Thursday May 24- The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Another morning, another chorus of lion roars to wake up too.  This morning was a walk with the ever entertaining and beautiful lion cubs Paza and Penya.  I have a kitty crush on the P's and the L's... just call me a crazy cat lady.

After our refreshing walk in the crisp morning breeze, it was time for meat prep for the cubs.  When we do meat prep, we cut up pieces of whatever is available at the time and set it aside for the cubs.  we also sometimes fetch bags of internal organs and dismember carcasses to be given to the larger lions.  I actually liked meat prep a lot because you get to feed the cubs and watch them fight over who gets which leg, and sit right in front of them as they have their treats.

This visit to the butchery was particularly special.  After driving through the cloud of flies (not really a great welcome, but I'll take it), we opened up the cold room.  Inside the cold room were a bunch of carcasses waiting to be chopped to bits and be the next meal.  On the menu for today was a cow carcass.  However, our friendly cow was laying in the middle of the cold room, and there was myself, Alex, 2 other volunteers, Charlotte (an intern) and Ticha, a legendary lion handler.  So we had to dig our fingers into the skin of the cow and haul its body out of the cold room.  Easier said than done as the head of the cow kept getting caught on other carcasses and the frame door.  No worries, we had it under control and eventually, the bloated cow was laying in the middle of the butchery, ready to be cut apart.

This sounds sort of morbid... all part of the job.

After hauling the cow out of the cold room, we found our knives and started taking the legs off the cow, each of us volunteers began taking apart the legs, and before long, the smell had gotten the best of the other 2 volunteers and they stepped aside.  Not phased by the smell, the blood or the flies, Alex and I made quick work of the legs and we were soon left with a bloated abdomen and head.  Ticha, being the gem that he is, kindly took the job of removing the head of the cow, and removed it like a pro.

We were left with a cow abdomen which was filled with gases, after having been dead for some time, and we were debating on who was going to puncture the abdomen so we could get to the internal organs.  We were hunting for a piece of liver and a piece of lung so that we could give the cubs each a piece because they contained particular vitamins and minerals not necessarily found in the muscle of the legs.  Figuring I had a future in butchering animals, I drove the knife into the abdomen and disappeared into the carcass in search of the lungs and liver.

Side note- Alex and I learnt a lot about ourselves while gone, and decided on a career plan, if for whatever reason, going to veterinary medicine doesn't work out in our favour.  We are going to open up a multipurpose store, including a butchery.

After getting the bits we needed, we pulled the truck and trailer around and loaded the legs and organ bits into the truck, and returned the abdomen and head to the cold room to be a treat on another day.

We drove back to camp and delivered our legs and organ bits to the lounging kitties and watched them as they each chose a leg and wandered off to start ripping the flesh off the bone.

We returned back to camp and had a quick lunch before our next activity.  The next activity was not a standard activity, and thus had garnered a lot of interest from the other volunteers.  The activity?  Tranquilizing and moving lions.  Pretty awesome, right?

The lions getting ready for the move were the so called "Gum Tree Boys".  They were a group of 4 very large male lions off in an enclosure near the park perimeter, separated from the other lions.  They were being relocated into the Breeding Program and were going to join the other lions there, and be part of the "Big Lion Feed" for tourists.  Leigh-Ann, the Lions Manager, was the only person at the park that was certified to dart and tranquilize the lions, and had been kind enough to allow us volunteers to watch her and the other lion handlers take down the lions.  Even more interesting?  Leigh-Ann was 8 months pregnant.  Talk about dedication and a serious go-getter.

So we loaded up into my favourite chariot, endured an African Massage, and arrived at the enclosure.  There we met various lion handlers and found Leigh-Ann mixing up the tranquilizer drugs into a needle on the end of a long pole.  The enclosure was very large, with trees in and around it, and in the middle of the enclosure was a two-level staggered platform.  Also, as with all enclosures, there was a maintenance enclosure attached to the side.

The plan of attack was that Leigh-Ann was mixing enough drugs for two lions.  Each mix was specific to each lion, based on their estimated weight, and it was important that each lion got their own injection.  They would then move two of the males into the maintenance enclosure and keep them there while their buddies were darted and moved.  However, to dart the lions, you had to encourage them to the fence and position them so that they were close enough that Leigh-Ann could inject them.  It didn't take long for two of the lions to move into the maintenance enclosure and the other two seemed very interested in rubbing against the fence and greeting the familiar lion handlers.  But they are much smarter than they look.  As the lions were soaking in the love from the handlers, we watched from the side lines, careful not to get to close because we did not want to scare away the lions.  Sure enough, the second Leigh-Ann positions the pole, using the chain link fence as support, the lions would turn towards her (not the desired position as you want to deliver the injection into their rear), giving a warning snarl and sometimes a bat with their giant paw.

Leigh-Ann wasted no time, and eventually injected both the lions and we watched patiently as they walked around their enclosure.  Eventually the drugs made their way through the lions' system, and they stumbles towards the fence lion, laid down and eventually were sedate enough for the handlers to enter the enclosure.  Once the lions were asleep and the handlers were in the enclosure, things started to move very fast.  The staff members divided themselves between the two lions as a truck backed into the enclosure   At each lion, someone was monitoring vital signs and keeping a very close eye on the temperature of the lion, someone else was pouring water on the lions to keep their body temperature down, while someone else was spray a wound spray on the ears and other areas of the lions that were being eaten away by flies.  Once the truck was in position, a stretcher was unloaded and placed beside the lion and the lion was rolled into the stretcher.  Then a bunch of lion handlers heaved the sedate lion into the back of the truck and went to the next lion and loaded him beside his buddy.  Once the truck was weighed down with two adult lions, they soaked the lions with some more water to make sure the would not overheat and they took off towards the breeding program.  We all then hopped into back into the chariot and followed the truck to the new enclosure.

Once we arrived at the new enclosure, the muscle (AKA the lion handlers) unloaded each stretch and carried the lions into the enclosure and into the maintenance enclosure.  Just to paint a picture for you as to how difficult this take was, picture this.  At the original enclosure, the main entrance to the enclosure was a large gate the height of the enclosure which is (I'm not a good estimator but her it goes) at least 12 feet high.  At the new enclosure  there are some large entrances but this enclosure does no have one so you have to go through the small gate and then through another small gate into the maintenance enclosure.  How big are these gates?  Just a little bit taller than the lion themselves, and just wide enough for two lions to squeeze through and be very cozy while doing it.  Now have 4 grown men, 2 on either side with a lion between them, trying to go through this.  It wasn't pretty, but eventually the lion was laying comfortably in the enclosure while his buddy was fetched and brought into the enclosure beside him.  Once the lions were snuggled up with each other, Leigh-Ann had to give a reversal injection which reverses the tranquilizer injection.  The reversal injection has to be given in a vein, and finding a vein in a beast is also a bit of a challenge.

The lions slowly began to wake up  and lift their heads and look around.  They were obviously confused as they were somewhere new, there was currently only two of them, and the were soaking wet (when did we do for a swim?!).  Once they were standing and not tumbling around like they were drunk, we opened the gate to the main enclosure so that they could go and investigate their new home.  As they began to check out the new trees and fence line, we all got back in our vehicles and took off to see the other lions.

Once back at the old enclosure we left the other lions in their maintenance enclosure and got the injections ready.  Being wise to what was going to happen, the male lions went and stayed in the center of the enclosure to avoid the pole and needle.  To convince the lions to come to the side, the handlers produces a piece of meat and the lions came rushing over to try and get a piece through the fence.  Leigh-Ann quickly darted them and the lions walked off mad at the world into the main enclosure which was no accesible through the open gate.  One of the lions was aware of the heavy lifting task ahead of the handlers and walked to the fence line and let the tranquilizer take over him while he was on the ground.  The other lion however was not going to be taken easily and moved around like he hadn't even been darted.  Once we finally started to stumble, he decided that the best place to sleep would be on top of the high platform in the middle of the enclosure which is about 5-6 feet off the ground. Cheeky bugger.

The lion handlers whistled, and toss small stones onto the platform to scare the lions off and back onto the ground, to which the lion would tease us and jump onto the ground, circle around the platform and jump back up onto the top platform.  Without fail, he did collapse on top of the high platform, making the already difficult task, a bit more challenging.  We loaded the first lion into the back of the truck with ease and then went to form with the difficult kitty on the top platform.  To get him down, they rolled him into the stretched, moved him down to the lower platform, and then rolled him into the truck (a bit of a drop, but nothing substantial, so no kitty injuries were sustained).  The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Again, soaking wet, with thermometers in areas the kitties would not like to think about, we took off back to the breeding program.  Once at the new enclosure, the muscle again moved the lions in and Leigh-Ann got ready to administer the reversal. By this point in time, the fourth volunteer activity had started, the sun was going down and the cool night air was moving in.  This was making the previous two male lions a little anxious because they are more active in the cool air.  Once the reversal was given, they retrieved the stretcher from underneath the first lion and when they went to go get the stretcher from the second lion, he tried to stand up, let off a weak warning growl and a drowsy swing of the paw, which was met by running handlers that dove out of the enclosure.  The reversal usually doesn't work that fast, but sometimes, things just move a little quicker than they are supposed to, and sure enough, the lion who did not want to sleep and collapsed on the platform, woke up the fastest.  And the last thing that handlers want to do is mess with a sleepy lion.

We sat on the sidelines and watched and the now awake lion stumbled around and rubbed his giant face against his friend that was still sleeping.  Once they were both alert, they went to meet their friends in the large enclosure and they stumbled around together, taking in their new surroundings.

We loaded back into the vehicle and returned to camp for dinner.  After dinner, Dan arrived back from Victoria Falls, and since his birthday had been while he was gone, his birthday celebration had been postponed.  What is a birthday like at Antelope Park you might ask?  It involves getting thrown into the pool when you least expect it.

Oops.  Hope you had no electronics on you.... Happy Birthday!

Oh, and here is a video of the lion when they are have just finished watching their buddies get darted... they are not happy campers!

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