The summer after my first year of college I boarded a plane confident and eager to arrive at my Namibian destination, and six weeks later I reboarded that plane in a swirl of wild animals, emotions, memories, and drive.
Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary just outside of Gobabis, Namibia, is about three hours east of the capital, Windhoek. The sanctuary was structured into two parts. The inner ‘farm’ was home to a plethora of captive wild animals who had been displaced or abused my humans, and were now living within large fenced-in enclosures. These were the individuals who us volunteers were daily responsible for: by preparing food, cleaning enclosures, etc. Surrounding the farm was the outer ‘life-line’, which contained the truly wild inhabitants (both predators and prey) who lived without any real human interference in a game-parkesque circle of land.
Every single day at Harnas was an extreme of some sort. I found myself exposed to so many concatenated experiences that related to interactions/incidents with the wild animals, socially within the volunteers, and politically amongst the staff, that I could never fully parse it all out. I slept the night with a cheetah’s purrs resonating through my ribcage, dealt with prejudice for being an American, braved African wild dogs, scouted giraffes through the brush, diffused animosity, and bonded with an adult baboon.
Harnas was a force.
But the extremes ran more than surface deep, most of us got the impression over our short time there that things were not entirely as they seemed. Not that the sanctuary wasn’t theoretically doing some amount of good, but that their motives may not be in the best interest for the animals. For example, paying volunteers with no experience (myself included) to perform daily tasks like hand-feeding teenage baboons, which resulted in arguably the only moment in my life when I have felt in actual imminent danger from a wild animal. Another example was when guests were encouraged to crowd around a two year-old leopard to snap impressively close photos of such a perfect predator. No fence, no protection – for the leopard.
The integrity of purely helping animals had become muddled, and the topic of ‘humanizing’ began wringing up a few moral discrepancies in my mind. Was Harnas becoming a private zoo? Had they crossed that line between a beneficial amount of human contact and a negative amount? Was any amount of human contact more helpful to these animals than harmful? I had wanted close-up encounters with wild animals, and I got them. But was what I was partaking in good? I wasn’t so sure anymore.
I wasn’t ready then to let go of the desire to work hands-on with wild animals. I loved it too much. So I left Harnas intent on wanting to help individual wild animals through ‘better’ direct contact. I had envisions of how I was going to make a new sanctuary model that was fully geared towards rehabilitation and release of wild animals. But I hadn’t totally eliminated the direct contact I would get with the animals during that process.
Fast forward a decade or so, and my understanding and perception of the topic of sanctuaries and conservation more broadly has changed dramatically. Thank goodness I did not get what I wanted at 18.
I now see that my love was a selfish sort of love. I wanted that contact, the animals did not. In most cases, when humans force or contrive interactions with wild animals, those animals are worse off. Countless research papers, case studies, and media pieces have been published on the many negative impacts that can arise from human actions such as: taking selfies with wildlife (either captive or in nature), provisioning wildlife (i.e. excessively feeding wildlife at the same spot repeatedly – usually for tourist benefit), and wildlife ‘caretaking’ that involves frequent direct human contact.
This is not to say that people and animals don’t bond (I do think that Boertjie enjoyed the attention I gave to him, and I know that I am forever changed from our friendship), nor is it to say that all of the above actions always result in a negative impact for the wildlife. For instance, without the incredible work of trained personnel who rehabilitate wildlife, countless critters across the globe would not have survived getting hit by cars, attacked by domestic animals, conflict with farmers, etc.
But my point is this: we are the ones who are often so obsessed with trying to form a personal bond with a wild animal that we cannot see the damage we are causing to the very species we purport to love. And maybe, if we focused more on appreciating and loving animals from afar, then we could cultivate a culture that values and protects entire wild spaces, rather than one in which we protect only that which we have personally connected to.