We always talk about animals, but not so much people. Our big cat sanctuaries at Shamwari private game reserve in South Africa, has a fantastic team devoted to looking after our big cats’ every need. We asked our animal carers – Glen Vena, Martin Miritiawo, Headman Matyumza and Odwa Clay – what it’s like to work at Shamwari and why they enjoy it so much.
Glen arrived as a volunteer student and worked his way up to Animal Care Manager, a position he has held for the last 19 years. He says: “I think more of what I do as a way of life… best job ever, best place ever.” Martin started in hospitality at Shamwari 11 years ago and very quickly moved over to conservation and is now Senior Animal Care Assistant. Headman grew up with a lifelong dream of working with animals and when nature spoke to him “there was no turning back”. He was formerly a tracker and worked with an anti-poaching unit before joining Born Free five years ago as Animal Care Assistant. Odwa joined Born Free as a casual worker in 2016 and is now Animal Care Assistant.
Glen says: “I work with three amazing people every day and without them I would be lost. Martin is my right-hand man here at the Julie Ward centre, assisted by Sandton Septoe our intern, and when I’m not here he takes over my duties and keeps the team together, he is an asset to our organisation.
Left to right: Sandton, Martin, Glen, Odwa and Headman
"Then I have Odwa and Headman at the Jean Byrd centre in the northern part of Shamwari, both amazing people in their own ways. Odwa is a fast learner and a big admirer of our vet Dr Johan Joubert, working alongside him is a dream come true. Headman with his reserved nature but cunning thinking and practical skills, just completes my team. Managing them is a great honour and we make up a great team. Hence my work is so easy to do.”
Teamwork is important as there is lots to do and regular tasks to perform, including; daily fence walks to check the animals and fences are ok; checking for and carrying out any maintenance issues; cleaning enclosures; filling water troughs; preparing food; hosting student volunteers; looking after visitors and conducting tours. Education is important and the animal carers’ play a vital role in teaching people about our big cats’ stories and highlighting the plight of captive wild animals, as well as animal welfare and conservation issues.
Often the team are asked who their favourite big cat is. Obviously this is very difficult to answer as all the big cats are equally loved, but there is generally one that makes an impression. Martin says: “There is a positive energy when Sonja is around me. I can’t really explain it, but we do have a special bond.” Odwa adds: “I love them all, but King stands out, I love it when he plays with water, chases his own tail, jumps up and down his jungle gym and stalks the birds that enter his enclosure.” Glen loves all the big cats but has a special place in his heart for the very first leopard and lions that arrived at Shamwari.
For Headman, it’s Ciam, because he is majestic and has the characteristics of a pride leader. “One day I was with my guests telling them about him. Ciam was in the bushes but we could only see his head moving. Suddenly, one of my guests said Ciam had caught a snake. When we all turned to look, Ciam was running with a long stick in his mouth, which made us all laugh.”
The team all agree they have very rewarding jobs and learn something new every day. Martin explains: “Every day there is always something new to see, something to show and something to share. For me to be part of the vision that Born Free and Shamwari have towards wildlife and to help achieve those goals is very gratifying.”
Glen adds: “Just being part of two great organisations (Born Free and Shamwari), being part of this venture that we are all in, changing the world for the best, preserving our wildlife in their natural environment for years to come and showing others that Compassionate Conservation is the way forward. That’s what I love most about my job!”
The carer’s all have a close affinity with nature and wildlife, they feel part of a family and truly value their colleagues. To be able to educate visitors, share their big cats’ stories and feel like they are making a difference in the world is a powerful motivator.
Shamwari means ‘my friend’ and there is certainly a friendly welcome awaiting you in South Africa.