomited during the night. She was, however, fine for the rest of that day and the Tuesday. She vomited again on the Wednesday and Thursday, and so we called out Rea Tschopp, our consultant vet. We all agreed Safia looked ‘off colour’ but was still OK. Safia was sick on Friday and, on Saturday 18th, stopped eating and drinking. That well and truly triggered the alarm bell. Early on Sunday, Rea came back out and we anesthetised her, gave her antibiotics, anti-inflammatorys, lots of fluid and, suspecting a poison, charcoal.
Safia took a long, long time to come around from the anaesthetic and, even on Monday morning, looked miserable. She rallied a bit with the warmth of Monday’s sun, and actually ate a little. By Tuesday the 21st, however, she again looked in decline. She drank nothing all day. Rea came out as soon as she could but, because it was getting late and hence cold, we took the decision to defer knocking her out again until early the next morning, so she would have the whole day to recover.
The sun set that Tuesday night on a weak and depressed Safia, and a lot of very worried people. During the early hours of the night she moved into her shelter, where she stayed. 2.20 am found me, wrapped in my blanket, on one side of the partition which separates her space from human-space, with Safia lying listlessly on the other.
I am sure you are all familiar with the expression of “don’t speak too soon” and, certainly, no one would ever accuse me of ‘thinking too soon’, but I did actually think to myself – as I saw her huge head through the mesh not six inches from mine – “You know, I am not that sorry you are not feeling hungry…”. She approached the mesh divide and I scratched her neck and behind her ears.
Seconds later, Safia did a huge cat stretch; fore-paws out front, rear legs bent but high. and back arched. She yawned, and then went to her water bowl and started to drink. There were a few bits of meat to hand which I passed to her and she gobbled down. And that was that. I stroked her again and she settled down to sleep as I did until 6 am when she woke, and when I could easily have kept on sleeping. She walked around a bit and drank some more. Her whole posture had changed from inward focussed to strong and alert. The corner had been turned, and the reaper’s scythe was stayed.
Rea and Bereket, my deputy, brought meat up at 8 am, and that disappeared without so much as a sniff. Lunch time found Safia pouncing around her enclosure looking at us as if to say “why all the fuss?”
I know the answer to that question; we thought we were going to lose her. That we didn’t was the best possible end to the year.
We would also like to say a huge thank you also to John Knight, Born Free Foundation’s Senior Vet Consultant who assisted Rea and Stephen remotely from the UK.