Exciting!: 13 March 2009
The flights are now all set for the first trip and I leave next Weds! Exciting start – I’m really going into the unknown and have no idea what to expect! Just got to wrap up a few bits at the clinic here in the UK and then it will be time to get organised and start thinking about putting meds and equipment together to take. From the two e-mails I’ve received from the vet at the charity we’re visiting in Malawi he’s a bit short of everything and overloaded with work! Can’t wait to get stuck in, sounds like a worthwhile mission.
Really pleased the first trip got moved forward a week as the timing couldn’t be better – I was worried I’d be leaving Mickey (a client’s cat that got run over and had it’s pelvis shattered about 10 days ago) with an uncertain prognosis, but I did the final operation on him on Tuesday (little bit of suturing around his back end which was all torn) and amazingly he has taken his first steps and has even urinated by himself! Cats are incredible creatures. I’ll be able to give him a final check on Tuesday and leave with peace of mind that he is hopefully going to be okay.
Arrival: 19 March 2009
My 23-hour epic journey from the UK to Malawi is finally over; few issues with the bags as a touch over the weight limit and baggage allowance! Moment of confusion with the bags during transit, but made the connection with 1 minute to spare. Arrived, met the guys and promptly got lost driving around Lilongwe! Great to know we all have an instinctive sense of direction wherever we go… First impressions: great place, friendly people, doesn’t seem too poor in the city, but I suspect rural areas will be very different. Let’s get it in the bag.
First Shooting Day: 20 March 2009
Crazy first day! First thing, Richard (Ugandan vet I’m helping to kick start the LSPCA vet programme with) took me to see a dog he was concerned about in one of the local communities. Poor creature was starving and in constant pain from a shattered back leg. Two options: either pts (put to sleep) or attempt a high risk op. But I had a good feeling we could do it between us, so we got her back to Richard’s garage and amputated the leg.
Last check tonight and she was doing okay (she had three pups we also had to rescue – ready to wean so shouldn’t be a problem).
Amazing how she could look after three puppies at such an amazing sacrifice to herself – just ribs, all the scraps she was getting were going straight into providing milk for the little ones. The traumas she must have been through. She needs to be spayed, but there was no way she would survive both operations today; so the plan is to do that in a couple of months (with a WVS follow up team).
After that we raced off to help Lee (the manager of the Wildlife Centre) dart a leopard – amazing creatures and the health check went well, then to round off the day we wrestled a 4 metre python into a bag ready for its release into a new enclosure first thing in the morning. Definitely not a dull start to the trip!!
Spay day and Bruce Lee: 21 March 2009
First thing was a revisit to Henry the python and releasing him to his new enclosure then off to the Chinsopa community to run a tx/vaccination and neutering programme. The vaccination and txs were managed by Lee (wildlife centre manager) whilst I worked with Richard and Joseph on the neutering. RSPCA International are funding this and they are setting up a brilliant programme – hats off to them for this.
Richard is a great surgeon and things were going well with castrates. I started off the spays, but incredibly sadly the first dog I operated on died. Felt terrible and I can only think I must have missed something on the pre-op assessment because the anaesthetic was text book and the surgery was going very well. I would have got the spay wrapped up in about 20-25mins. She was quite anaemic and very thin so the whole ordeal was too much for her.
Thankfully her puppies had been weaned and were well away from her. Recovering from that was difficult, but to keep the faith of the communities I had to operate on another bitch – it was only after that op that I found out that the other dog I had spayed belonged to the other brother of the same family! It was awful watching the family walk away and I felt dreadful, but the second dog was fine. Can’t believe it as I’ve used that anaesthetic mix on hundreds of dogs in similar situations. Horrible reminder of how brutal this can be.
Hard place to operate as no proper recovery and the animals are released hours after surgery – not ideal and we’ve got to work out a plan that ensures they have time to recovery from the op. After that it was back to the centre to try to release a duiker before heading out for a pizza. Tomorrow feels like it is coming along very quickly – no bad thing because when things are tough it’s always best to knuckle down and focus on all the other animals that need help.
Really funny thing about today was the nicknames we were all given by the boys watching us: Marc was called Chuck Norris, Adam was Schwarzenegger, Nathan was Bruce Lee and I was Van Damme. Probably would have preferred Steven Seagal but Van Damme isn’t bad. Nathan is now firmly called Bruce from here on in, he’s definitely got a steely glint in his eye – one to watch.
Survivor: 22 March 2009
Went to Richard’s house to check on the dog with the pups. She is doing brilliantly. She was really pleased to see us all and definitely raises the spirits. All of us were amazed at how she is recovering. Real joy at seeing her and she was wagging her tail and very content. No swelling and the wound looks great. She is going to make it – I’m so happy about it. It was a bit of an epic today – filming in the supermarket buying her some dog food. I had to do a million takes but the guys were patient as always…
At the Wildlife centre Lee released the leopard back into its enclosure, and a female vervet monkey was brought in that had just been run over. Sadly the poor thing was dead by the time it arrived.
Party at one of the trustee’s houses tonight (Bev’s): great house, super food and they are a great bunch. Glad of the chance to show off my amazing pool skills and lose about 6 matches in a row – kept the guys happy!
Touching...: 23 March 2009
Bruce Lee (Nathan) touched me. Big problem there, but I’ve had a quiet word – I don’t like to make a fuss about this sort of thing, but the touching is a line that can’t be crossed. I can put my own microphone on – it’s not hard, a monkey could do it. I tried not to be over the top about the incident, but it isn’t right. He shouldn’t try to put his hands down my shirt – Bruce Lee or not. Other than that it was a fantastic day. Adam was hardcore lugging the camera around, that thing (the camera) is really heavy and he had to shoot all day from the shoulder, which would have been a killer. He hopefully got some great shots though and the work was exactly the sort of thing I love.
We were working in one of the poorest communities surrounding Lilongwe and it was the first trip to run a livestock programme. I get so inspired by this as although I love working with dogs and cats, doing the graft with donkeys, cows, chickens and goats is something that really benefits the people. The kids in the village were really good fun and at the end of it the village chief gave me four corn on the cobs. Big gift as taking food from people who are so poor felt wrong, but I couldn’t refuse it as it would have been rude.
One incident that won’t make the shoot was a man from the village asked me to look at a horrible wound that was around his genitals. It was infected and very nasty – no idea how he got that, maybe a boil that had burst and got infected, but the poor guy could hardly walk. Popped him on a course of penicillin and told him to keep it clean and buy some tincture of iodine. I hope he does okay. Ethically these sort of situations are a nightmare. As soon as you help one person then they all start coming and I’m not a doctor and I don’t know how to treat them. Very difficult when they have no one else to turn too.
A lot of the kids had ringworm and were very thin. Clement (one the Rescue Centre Staff) is a really warm, nice guy and told me infant mortality is very high there. I can believe it as the public health and hygiene isn’t great. A lot of human waste and toilet blocks were grim shacks with fairly full pits of waste. Reminded me a bit of the refugee camps in Kenya (where I went with a team in 2008) and almost as bad to be honest. Lots of sweet little babies in dreadful conditions. I really struggle to relate these conditions to my home. I’m so lucky to be where I am, it really makes me miss home. I just want to hug Noah and Cordelia after days like these. It’s a hard world, not just if you are a mangy street dog, that’s for sure.
Cough Medicine: 24 March 2009
Adam was coughing like a fiend last night – almost had to smother him, but probably all’s even considering I kept him up the other night by sleep talking. Apparently I was sitting bolt upright in bed having a chat with someone. I’ve told Adam to relax because a) Rambo wouldn’t have been unnerved and b) I was probably going over a piece to camera for the hundredth time for him. Anyway, we’ve got him some Malawian cough medicine so hopefully it will do the trick and he‘ll sleep through anything!
Working with vervet monkeys and baby baboons today. One of the baby baboons took a bit of a shine to me, much to the huge amusement of the crew. I’m trying to look at the positives of having a unique experience not many others will have had. Having that sort of loving affection from a baby baboon wasn’t on my top ten list of must have experiences. At least ‘Bruce Lee’ has started to call me The Talent – he’s getting the hang of it – no irony I’m certain.
Back to the wild: 25 March 2009
Up at 5am, packed and a 4 hour drive to Kasungu National Park.
Met two very inspiring people: Andrea and Jane who are research scientists deep in the bush monitoring the release of the baboons back into the wild. It was incredible to see them back in their natural environment after being rescued from horrible conditions (bush meat trade/poaching/zoo confiscations) and then being rehabilitated at the centre ready for release.
This was the first group of baboons the centre has released back into the wild and it really was a privilege to witness the baboons frolicking and playing around. There was a lot of tracking through deep bush and a close encounter with some angry elephants (not friendly as poaching is such a problem in the park).
Really interesting fact was that they need to train the baboons to be afraid of snakes and birds of prey and they do this with motorised birds and snakes, which they drag along the pens whilst playing baboon alarm calls on a radio so the baboons can learn that these things mean danger.
Great dinner and Marc drove us back – got a front seat so that was a luxury – and back home just before midnight. Found the day really interesting, loved meeting the baboons (yes one of them did give me some love again) and inspiring to meet people who are caring and working so hard to protect the wildlife.
Lake Malawi: 26 March 2009
Lake Malawi is approximately 40,000 years old. It’s the most southerly lake in the East Africa Rift Valley system, the third largest in Africa, ninth largest in the world and its tropical waters contain more fish species than any other lake on earth. Livingstone was the first European to discover the lake in 1859 (upon which he named it Lake Nyasa) and on august 16th 1941 it was the site of the British Empire’s first naval victory when, at the beginning of the first world war, a British gunboat (Captain Rhoades in command) received orders to sink the German Empire’s only gunboat on the lake – which they promptly did (disabled with a single shot from a range of 2,000 yards).
That’s the factual travel info from today’s trip to the great lake. Long drive, about five hours, but the scenery was amazing and I was so glad to get out of Lilongwe again.
The landscape was sweeping and it was a chance to see the real Malawi. We passed witchdoctors in traditional dress, scenic bomas with delicately thatched huts and clusters of school children learning their lessons in the shade of a baobab tree.
We mostly drove at 60kph, but at least we could get a fleeting feel for the ‘real Malawi’.
The lake was majestic and it was a fitting place to celebrate ‘Bruce Lee’s’ birthday. We nailed a take on the lake as an intro to the programme and then as it got dark and the generator was switched off (we stayed in the gecko lounge – to be recommended) there was no electricity so we hit the sack poised for an early start.
Primate rescue: 27 March 2009
Lee did great today. The Mua Mission is a missionary about 140km from Lilongwe and it does great work with regards to aiding the local community. It has set up a hospital and has also established a cultural centre celebrating the people and culture of Malawi. The bad thing about this is the horrible animal enclosure in the grounds: porcupines in dark damp pits, crocodiles in fetid pools with no access to sunlight, and birds of prey in cramped cages. Horrible and very sad. It has taken Lee two years to start freeing the animals and today he managed to rescue a blue monkey and a baboon.
As a trade, the LSPCA ran a community dog vaccination programme to help the local people. I managed to get bitten by one the dogs, which was a bit silly, but the dogs are not used to being handled and many were terrified. It wasn’t an aggressive bite, just a please leave me alone bite and I’ll heal fine. Just a reminder to myself that the ‘owners’ of these dogs have no idea how to handle them and I should be a bit more careful. I pulled a huge maggot from one of the animals – it was buried under its skin and Richard was amazing in his stoical and caring approach to the cases. The team went to do a vaccination clinic and ended up with a cat (bilateral squamous cell carcinoma on its ear tips), a sick puppy and a dog with a broken leg. Richard set the leg at the mission and is going back to recheck it in a couple of months, the cat and the puppy though came back with us. Never straight forward!!
When we finally got back – I dropped Adam, Marc and Nathan back at the chalet. Adam thought he had broken his foot so was cursing fairly frequently, he couldn’t walk so he needed to get that rested.
I headed up to the wildlife sanctuary to give the guys a hand with releasing the blue monkey and baboon in to their new enclosures. It was amazing – the new enclosures were leafy and spacious and I am completely sold on the great works of the LSPCA and Lilongwe Wildlife Centre. It’s been a real privilege to work with these people.
Final Wrap!! (for Malawi): 28 March 2009
â€¨â€¨Chisomo means Grace in Chichewa. Finally I had a nice name that I could pronounce! It was perfect for the dog whose leg I amputated last week. Saying goodbye was sad but it’s stories like hers that get me in the zone and ready for the next adventure. We did some GV’s in town – I was car security whilst Adam hopped and Marc and Bruce walked into the throng of people going about their Saturday morning business and filmed. A few takes for the final scene but finally got it in the bag.
Time to go home! Dinner tonight to say goodbye – real privilege to work with Lee, Richard and their team. Donna and RSPCA International have done great things in getting this going and I’m really sold on the ethics and ethos of what the Wildlife Centre and the LSPCA are going to achieve out here. I’m certain WVS can help and I’ll start recruiting teams for them right away. It’s been brilliant but can’t wait to get back – home tomorrow – be amazing to see how Noah has grown!! Intense first shoot but really worthwhile.