Friday May 25- Darting Lions Round 2

The day previous had been exceptional as I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to stand next to a full grown lion without the protection of a chain link fence between me and its giant nails.  But today brought even more surprises.

Antelope Park houses infant, adolescent and adult lions, and as with humans, not all of them are 100% healthy.  FIV, which is the feline equivalent of HIV is transmitted through saliva and compromises the immune system, and is present in some of the lions at the park.  However, Antelope Park does there best to limit the spread of disease to the healthy lions, however, if it suspected that a lion may have been in contact with an infected lion, all suspected lions are tested for the virus.  In our case, there were 6 lions who lived together, 2 females and 4 males, that had potentially been in contact with an infected lion before it was known that the lion had been infected.  As a precaution, they were going to draw blood samples to test for the presence of FIV, and the staff of Antelope Park enlisted the help of the volunteers!

So instead of making our way o the cages of the P's and L's in the morning, we loaded into my favourite chariot, had naother African massage, and arrived at an enclosure near the back of the breeding program.  There we met Leigh-Ann and some lion handlers (AKA the muscle), and couple of interns.  The plan was divide the volunteers into groups of 3, producing 6 groups, and within each group one person would monitor temperature, another would monitor respiration and another would record the vital signs.  Then each group would wait for their respective lion to be darted, and begin recording once the lion was sedate enough.

As with the Gumtree Boys, the lions were divided into two groups, moving the lions to be tranquilized into the holding enclosure ad moving the other 3 lions into the neighbouring enclosure.

We were not the part of the first group of lions to be darted so we stood by and observed as people went in and sat with their lions monitored the 2 females and 1 males.  Once those lions were awake and alert, they were moved into an enclosure, and the next group of lions were moved into the holding enclosure.

The last 3 lions were all males, with full manes, raging hormones and giant heads (seriously, enormous- I am surprised the don't topple over with them).  Alex, Stephanie (a girl from the USA) and myself waited outside the enclosure until all 3 remaining lions had been tranquilized, including our soon to be pet kitty, Mvuthu.  Mvuthu was the first to be darted and he wobbled around until he collapsed under his own weight and waited until his buddies fell as well.

Once they were all sedate, the muscle moved in an put the lions onto stretchers and moved them out into the more open section of the enclosure, where it would be easier to work with the lions.  The issue with sedating lions is that the tranquilizer, as with any anesthetic, is time sensitive.  With any anesthetic, you want the animal to be sedate for as little time as possible, and depending on the anesthetic, it can wear off or start not doing exactly what it is supposed to after a certain period of time.  This particular tranquilizer was good for 1.5 hours, meaning it should be reversed within that time frame, otherwise it can have adverse effects on the lions.

Since Mvuthu was the first down, and the closest to the exit of the holding enclosure  we was the fist out, and consequently last in line, when it came to order of having blood drawn.  The 3 of us girls sat with our lions and investigated him while Leigh-Ann worked with another lion, trying to find a vein, while another intern worked with the other lion, also looking for a vein to draw blood from.  As we kept our lion company, we spray his ears with wound spray, examined his enormous teeth (including the frightening canine teeth) and his razor sharp claws.  I don't know how to accurately convey the extent of a full grown lions presence, even sedate.  I sat with Mvuthu's paw in my lap, and his paw alone was bigger than my hand.  His mane was full and thick and no matter how hard I tried to wriggle my fingers to reach his neck, I could not actually get through his mane.  He had a mouth full of teeth which are used to shred animals with ease, and here I was pulling at his gums and investigating these weapons.  Every breath he took was powerful, even under the influence of a heavy tranquilizer, but still, we sat around him, laying on his chest, like he was just a big fluffy pillow that could potentially rip your limb off if it was under any other circumstance.  But there was no other place I would have rather been!

Eventually, they began to pull blood from Mvuthu, which took some time because finding a vein in a hind leg of a lion is easier said than done.  When the lions had all had their blood collected, we waited again and Leigh-Ann moved through the lions, again hunting for a vein to inject the reversal into  Once the lions had been reversed, the quickly loaded the lions onto the stretcher, and moved them back into the holding area so that they could wake up without being investigated by their now very alert cage mates.  Just as they were moving the final lion into the holding enclosure, and positioning him appropriately, one of the lions surprised us all and staggered to his feet much before we expected.  Needless to say, "the muscle" got out of their quick because a cranky lion was not something they wanted to mess with this early in the morning.

Once all the lions were on their feet, we let them all back into the enclosure where they started and waited until they were completely alert and walking a little less like the were under the influence.  Mvuthu, confused, walked along the fence lions and stumbled between Alex and it with big, drunk eyes, looking at us like he was waiting or an explanation to why he woke up wet (because we soaked him to keep his body temperature down).

Satisfied with our work, we went back to camp.  Having missed the entire first section, breakfast, morning break and a good portion fo the second section of volunteer activities  Alex and I went to the stables and made horse food.  Having achieved pro-status at making horse food, we were able to pour, soak, mix, pack and deliver horse food in record time, leaving us ample time to go and sit by the river before lunch.

Following we were scheduled for another elephant ride.  Since our first elephant ride in the first week arrived, we had made trips back to the elephants to visit Colin and the elephants to work on our Shona.  However, we were naive to how little time there was to visit and of course, everyone including the elephants has their own schedule during the day, so our trips often did not work.

Needless to say, I was looking forward to our elephant ride because it meant that I could pick Colin's brain for a full hour.  So we climbed the platform, hopped onto the back of Cheebi and led the way, followed by Amai, Checha and Tombi.

Truthfully, I am terrible at learning a second language.  I tried in elementary and junior high, and at the beginning of each year, it was like I had never seen a French textbook before.  Then in high school  I learned Spanish for a year (I got 100% on the final!) but ask me now to say something and all I can say is "2 beers please".  So, learning Shona was a task and I still know how to say a couple of words but I would have no hope at spelling them... so to save myself from embarrassment  if you want to know how to say hello or lion in Shona, come find me in person.

After our ride, we had a little down time because the elephant ride is the shortest of the activities and does not fill up all of the time allotted.  So we changed into evening appropriate clothes, visited Charlaaaaaay, Anti-Christ and the other cats (can you believe they had a cat called Anti-Christ?!  Best. Name. Ever.) and then waited for our walk with the big cats.

We were soon met by the rest of the volunteers and split up into our groups.  I headed off with a small group towards the enclosure of the L's and waited by the enclosure for the group of tourists that was expected to join us.  Sure enough, Iri (I am not sure of the spelling of his name) led a group of tourists towards the enclosure where he explained the purpose of the walks, a bit about Laili and Lewa, what we as ecotourists were doing here, and then he introduced the volunteers as Justine and crew.

Apparently I am a big deal.  Kidding.  But Iri was one of the first people we met in our overwhelming first day at Antelope Park and he showed us around the Park and made sure we settled in.  But his position often consisted of him hosting to the tourists and informing people about the project so we did not see him often, but when we did, he remembered me.  How sweet!

As if on cue, the lions were let our of their enclosure and immediately Lewa came directly towards me, much to the surprised of the tourists, and gave me a bit kitty greeting.

There are few things quite as surreal or special as being greeted by a lion, knowing that they know who you are and that they trust you enough to come back to you.

Long story short, the walk was great because Lewa obviously felt comfortable with the volunteers and myself and kept coming by and rubbing against us as if she was making sure we were still there.

Oh, I miss those kitties!

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