By Kathleen Retourné
It’s 18:00 hours on a Saturday evening, the night is approaching with alarming speed and light is fading fast. Deep in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province, a group of volunteers have discovered a young male and female slumped in the back of a stationary vehicle. Clearly under the influence, the male staggers, reaches towards the torch-light, before sliding to the floor. The female nervously glances around, drags herself over to her friend and tenderly strokes his face.
A scream pierces the chilly African air. Moments later, a second female is carried towards the car. She is heavy and, in this state, requires two volunteers to hold her. Her head sways drunkenly and, mouth drooling, she surrenders as she too slides into the vehicle.
Brazilian-born Thalita Calvi is unphased by the unfolding events. She closes the trunk with a thud and gets to work packing up her dart gun. With a doctor’s precision, she drops her disposable gloves into the bin, grins and thanks the volunteers for their help.
For, this vehicle holds not humans, but baboons. As the vet at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage this is not an unusual way to spend her evenings. Having come to the orphanage in need of care, these baboons are now ready to be released back into the wild. For Thalita, tonight is a culmination of a job well done.
“I have had a car of baboons, I have had boxes containing hundreds of frogs in the trunk, a duiker in the bath, baby rats behind the fridge, chimps in the bed and monkeys in the front room,” she told A Note from Planet Earth.
“You forget how crazy it looks to the outside world. When you are in the moment you do not realize. I had a past volunteer get in touch and say; ‘I couldn’t forget the day you made a cast for a calf with a child’s hula-hoop’. I didn’t realize that to a normal person that is a completely insane thing to do,” she laughed.
Having completed her studies in the US and worked in countries such as Nepal and Brazil, Thalita joined Chimfunshi four years ago. She quickly realized the only way to survive as a vet, deep in the bush, with limited funds and equipment, was to possess the ability to adapt. That, and to expect the unexpected.
The orphanage itself was established by accident. Back in the 1980s, founders David and Sheila Siddle were planning retirement when they were approached to look after an orphaned and badly injured baby chimp. They nursed it back to health and gained a reputation as the people to take chimpanzees in need. The rest is history, the place is now home to more than 100 chimpanzees, several troops of Vervet monkeys, flocks of parrots, cattle, sheep and a resident duiker.
“In the bush you are a specialist vet who is very generalist. You have to do a bit of everything... Anything could come into your hands. Of course, you are sometimes more confident with some than others.”
Somewhat surprisingly, it is the cattle – and not the chimps – which were the biggest challenge for Thalita.
“I had worked with chimps in Brazil and I have worked a lot with monkeys, but I had never worked with cattle. These are big animals who are not the most intelligent and that creates its own problems,” she said.
Chimfunshi is an hour’s drive from the nearest town store, while the bigger cities (Kitwee and Ndola) are close to four hour’s drive away. Electricity is temperamental following the recent rainy season and roads are average at best.
Given then the remoteness of the location and the diversity of her patients there is one “luxury” Thalita will not compromise on – access to the internet. WiFi is her lifeline, for whenever she comes across something new, the wealth of knowledge from online resources and contacts are at her fingertips.
“I have learned how to live simpler. I have learned the value of things – the value of a hot shower or pressing a switch and getting immediate light. I am used to it. It can be challenging the isolation. It is not easy but you can learn… But, WiFi I need, because in the bush everything that can go wrong will go wrong,” she said.
“But, there is always someone who can help, who has come-up with a way to deal with a situation. Often the innovative equipment you see in the zoo and wildlife industry has been due to vets having to use their initiative,” she added.
The first time I met Thalita, she had fresh white scars on her arms, the result of two overzealous chimpanzees. But, of the injuries, she was dismissive. It was, she said, part of what you accepted when you took on a job with animals known for both their strength and intelligence.
She is convinced, however, the chimps responsible did not mean to hurt her; “If that was the case, I would have no arm at all,” she said.
When dealing with any animal, but particularly dangerous ones, respect is the key to safety.
“The moment you lose your respect is when things go bad. Sometimes incidents happen, and you need to understand that it is not the animal’s fault,” she added.
An understanding of individual characters helps, and this will only come from regular contact. But, even then, there will be outside factors to consider.
“You have to know that chimps are intelligent. They know what you are going to do by reading your body language and can sometimes pre-empt you before you even know yourself. But, what you can do with one chimp doesn’t mean you can do it with another. With chimpanzees there are things going on that as a human you cannot read and, if the whole group’s dynamics are not perfect, then moods change quickly,” she explained.
Recently she had to perform an amputation on a male chimpanzee’s toe after a particularly nasty fight. When the chimpanzee woke, he was stressed and upset. Thalita knew to make herself scarce as he associated her with the pain.
“Chimpanzees are like humans, they are not going to like every single person and you need to respect that…when [the chimp] came around he started crying, but I know he doesn’t like me, so I get the keeper he likes to come and talk to him and that calms him,” she said.
In her career to-date, Thalita said the chimps were the most dangerous she had worked on. Frogs the strangest, while her weirdest moment was when she anaesthetized a slug. Her father once questioned her sanity when he discovered she was hand-rearing an orphaned dormouse, but Thalita said that it is in her nature to help all animals.
A passion for the job and wildlife is essential if you want to become a vet – particularly if you are dealing with exotic animals in third world countries. Your dedication and patience will be tested on a regular basis.
“Prepare to have your expectations changed. I came here with what I thought I could achieve in one year. It has now been four years and I have barely reached the first phase – it is the nature of the place,” she said.
“It is never easy, you have to love it. It is a profession that requires a lot of you and gives you very little back. It takes your life away, you are expected to be there all the time. Or, people do not want you to charge, they will think if you love the animal you should do it for free. It will test you. As a vet professional it is hard stuff, but it is worth it and there is no boring day.”
If you do not immediately get the more “glamorous” jobs with exotic animals, perseverance is key. And this solid background will also stand you in good stead when you do break through.
“I am a believer that you have to have good basics. Most of my time in studies I spent working with dogs and cats and horses and built-up the base understanding. Don’t give up, keep your interest – if you don’t get that internship, go do the domestics because the moment you have a wild dog or a lion in your hands, it is that internship that will put you through. I tell students that it may not seem that way, it may seem less valuable, but it sets the basis,” Thalita said.
“I do not think it is the perfect job – it is very hard, it is very frustrating, but I do get to do what I dream of,” she concluded.