The incredible team of rescuers, volunteers and staff members at the DAKTARI Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage in South Africa realized they were about to face their biggest challenge yet when they were called to care for a new orphan who needed their help. To say this little fellow would change their life is an understatement…
A farmer on a potato farm in Hoedspruit, a South African town, realized that there were signs of animals eating his crops, but didn’t think much of it. After all, this wasn’t really unusual, given that potatoes are extremely tempting for many wild animals. Unfortunately, this happens a lot, especially now that harvest time is approaching. As a result, farmers set up all kinds of devices to kill pests and protect their fields. But when this farmer realized what one of his traps had caught that day, he was pretty surprised, to say the least.
As the farmer approached the trap, he realized he had caught something. Upon closer inspection, he saw there was a tiny one-week-old baby porcupine inside, so he retrieved it. Given that he had no clue as to how to care for such a special little fellow, he decided to do the best next thing. He didn’t even consider killing the “porcupett,” but he immediately remembered there was a team of volunteers and rescuers at the DAKTARI Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage, and gave them a call. They gladly told the farmer that they’d happily take him in.
So many incredible people volunteer at the DAKTARI Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage, which was founded in 2006. Ian and Michelle Merrifield started the group and are co-directors who seek to educate and involve the children in their city to appreciate wildlife, their environment, and help their community grow, and give the kids a better quality of life. But when they took in this pint size porcupett, named “Spikey” by the volunteers, they couldn’t imagine such a tiny little thing could be hiding such big surprises!
Even though the volunteers had cared for other animals in the past, Spikey presented a few dilemmas. First of all, they had no clue what to feed him. Since Spikey is just a baby, they assumed he’d need to start feeding off a bottle, but they didn’t know exactly what to put inside. Despite researching online for quite some time, they were still unsure. Ian said, “We used mammals that we cared for before as a baseline and we added egg yolk and cream to normal cow milk and we added protexin, which is a bacteria that they need to aid in digestion.”
As you can imagine, the incredible team at DAKTARI Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage were able to figure it out, so Spikey quickly started to evolve, and was living for his customized diet. He started eating maize porridge, which included bits of fruit and vegetables. Then he moved on to whole fruits, and veggies, which he was able to eat without any help. Ian said, “Spikey really liked eating. Eating and sleeping were his whole life.” But the staff didn’t realize that as Spikey was growing, and growing, he’d eventually become quite thorny.
Despite the bad rap porcupines get, this pudgy little being was quite affectionate with the team of volunteers, and adored getting pet by the staff. Only problem was, he had very little places where sharp quills didn’t grow, so the staff had to be careful when interacting with Spikey. All in all, petting such a spikey little animal would become more and more dangerous as time went by, so would the staff members and volunteers find a way to keep cuddling and petting their beloved rescued porcupine.
To say the volunteers and rescuers at the DAKTARI Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage love what they do is a total understatement. They live for it, and they wanted to make sure Spikey felt safe, and loved. Ian said in order to interact with Spikey, “the volunteers would stroke his belly, under the arms, and behind his ears,” and in return, Spikey would, “jump on their lap and nuzzle their neck.” But since everyone was making sure Spikey felt comfortable, the team of volunteers wondered if he was getting too comfortable, perhaps. Would he be able to survive on his own if and when he gets released into the wild?
Spikey went from being a tiny pint-sized little being, no bigger than the size of a CD, to the size of a five-gallon bucket. Spikey was now an adult. So the volunteers decided it was time to say goodbye to their little friend, and release him into the wild. “We just decided that he would be happier free, and if he had any problems, he could always come back for food,” said Ian. But Spikey wouldn’t just leave without leaving a few surprises for the staff.
As Spikey had grown pretty close to the entire staff, it came as no surprise that he’d find a way to reach out. Spikey ended up returning to visit the volunteers, who had at this point become almost like family. Ian claimed, “We aren’t sure if it’s because he needs the food or just enjoys our company.” Whatever the reason, seeing this little fellow survive all on its own brought a warm feeling to those who had cared for him. After not seeing him for a few months, they were beginning to question whether or not he’d made it on his own. But Spikey was full of surprises!
Even though the entire team had thought Spikey was a male, when this rescued porcupine came back with a couple of babies, they realized that Spikey had been a “she” all along. Ian said of the confusion, “We’d thought Spikey was definitely a male, so we were a bit surprised when she showed up with babies.” The entire team rejoiced as they realized their beloved porcupine brought her babies and came all the way back to show them off, so the entire team could meet Spikey’s old human family.
Interacting with humans came easily for Spikey, but her babies weren’t really used to be surrounded by them, so it took them a while. They were a bit nervous, so they hid in the back, and found shelter in the shadows of the buildings that surrounded that area as a way of protecting themselves. Ian says he feels like a proud parent, after watching Spikey evolve on his own. “It’s wonderful seeing Spikey live a full life in the wild, and having a family of her own.”
The amazing DAKTARI orphanage doesn’t just look after wild animals, and rescues who need a home. They seek to educate the local children about conservation, and want them to respect and learn how to treat wild animals. The incredible staff is not only looking to change the lives of the animals, but the children of Africa as well. Kids visit the animal rescue and orphanage house for 5 days straight to attend a teaching program which allows them to work with the animals the rescuers are caring for. In this program, they learn all about conservation, anti-poaching, pollution, and they even learn how to identify animal tracks.
Every animal at Daktari’s got their own story. Some are there after their owners decided to abandon them, and some have been taken to the orphanage to get treatment, and be rehabilitated and eventually released into the wild. Others were born at the shelter. Every single one of these animals are important for the people volunteering at Daktari, but they also serve a purpose. They become, in a way, animal ambassadors and help educate the children and the community about the importance of ethical animal treatment.
Daktari looks to educate the community and change the attitude towards wildlife by using animals as ambassadors. By caring, tending, and exposing themselves to animal wildlife, the locals understand that animals are so much more than just tools and food. They are alive, they have needs, and best of all, they have feelings. Thanks to the incredible work of the team of volunteers in these past 10 years, animal poaching from the neighboring communities has been reduced.
The team of volunteers at Daktari also travels to local villages every week and provide educational opportunities to high school kids. They promote life-changing programs, and projects to improve the community, such as planting trees, and also help the youth community find a job. If you’ve been touched by Daktari’s incredible work, and you feel like giving back, consider becoming a volunteer. You can also donate and help them reach hundreds of children and help save the lives of the animals who need a helping hand.