The buck stop here

2011-08-08 00:00

STARING wide-eyed from a warm bed of hay, the baby duiker has no clue how fortunate he is. It’s one of the coldest days of the year, and after being rescued from the middle of a road in Hilton by a Good Samaritan, he is in the care of Theo and Margie Cavé.

Warm, well-nourished and safe, nestling in a corner of a specially modified bedroom in their home at Albert Falls, the six-week -old buck, whose ears curl down at the tips, has aptly been named Lucky.

A character with a wry sense of humour, Theo welcomes us, through the happy tail-wagging dogs, into their home. It’s Africa on their doorstep, as Albert Falls Dam stretches away before their front lawn. A crackling fire in the grate, a pecan-nut pie just out the oven, we settle down to coffee and a chat. A fat cat, who once suckled an abandoned genet, perches on a chair and closes her eyes in bliss. Outside, a haughty rooster struts past the front door.

The Cavés have turned their home into a safe sanctuary for wildlife, where they specialise in rehabilitating and releasing water birds. They’ve also nursed everything from buck to otters, and even a rogue crocodile. “If it needs attention, we’ll treat it.” They have earned a stamp of approval from the Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife (Crow), which entrusts them with the release of the water birds they have rehabilitated. “We had 30 Egyptian geese recently, and they are all ringed by University of KwaZulu-Natal ornithologist Mark Brown. In their bird clinic are a red-wing starling with a broken wing and the most beautiful rainbird (Burchell’s coucal) which was taken to Crow as a baby unable to fend for itself.

“Crow raised it and it’s fine now, but I want to wait for spring to release it, when food is more plentiful. It eats mainly lizards and insects.”

A pair of the Egyptian geese have been coming back to nest at the Cavés for eight years now, after one of the pair was rescued with a broken leg, which now has a pin in it.

“We are in a constant state of readiness for whatever animal may need our help next.”

The buck are kept in a bedroom which has a panel of glass which slides out so they can be confined at night, but easily let out during the day. While Lucky stays inside due to his tender age and the cold weather, outside are a bushbuck and a duiker, lying side by side in a shelter. “Even though they are different species, they interact and lick each other, and sleep next to each other, which is good because buck are less likely to imprint on humans if they have other buck with them while they are being rehabilitated.”

The Cavé’s say that most of the buck they see are victims of car accidents or dog attacks. They have a specially adapted pen for injured buck which is lined with mattresses, so that they don’t hurt themselves if they thrash about. Once the injured buck are brought in, the vet gives them a long-acting tranquiliser which lasts three weeks so they can be treated and given time to heal. “Adults, especially, are very skittish and try to jump about, so in order for us to tend their wounds and give them physiotherapy, it’s best if they are sedated.

“The ‘littlies’ come in because they are orphaned or have been attacked by dogs, and the adults because of snares and cars often. We even see some that have been attacked by big cats, with cuts on their necks, from servals or linx.”

Theo says the babies are conditioned to lie and wait for their mothers while they go out foraging. “So if you come across a baby buck in the wild on its own, don’t assume it has been abandoned. Go back and check 12 hours later and if it is still there alone, it makes sense to intervene, or if it is left in a vulnerable place.”

Theo is known in the area for his work rehabilitating buck. He sometimes has people arrive at his gate with a buck wanting R200 for it. “I tell them it’s illegal for me to pay for it and for them to sell it to me. I also tell them it’s going to cost me R700 and six months’ work to rehabilitate it. I give them a chicken and tell them there’s more meat on a chicken than on a baby duiker.”

Snares are an ever-present problem and the cruelty of this hunting method make the Cavés see red. “It’s also the absolute waste of it. We see snares with rotting corpses of buck and dogs in them, which haven’t been checked for weeks.

The Cavés’ biggest expense is the long-life milk they use to feed the baby buck. “There’s a special formula we use of long-life milk, egg and probiotics, which works wonders.”

The Cavés are just one of a network of philanthropic wildlife nurturers who make up the Midlands Wild Care Network. This likeminded group includes people who specialise in the care of animals as humble as tiny mannequins to majestic birds of prey and even reptiles. “We’re just ordinary people, but we’re soft in the head,” grins Cavé. “You can’t stop once you start.”

The animals are released into safe sanctuaries where they can be assured of a future with no snares or traffic. A warm release — where the animal is slowly made independent — is used for baby animals which have not existed in the wild alone before. They are placed in a boma for three weeks in their new home and are fed and watered. Then the door is opened but they are still given food and water, and can safely explore their new environment. Adults are given a cold release and simply let go once they are ready as they have experience of sustaining themselves.

The Cavés have also cared for plenty of scrub hares, but the most fun they have had is with the otters they have looked after.

While they don’t believe in making pets of any of the wild animals they share their home with, the otters wormed their way into their hearts in a big way. “They have such personality,” says Margie. Chuckles was found abandoned on the dam wall at Albert Falls and arrived as a runt of a baby. Although he was released some years ago, he still interacts with people fishing on the dam. “They are the greatest fun to have around.” With water frontage at the bottom of their garden, the otters simply leave when they are ready.

The most rewarding work they have done is with Oribi, which are endangered. “It’s wonderful when we manage to save one and put it into a registered breeding programme.”

Probably the craziest thing they ever did was house a crocodile in their shower for a couple of days.

“At one stage, there were plenty of crocs in the water systems here, after they escaped from the crocodile farm. We caught one and Parks Board asked us to keep it until they could fetch it.

“We are blessed to do this. It’s the life we have chosen. Although we have to steel ourselves for the times when things don’t work out and there is inevitable heartbreak, it’s the rewarding times that make it worthwhile. Like when we release a water bird and it flies around the house three times, calling as if to say ‘I can fly, I can fly, I can fly!’.”

The Cavés paid tribute to both the SPCA and Veterinary House, who they say provide them with great support.

Right: Theo Cavé holds Lucky, the baby duiker saved from certain death and now being given a second chance.

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