A rhino's backside is pretty big, even from 50 feet, which is why I did not understand the camera crew's reaction to my shot. They were so impressed! Maybe it was because this was only my 2nd day in South Africa. Or maybe it was because I was told to dart the rhino at the last second, a set-up to put me on the spot. Or maybe they were impressed because I had never used that gun before. Or maybe, just maybe, they were relieved, because there were no fences between us and that rhino, and our only defense against the rhino was the dart gun I was holding.
Rhinos are very fast, and nobody wanted to climb a tree to escape.
It was not until later that I found out the real reason the crew was impressed with my shooting: I was a woman, yet my shot was right on target. It certainly was not what they expected! (Whoever heard of a woman darting rhinos?)
The rhino did charge after I darted him, and we had to do a little running, and a little bit of hiding, but we were never in any real danger. Five minutes later, right on schedule, he went down. We worked him over, I gave him the antidote to the drug, and he was up and running like nothing had ever happened.
Who would have thought that I would be starring in a wildlife television show set in Africa? That I would travel half way around the world to be filmed capturing lions, elephants, and rhinos?
When it started all I wanted was to change my life in some way. My job as a research technician at Massachusetts General Hospital was getting old. My personal life was getting old. I was getting old. (I was only 27 at the time, but I felt old.) After thinking long and hard about what I wanted to do, I decided on veterinary medicine.
Cats and dogs, despite their many charms, did not lure me to vet school. The idea of saving wildlife led me there. So during that first year of vet school, I contacted Richard Wrangham of Harvard University. I convinced him to let me do research with him on chimpanzees.
I cannot say what I had expected, but I was unprepared for the realities of Uganda. It was beautiful but scarred by civil war. The people were friendly but desperately poor. I learned much about so many things in those two months, but very little of what I learned was veterinary medicine.
Just as I found myself unprepared for the cultural aspects of working in Africa, so did I find myself unprepared for many of the realities of wildlife conservation. My naïve plan to make a difference by treating one animal at a time evaporated when I saw first-hand the enormity of the problems of human poverty, habitat loss, and politics versus science. These were huge problems that encompassed levels from how much one household had to eat all the way up to international banking policies.
It was overwhelming, particularly because to hear my professors talk back at vet school, you would think that veterinary medicine had all the answers. I was not going to fix these problems on my own. And nothing I had learned in veterinary school was particularly helpful in addressing these issues. So, as a student in my final year at Tufts, I developed a proposal for a conservation-oriented course for interested students that would address these larger, overwhelming issues, and also veterinary medicine issues that were rarely taught, from cross-cultural training to wildlife darting.
Immediately after graduating I was offered a short-term job with Tufts assessing the possibility of running such a course. I spent 4 months living in Uganda and working with the veterinary school there developing a wildlife course for American and Ugandan students.
When I got back to the United States, real life set in. I had to find a paying job (unlike my job in Uganda which had barely paid for my travel and food), so I got a job working in a cat and dog clinic. I spent several months at the clinic, learning a lot, but mostly wondering how I had gotten this far off track.
I had no real leads. I didn't know how to get back to wildlife work. Then out of the blue one day, one of my mentors from vet school called me up and asked if I wanted to apply for an all-expenses-paid wildlife-capture-training "fellowship"' in Africa, sponsored by a television production company.
As a part of the wildlife management in South Africa, thousands of animals are moved each year from one park to another to reestablish the "balance of nature" that has been disturbed by humans. I would be joining them on wildlife captures all over South Africa, working alongside some of the best wildlife veterinarians in the world, learning by doing. I jumped at the chance.
The only catch? In return for the training I had to agree to be filmed for a new TV show, The Great African Wildlife Rescue. '"Reality TV" was still in its infancy, and not many shows featured real people, so I didn't know what to expect. When the television producer called to interview me, he was very clear that he was looking for an entertainer as much as a veterinarian. "Your resume is great," he said, "but send in photos and a videotape of yourself to see if you qualify for the visual requirements of the job." I was no supermodel, as the producer liked to remind me, but I was articulate, and sort of cute on camera, and that was apparently good enough for the producer. I left the country 5 days later.
My time in South Africa lasted 5 months. I traveled all over, capturing animals of all sorts. The biggest were elephants; the smallest were birds. I worked with the typical animals such as antelope, giraffe, hippos, and lions, and with a few unusual ones, such as wild dogs and oxpeckers.
It was a terrific learning experience. The only drawback was my life was not my own. In signing up for the training, I had agreed to do whatever was asked of me. I had no say in what I did, when, or where. If the producer said, 'We're filming tomorrow at 4 a.m.,' I had to be up at 4 a.m., ready to work until I was told the day was over. Often this meant going without food, water, and even "bathroom" breaks (behind a bush, if I was lucky). Still, I got to do some amazing things.
When I wrote home describing all my adventures, my family read my letters and told me how exciting the stories were. But it was not until the show aired 2 years later that my family finally saw footage of the work I did. Even though the events on the show were exactly as I had described them, my mother's reaction was, " That's what you were doing? That looks dangerous! I am so glad I didn't know!" I did not mention that the really scary, dangerous parts didn't make it onto film--like having a drugged lion walk up to me, having a rhino's horn miss me by 6 inches, or just being on the road at night with crazy South African drivers.
After I finished filming in South Africa, I went back to the United States with no job lined up, no money saved (the filming paid expenses and that was all), and no place to live. At the age of 33, I moved in with my parents. But I was so glad to be home, back in my own culture, and in charge of my own life again that being unemployed did not really bother me.
I was not home long before I got a call from Dr. David Sherman, one of my former professors at Tufts. While I had been in South Africa, he had spent the summer running the wildlife course in Uganda that I had developed, and it had been a great success. David wanted to take a year off to write a book, and he was looking for someone to take his place at Tufts for that time, particularly to oversee the Uganda course. Having been involved from the time of conception of the idea, naturally, I was the one he called.
I was hired for the year, but when my time at Tufts was over, I still wanted to be involved with teaching students about wildlife work in Africa. The opportunity came to set up a different wildlife course in South Africa, working with the conservation people I had first met during the filming of the "Great African Wildlife Rescue."
Many of my students in both the Ugandan and the South African courses were Americans who had seen my show. This made my work more difficult. I had to teach my students that real wildlife work is not what you see on television, not on my show, not on any show. What you see is an edited version that may have taken days, weeks, months, or even years to film. Real wildlife work is difficult, with long, often boring, uncomfortable hours.
It's also dangerous. Unlike television, there is no guarantee of a happy outcome and there is no sound track to tell you when something bad is about to happen. I told my students that when I watched my show even I thought, "Now that is a cool job. Where can I get a job like that?"--because it sure wasn't the job I had. A year ago, during one of the courses I taught, I got injured on a rhino capture. I tore a ligament in my knee, an injury that has never fully healed. After that season, I decided that the meager financial compensation and slight status no longer justified the physical demands and the risks I had to take. I am retired from that line of work, although I still mentor students and teach at vet schools occasionally. I now do consulting for people who run wildlife courses in Africa, but I do it from my home office.
When people ask me if I miss the work, I tell them the truth: I miss parts of it very much, the people I worked with, friends, the beauty of the African landscape, daily encounters with exotic animals such as impala and kudu, and the feeling of making a difference, hands on.