Written by Yolande van der Merwe – Manager and Head Carer – The Rhino Orphanage
Photographs supplied by The Rhino Orphanage
As a young calf in one of South Africa’s most unique national parks set in an ancient volcanic crater, Annie, the sassy rhino calf, was well-known with tourists. Many people were treated to quite a show as Annie’s mom would bring her over to the main tourist roads, where the little girl would venture up with true bravado and, nose-to-bumper, inspect the strange objects.
A mutilated mess
One horrific morning, however, Annie was found on the road by herself, desperate, tired, stressed and hungry, with her mother’s carcass, cold and slain a mere 15 metres from the road. Where her horns were supposed to be, just a bloody mutilated mess.
The park management were notified, and a rescue team and veterinarian were contacted to capture and bring Annie to safety. That’s when our Team at The Rhino Orphanage received the phone call, unexpected as is the norm, bringing the normal routine at the orphanage to a standstill in a split second.
Small enough to fit in the orphanage car
Our last phone call for a baby had been over 10 months ago, but your head and your muscles spring into action immediately, never forgetting a single detail of what’s needed when fetching a calf.
Transport permits, admittance form, mattress, blankets, emergency boxes, cash for the road, snacks, drivers’ licences, clean the room, prep a bottle, check infrared lights, check the trailer… you run the list in your mind a couple of times just to be sure. Then we wait for the okay from the attending vet, which can feel like ages. Is the calf small enough to be flown with a helicopter, or do we take the trailer? Trailer it is! Another phone call: no trailer needed as Annie is small enough to fit in the back of the orphanage car. And so, the two-and-a-half-hour trip to the pick-up point starts.
Reaching the pick-up point, we saw the poor little girl for the first time. Up to then we’d only seen videos of her, taken as she played on the road with her de-horned mother three months before. We estimate her age, based on her size and history, as about six months old. She was physically in good condition, no injuries, and at first it was thought that she was found quickly and shouldn’t be too dehydrated. Evidence later on suggested a whole different story, though…
A terrible trip
The trip back to The Rhino Orphanage with Annie was horrific. It was a Friday evening, the last Friday of the month, and it felt like everyone was travelling to Limpopo province. To make things worse, it was raining – no, pouring – for most of the trip. We got stuck in traffic at the toll gates and, to top it off, Annie kept waking up despite getting extra sedation and a top-up three times en route home. Needless to say, she did quite some damage to the car and our tired bodies, trying to keep her calm and in a sternal position (resting on her chest).
When we finally reached the orphanage after almost four gruelling hours on the road back, Annie was ready to walk, and we got her out into an overnight room just in time. And so started the most stressful and tiring two weeks in a long time.
A very stressed little rhino
Despite sedation, Annie was pacing the room soon after arrival, going in circles, partly due to the drugs and partly because she was blindfolded with her ears plugged. This standard procedure makes it safer for rhino and carers alike, eliminating stressful sounds and sights to the wild baby. Circling, pacing and calling for their mothers are normal behaviours we see with almost all new orphans.
The carers tried a bottle, but she wouldn’t have it – Annie got panicky and refused to lie down. Carers kept moving with her, getting her used to their smell and keeping her IV line intact.
Fifteen long hours later, the terrified calf was still up, refusing to rest or sleep or even drink. Panic was controlling everything for her at this stage, and by her second evening she started getting anxiety attacks, and the carers noticed the subtle signs of colic. This is something we dread and have seen before, knowing it may be fatal to a rhino.
By now she’d pulled out her IV line and was still not taking a bottle. The blindfold was removed despite her not drinking yet, hoping it would calm her down a little. She had three doses of sedation, strong meds like Valium, but still, it didn’t help. She was in excruciating pain due to the spasmodic colic and, combined with her panic attacks, it was awful to witness.
All hands on deck
We normally have two carers with a new baby for the first 24 hours, but with Annie, we were running all hands on deck – three people with Annie and another two to assist and care for the rest of the orphans and Annie’s carers. Cooking, making coffee, and bringing it to whoever needed it. For a whole week we worked 24/7, and then another curve ball – our sixth team member fell ill and couldn’t come to assist.
The three people with Annie tried to keep her from injuring herself during the colic and panic episodes. She’d throw herself against the walls of the room and on the floor to “get rid” of the pain in her gut, calling and sometimes screaming frantically. Annie tried to climb the walls of the room to get away from the pain. It looked like some ghost was ripping a carpet out from underneath her feet as she threw herself. She received the strongest pain medication we could safely give her without causing kidney damage, and we ended up sedating her completely just so she could get some rest and also replace her IV line to rehydrate her.
She’d passed some faeces, and it clearly showed that she’d been severely dehydrated, without milk for at least three days. Which left us wondering what had happened in the days preceding the discovery of Annie alone on the busy national park road close to her mother’s cold, lifeless body.
In another brutal twist of fate, we discovered that Annie had ulcers on both her eyes, something that may cause total blindness. Our vet, Dr Pierre, immediately contacted a specialist, and an appointment was scheduled the next day. Dr Gary Bauer cleared his schedule to assess Annie’s eyes and decide on treatment. Luckily, Annie decided that drinking out of a bowl wasn’t a bad idea, and it’s still (a month later) her preferred way of getting milk.
Scared of the dark
By now, our incredible carers were sore, blue and bruised from Annie’s pain and panic attacks, but being the amazing people they are, they just kept going. By day five, Annie and her carers still hadn’t slept properly at night, just catching power naps during the day.
Then, our head carer noticed something strange: Annie’s unease began an hour or so after sunset. After a little experiment leaving the bright room light on during the night, it became evident that Annie was terrified of the darkness; some sort of PTSD left behind of whatever had played out in the days leading up to her mother’s final breath. Annie and her carers slept with all the lights on at night to keep her calm.
Turning the corner
And things got better. The medications for pain, spasms and eyes began taking effect, and Annie started calming down, eating and drinking well. She couldn’t go outside, though, as her eye medication prevented it, but after two weeks, Annie improved so much that she could be introduced to Mapimpi, another orphaned rhino. Mapimpi became her best friend, her companion, and her “safe place”.
It was a rough two weeks for everyone when Annie arrived, even more so for her, who’d lost the two most important things in her life: her mother and her freedom. But, somehow, it’s also treasured memories for our Team, seeing the little improvements, tiny bits of progress, understanding what she needed and what she’s going through, carers eating together on the ground in the dark every night, comparing our blue bruises and wearing them like trophies.
We feel proud of Annie overcoming her hardships and proud to have brought her this far. We can’t wait for the day when we’ll stand proud once again as Annie regains her wild freedom. But for now, she’s safe and happy with Mapimpi in the orphanage for at least another four years.
Find out more about The Rhino Orphanage by contacting 083 645 4398, emailing email@example.com, visiting https://therhinoorphanage.co.za/, or following them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/TheRhinoOrphanage or Instagram https://www.instagram.com/therhinoorphanage/