Margo Wilkie, better known as the Bird Lady of Cape Town, says the confiscation of the animals under her care by the SPCA and CapeNature last week has left her feeling “broken”.
The Pinelands resident shares that on Monday 15 August she was in the waiting room at her arthritis doctor when she received a call from the SPCA, saying that they wanted to inspect her premises.
When she got home, she says, she found 10 enforcement vehicles parked in her road with about 20 people in uniform.
“My first thought was that there was a drug bust going on somewhere in my street but then I found out it was for me. They had arrived in full force with a search warrant. It was beyond ridiculous,” says Wilkie.
According to a media statement released on Friday 19 August, the Cape of Good Hope SPCA Wildlife Department and CapeNature inspected the facility “following several complaints about the conditions in which animals were kept at Wilke’s Wildlife Rehab in Pinelands”.
It further states that it was found that the centre was operating without a valid permit from CapeNature – a legal requirement for the keeping and rehabilitating of wild animals.
“This resulted in more than 100 animals being removed from the property and taken into safekeeping,” it read.
When People’s Post contacted Wilkie on the same day that the media statement was released and picked up by various news platforms, it was clear that the 67-year-old woman, who up until recently had been celebrated for turning her home into a shelter and rehab for injured wild animals, was devastated at how she was now being portrayed in the media.
“Over 100 ailing animals found at Cape Town wildlife rehab”, one headline read. “CapeNature and SPCA clamp down on wildlife rehab following reports of ‘suffering’ animals”, read another.
“My reputation is destroyed. That for me was always the big thing. If I said I would do it, I would do it,” she says.
Wilkie admits that she is in the wrong in that she had let her CapeNature permits expire. She describes the past five years as having been “terrible”. She says that with her having to undergo two knee operations (the most recent one in April) she and her husband were finding it hard to cope.
“Because I had this situation with the knee and with Covid, I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t find time to sort out the paperwork, between answering 40 calls a day and taking care of the animals.”
She says with the growing strain and her “knocking on 70”, she felt she was “getting too old for this” and reached out to a group of people involved with rehabilitation. She wanted to start handing over some of the responsibilities, but, she suspects that it was one from this group who reported her to the SPCA.
“Now as any person who knows how the system works will tell you, God himself couldn’t get an ‘okay’ after an inspection by the SPCA. Everything has to be perfect,” she says, adding that it was impossible to have everything spotless all the time.
Wilkie describes the media statement as grossly unfair and misleading.
In it, SPCA Chief Inspector Jaco Pieterse speaks of a peahen (a female peacock) with only one leg and a damaged wing found on the premises.
“(It) had to be euthanased due to her poor state. She had no quality of life and fell over when she tried to move – immobile and not able to express natural behaviour,” said Pieterse.
The SPCA said it also found severely underweight and dehydrated snakes, overcrowding, no drinking water for “some” animals and dirty conditions, including a buildup of months of excrement in “some” of the animals’ cages.
The word “some” was also used in the media statement to describe the number of animals that the SPCA and CapeNature said they found to be “suffering” at the facility.
“Especially how they described the peacock; they made it sound catastrophic. I got that peacock as a little animal. It had been severely injured by a horse. When the vet took the peacock’s leg off, we decided to see if it would be able to cope with one leg once it is fully grown. Not all birds can but some do. It was just recently that her body weight was high enough to tell,” explains Wilkie.
She adds that once it became clear that the bird couldn’t carry its own weight, the process had begun to have it euthanased. She says she even informed the SPCA that the process was underway and asked them to ensure that it gets carried out.
“And, yes, it had one missing leg, but the wing wasn’t damaged. It used to fly around in my garden. They didn’t put the truth out there,” she says.
She also disputes that the snakes were underweight, saying that she could show in her books how much of her husband’s salary they spend per month on food for the animals.
“I had one that was anorexic and an anorexic snake is like an anorexic human, it is a struggle to get them to eat.”
The media statement also specifically mentioned two protected Blue Cranes as being among the animals that were removed. Wilkie, says, ironically, one of the blue cranes was referred to her by the SPCA 11 years ago.
“If they didn’t like what I was doing, why give it to me?”
Wilkie says they first moved into their home in Pinelands on 15 February 1977.
“That week the first tortoise was picked up in the road and brought to me,” she says.
It wasn’t long before she became known far and wide as the person who you could take an injured animal to for care.
When Expresso Morning Show did a story on the “Bird Lady of Cape Town” in 2016, that first rescue had grown to include ducks, pigeons, owls, parrots, orphaned goldfish, koi, geckos, lizards, toads, frogs, snakes and even bats – basically, anything that needed help other than dogs and cats.
Now, after almost half a century, Wilkie says she is finished.
“How do you start again after 45 years, knowing every year you are going to have the same situation, expose to the same bureaucratic red tape.” She says the worst thing for her is not knowing what the fate will be of the animals that were removed.
She says so many of the animals in her care had the most incredible stories behind them.
“Purely because of the stories they came with, they should have a chance to live. I had an old leopard tortoise who came to me from the Eastern Cape. It was rescued by a man who, when driving by, saw it in a pot, ready to be cooked. He bought it out of the pot and flew it to Cape Town where it ended up with me.
"That tortoise learned how to push open my door, and when it was cold it would let itself in and come and settle underneath the table where my birds are. Every animal had a story like that.”