As you can probably well imagine, the past two nights were fraught with much reflection, a crushing sense of loss and endless “would have, could have, should have” questions. I woke up with the realization today that, if I were given the opportunity to perform this particular procedure again, there was not a single thing I would have changed or done differently. By anyone’s standards, Spencer’s horn treatment was the perfect procedure – from start to finish, everything ran absolutely smoothly; a fact to which I believe every person present on the day can attest. No less than five wildlife veterinarians, unrelated to the project, concluded that negligence or incompetence played no role in the animal’s death. Dr. Joseph Okori from the WWF and Dr. Brett Garnder from the Johannesburg Zoo in fact said the procedure was performed with great professionalism. To be honest, I myself did not realize disaster had struck until I sat down to do the media briefing after and received the devastating news: “We’ve lost him”. Stupidly, in that instant, I had an “ER moment” – I was convinced we could resuscitate our unresponsive patient with a shot of adrenalin or a heart massage… had it not been for the fact that the “patient” weighed in at a hefty two tons, I think I would actually have tried.
I have unfortunately become, from one day to the next and certainly not by choice, a rhino owner in a very unique position: I have lost an animal due to poaching and I have lost animal in an attempt to protect it from poaching. Although the emptiness and grief is the same, I am at peace with Spencer’s passing in a way I was not with Queenstown’s. Queenstown was a pregnant rhino cow that had been poached on our property along with her two year old calf early in 2010. You see, my sadness over Queenstown was punctuated with feelings of guilt and shame that we had not done enough to protect her. It was because of her that we launched this anti-poaching initiative in the first place. With Spencer, I am comforted in the knowledge that we could have done no more for him.
I am sure many will question the need for this procedure, and why we invited the press to attend it. These are valid questions. Some time ago, we received information that Spencer was a potential poaching target, as he did not form part of our initial treatment sample and was therefore vulnerable. We had reason to believe that he was in danger and scheduled the treatment accordingly. Such is my belief in this project, all the research we have done and the number of successful treatments we had performed previously (we have even treated pregnant cows before – all of whom are in perfect health, as well as their calfs) that I was happy to have the media attend, given that so many had expressed an interest before in seeing what exactly the treatment entails. We were certainly not engaging in any activity we were embarrassed about or did not want recorded. I believed openness and transparency about the procedure would debunk many of the myths that still surround it, hence our willingness to engage with the press.
In my mind, we could only ever have handled the ensuing tragedy by telling the truth. Although I will gladly admit that running away was a very attractive (albeit completely unrealistic) alternative as sheer panic set in. The truth is that, in this industry, losing animals under anaesthesia is not uncommon. In fact, losing humans under anaesthesia is not uncommon either. Rhinos especially, are very sensitive to sedatives and these animals are often lost during relocations, dehornings or other medical procedures. Whenever an animal is immobilized for whatever reason, the possibility exists that said animal might not regain consciousness. Needless to say, this does not mean we should no longer perform medical procedures on animals, only that we be aware of the risks involved every time we do.
On the surface, Spencer appeared to be in excellent health, and the risk of immobilizing him was a calculated one. His heart rate was monitored throughout the procedure and did not fluctuate greatly at all – indicating he wasn’t getting overly stressed. He was turned once during the procedure to ensure that he did not cut off the blood supply to his limbs by laying with his full weight on them for too long, and the procedure was scheduled for early in the morning to reduce the risk of the animal “over heating”. Spencer was darted from a helicopter and all went smoothly with the initial sedation – he did not have to be chased down. He went down approximately 6 minutes after the dart was inserted. His eyes and ears were then covered and plugged to keep his stress levels to a minimum. A DNA sample was harvested, after which the infusion equipment was attached to the horn. This device infuses all of the horn’s “tubules” with a bright pink dye (which makes it impossible to smuggle the dye out of any major port with scanning equipment) and an ectoparasiticide to protect the animal against ticks (rhinos in captivity, where there are often not many Ox-Peckers, are very attractive targets to ticks). Lastly, a tracking device was inserted and the holes in the horns sealed with an epoxy mixture. During the procedure, Spencer was shivering and twitching (called “paddling”, which is a normal response to anaesthesia) and snorting loudly from time to time, with spittle collecting in the corners of his mouth (also a normal reaction to anaesthesia). It is believed that he, for the first time, developed heart arythmia when the wake-up drug was administered, after which he simply did not regain consciousness.
It was only after the veterinary team failed to revive him that a preliminary post-mortem examination was performed during which it was revealed that Spencer had a particularly high body fat percentage. This, coupled with his age (he was in his mid-twenties) could possibly have brought about his negative reaction to the anaesthetic. We are still waiting for the toxicology, hematology and histopathology testing to be completed and will give feedback on the results as soon as we can. However, I can categorically state that the horn treatment was in no way responsible for, or a contributing factor to, Spencer’s passing. Were it not for a poaching situation that will cause the species to go extinct between the next 5 to 8 years, rhino owners would not have to resort to counter-measures like horn treatments, dehorning or relocation (all of with involve immobilization of the animal) to keep our rhino’s safe. Even a full-time anti-poaching unit (which we also have on the property) is not a guarantee against poaching.
What happened was, and remains, a humbling experience. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and we are not exempt from our share of suffering. I am sure that we will face many vindictive attacks about Spencer in days and weeks to come. However, we shall continue the work we are doing with the same level of integrity we always have. I am happy to answer any questions anyone may have about Spencer or the treatment. We still believe that the relative small risk involved in sedating an animal versus the big risk of leaving that animal unprotected from poaching in any one way, shape or form, is a justifiable one. Insurance companies believe the same thing – they are willing to insure animals who need to be immobilized for medical procedures, but they are seldom willing to insure animals against poaching. In over 500 prior procedures, our wildlife vet, Dr. Charles van Niekerk had never before lost a rhino under anaesthetic. His sense of loss is probably even greater than my own.
Spencer’s passing is a stark reminder that rhino poaching is one crime that leaves little room for happy endings.