Goodbye Akela & Kenya

The oddest couple – and true soulmates – who were my ‘kids’ for over 14 years, are no more. Akela the Grey Wolf – wilful, insightful, submissive and far more intelligent than any dog. Kenya the Staffie – ‘n liefbare dier in the words of a 4-year old, Mr Personality and loved by all. He lived to please.

Akela’s tongue started bleeding almost a month ago. I took her to Hermanus Animal Hospital where the vet examined her, said it was a cut under the tongue and that there was little she could do, but gave her an injection to stop the bleeding. That didn’t work and was followed by two homeopathic remedies, which worked to a certain degree, and a visit to a second vet. Our travels slowed down completely to give her more “calm time”. Two Saturdays ago, she didn’t want to eat and preferred her bed in the back of the bakkie to anywhere else, but still jumped out on her own when she needed to pee. By Sunday she was really weak and I asked Facebook friends to recommend a very good vet.

I was at Pronkberg Clinic in Stellenbosch at 8am on Monday when they opened and said we’d wait there until Dr Maree Potgieter could see us. She found that Akela had a tumour on a vein and that her red cell count was around 10, a quarter of what it should be. She recommended putting her down because of this combined with her age. I felt I hadn’t done enough and wanted one more try, with the vet saying she would last a week at the most.

She was given medication to stop the bleeding and a tonic for post-operative animals. The bleeding stopped a day later and she started eating – tripe and liver. On Thursday she seemed well on the road to recovery. On Friday morning she seemed to have just given up completely but was better in the afternoon. Over the weekend she devoured almost a kilo of raw ox liver each day and seemed well-enough to share with friends that the battle might be won. Those who saw her said she looked good. But then she ate very little on Monday, just drank milk on Tuesday and nothing since except water. The battle was lost.

Kenya, who’s been ridden with cancer for five years, had the same problem several months ago on his abdomen. He was treated and has been fine since. So I wonder if proper treatment wouldn’t have saved Akela. Kela and Ken are inseparable. Seeing his sister ill has shattered Ken and he hasn’t left her side. She was the one who always looked after him. He was always the one expected to go first and I’ve checked to see that he’s still breathing many mornings over the past two years. And so they went together and are buried together.

They leave a huge void in my life, a quarter of which was defined by a wolf.

Akela chose me when she was five weeks old. Kenya was left with me when he was six months old and Akela was two months. I never wanted a second pet but it’s the best thing that could have happened. The best photo I never got was tiny Akela curled up in Kenya’s tummy space.

The sounds I regret never recording were her deep wolf howls at the door in greeting when I came back from somewhere, and the more typical wolf howls while she was dreaming. Being woken by a wolf howl in the middle of the night is not any everyday experience. When she was younger, she did howl for me when left at home, but it was Kenya who took this up in old age and cried and cried. And there were Akela’s huffs and puffs when a stranger came to the door. Wolves don’t bark.

They grew up on Clifton and Llandudno beaches, where they socialised with other dogs. They enthralled school kids in Bredasdorp, the Cape Flats and at St Cyprian’s & the French School in Cape Town. Akela changed the perceptions among kids that adults so often teach – wolves are not aggressive.

Akela taught me a different language too. A growl or a snarl does not necessary mean aggression. She sometimes climbed onto my lap, snarling ferociously against my face, but then her tongue came out to kiss my cheek. That meant, “I don’t want to be here.”

Kela and Ken have done what few South Africans have done. They’ve been up the Table Mountain Cableway. They’ve travelled from Cape Agulhas to Beit Bridge – SA’s southernmost tip and northernmost border point. On their second visit to the tourism Indaba in Durban, I was asked to keep them away from the entrance of the ICC because they would draw attention away from Jacob Zuma, who was due to arrive. They were good at making friends wherever they went.

It was Kela who gave me the determination to cope when I woke up blind in 2006 – from tick bite fever I didn’t know I had – and was told that all previous recorded cases had resulted in permanent blindness. Turning it around was a first, and my eyes were published.

Kenya had the warmest heart of any dog I’ve ever known. He really tried very hard to be good all the time. And if he was scolded and his feelings were hurt, tears streamed down his cheeks.

Kela on the other hand was a handful, especially when younger. Inquisitive, playful, a tease and a thief. I’ve lost count how many shoes were buried in the garden, food stolen out of the fridge or off the kitchen counter. When I got cross with her, she’d say, “okay, let’s have a game.” They say “if you call a dog, it comes. If you call a cat, it takes a message and gets back to you.” In many respects, Kela was more like a cat, fiercely independent, but very shy.

A dog is a wolf, but a wolf is not a dog. Dogs adapt to a family, but one has to adapt to a wolf, and it is a full-time commitment.

Click on any of the images below for larger images in a slide show.

Postscript: The Hermanus vet got it totally wrong. Had she been thorough, both animals would still have been around for a little longer. She was informed by Dr Potgieter about the correct diagnosis and treatment but when I saw her afterwards, she made no apology nor enquired about Akela’s health. The vet who put Akela down examined her and said she was surprised the first vet had made an incorrect diagnosis. That’s not the sort of vet I’d recommend to anyone. I’m sure others will sing the vet’s praises, but I subsequently emailed the practice to complain and I’m still waiting for the call I was told I would get. That’s not professional!

I subsequently heard from a friend that she had stopped breeding ponies because Hermanus Animal Hospital — the only equine vet in the area — was too unreliable and several ponies had been lost. A breeder must have a reliable vet.

I do recommend Dr Maree Potgieter at Pronkberg Clinic in Stellenbosch. She was very thorough and compassionate.

Growing old is not for sissies!

Akela the wolf turned 14 years old yesterday — that’s a venerable 98 in human years!  And she shared her celebratory dinner (pig’s trotters) with Kenya the staffie (14½) and Beezus the pomchi (1½).  For Beezus, it was his first “dedicated” bone, as opposed to dinner left-overs, and his small piece absorbed him totally for 40 minutes.  For Kenya, it was bliss — he ignored the rest of his dinner (special pellets @R670/12kg bag with trotter gravy) and gnawed & gnawed on the bone with the few teeth he still has.   And Akela?  She ate her pellets and gravy, and Kenya’s too, and buried her bone!

Both Akela and Kenya are old animals now, both largely deaf.  Kenya was given the name “Oupa” by Gawie Fagan five years ago and I’ve been amazed as he’s reached successive birthdays.  He’s been riddled with cancer for years and two tumours have “erupted” in the past few weeks, the one reaching a blood vessel.  But he’s still a happy dog with a good quality of life — a voracious appetite and goes outside to pee and poo, in spite of being too stiff for any real walks — so it’s a matter of stitching him up with minimal interventions.  I don’t expect him to last much longer… but I’m sure he’ll amaze me some more!

Akela’s hindquarters are much weaker but that, and deafness, are the only signs of old age.  She still charges off at great speed when she plays outside, but her cornering is not so good and she sometimes takes a tumble.  The average age of wolves in a domestic environment is 12 years, compared to seven years in the wild, with a maximum of 15, so she’s doing pretty well.  She and Beezus (35kg vs 3.5kg) spend hours playing and she’s taught him to bury shoes and toys, only to dig them up and bury somewhere else.  And to think someone at Onderstepoort told me six months ago that it was time to think of putting her down!

There is a “secret” to longevity and quality of life.  My dad died two weeks ago at the age of 86.  For a few years, his quality of life was minimal.  His twin brother on the other hand is active, energetic and healthy, and says he’ll retire from running the farm when he reaches 90.  My dad retired 20 years ago and had little daily responsibility or demands.

Wolf Totem, and the intelligence of wolves

I’ve just started reading Wolf Totem, a million copy Chinese best-seller by Jiang Rong, and was reminded again of just how intelligent wolves are.

The book is set in the 1960s, the heyday for the people of the Inner Mongolian grasslands, and celebrates a time when an age-old balance based on culture and tradition maintained by the nomads, their livestock and the wild wolves who roamed the plains.

Authorities had decided that stone walls should be built around all the birthing pens for sheep.  But no sooner were the walls up than wolves were stealing the sheep again.  Legends were starting that wolves were flying over the walls, since folklore also has wolves, when they die, flying to Tengger, the nomads’ god..

Of course, this didn’t sit well with communist authorities and solving the problem was made a priority.

Careful examination of one of the “crime scenes” showed, with the help of a magnifying glass, two faint, bloody pawprints.

The police chief discovered” that one large wolf had leaned its front paws against the wall, rear legs on the ground, and made its body as a springboard.  The other wolves ran full speed, jumped on its back and shoulders, and sailed into the enclosure.  From inside, wouldn’t look as though they flew in?”

As soon as the stone enclosures went up on the grassland, the wolves figured out how to deal with them.  But what about the poor wolf used as a springboard on the outside, was it just so devoted to the pack that it got nothing to eat?

The police chief explained that too. “Wolves have a strong collective spirit, they stick together.  It’s not their nature to abandon one of their own.  A wolf on the inside acted as a springboard for another one, which had eaten its fill, to leap back across the wall.  Then it acted as a springboard for the hungry wolf to fly into the enclosure to eat its fill.  The bloody paw prints were left by the second wolf. How else would they be bloody?  The first wolf hadn’t made a kill when it was the springboard, so its paws were clean.”

But how did the last member of the pack get out safely?  Where was its springboard?

When the investigator went into the enclosure, sloshing through all the blood, he discovered a pile of six or seven sheep carcasses against the wall, and everybody assumed that the last wolf was one of the smartest and most powerful pack leaders.  All by itself, it had made a springboard out of a pile of sheep carcasses and flown out of the enclosure.

The sustainability of Limpopo’s towns

If one thing stands out about Limpopo for me, it is that it’s an inside-out province.  The towns, in general, offer no attraction whatsoever while the country areas are stunning!  The towns, generally, are a mess!

One Polokwane product owner on CapeInfo wrote to say that Limpopo Tourism is embarking on a roadshow to find out why the province isn’t getting its share of international tourists.  I would have thought the answer is quite simple.  The lodges are world-class but that doesn’t spread tourism around, and the towns are best forgotten in any tourist’s itinerary.  Locals are accustomed to what they have; you need to look at the province through a visitor’s eyes.

Looking at Mokopane as an example: the Mogalakwena municipality covers an area of 1,683km² and comprises three towns, 117 villages, nine traditional leaders and five kingdoms.  The municipal area has a population of over 300,000 — certainly no dorp —  of which 38% is under the age of 14.  Almost 96% is black followed by whites at 4% and Indians/Asians/Coloureds combined at about 0.4%.  The Indian/Asian group has a long history in the town and is proportionately the most economically active, even having its own school.

Is it a sustainable town that can meet the needs and aspirations of its citizens?  I think the answer is an emphatic “No!” as things stand.

The Town
The town has no urban design framework or aesthetic controls.  If I speak to bankers, as good a yardstick as any, business in the town is not good.  If the town doesn’t develop a clear vision — which is not just about service delivery but rather economic growth and social development — its inexorable slide will continue.

Now I don’t believe that Waterberg towns like Mokopane, Mookgopong, Modimolle and Bela Bela have the resources or abilities to tackle what needs to be done.  And since it is a province-wide problem and challenge, it needs to be addressed at a higher level.

The Waterberg regional authority could establish or engage the necessary skills and provide a service to all the towns in the district. Good urban design and aesthetic control is a prerequisite for economic opportunity and successful businesses. (Cape Agulhas Municipality did this to very good effect for the several towns it administers about 10 years ago.)

Towns also need to establish formal public/private partnerships so that everybody reads from the same book.  (Both Johannesburg’s Inner City and Cape Town have done this with great success.)

Something locals may be accustomed to, but it surprises a visitor to the town -- just a handful of the scores of funeral parlours in the town. Death is a big business in Mokopane. Limpopo has very high HIV infection rates.

The Mines
AngloPlatinum has the largest mine in the area so most comments will be directed at them and, unfortunately, I need to draw comparisons between what they do in Mokopane and what Rio Tinto has done in Phalaborwa.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Anglo means to do well in the town, but I believe they need to rethink their corporate social responsibility programme.

A waste of shareholders' funds on "feel-good" projects: Restoration was completed months ago but the swimming pool never opened because the Municipality can't find a life guard!

  1. In Mokopane, Anglo donates generously to many ad hoc projects in the town, often just paying for things the municipality can’t afford… with little legacy impact.  Anglo’s refurbishment of the town’s swimming pool (which had been closed for years) was rather wasted.  It’s still closed because the municipality can’t find a life-guard to be on duty.  In Phalaborwa, Rio Tinto established the Palabora Foundation with initial funding of R176 million.  It does excellent work and has made a big difference to the town.  (In Musina, the Local Economic Development official said they had been trying to get Anglo to establish a similar foundation there.)
  2. In Phaloborwa, the mine sold the golf course to a private developer because it was not their core business.  Developers turned the golf course into the world-famous Hans Merensky Estate — today of the town’s greatest assets and attractions.  In Mokopane, the municipality swapped the golf course  for services the mine provided to the town.  Wasn’t this an opportunity lost?

I don’t believe that Anglo is doing nearly enough to prepare the town for the day when it retrenches all its workers, or retrenches large numbers (as it did in 2009) during the next slump in the platinum price.  As things stand now, Mokopane lives or dies by the mine’s fortunes.  If “Diamonds are Forever,” mines are certainly not!

The ticking time bomb — housing the poor
Driving into Modimolle recently, I saw a sign advertising “Sustainable Houses” on large plots.  How the hell can they make that claim, I asked myself?

I worked at the Mitchells Plain Planning Unit in the mid-1970s.  The original rental plans had been scrapped and the challenge was to build affordable housing that people wanted to buy.  We built full-scale, furnished mockup houses inside an old factory and thousands of families passed through, being educated about choices and what they could afford.  We adapted the existing mock-ups and built more as we refined the process in response to visitor comments.  Matching expectations and affordability was a very difficult task.

The original town of Potgietersrus is in the bottom righthand corner. The rest is urban sprawl showing only part of Mahwelereng Municipality

The fact that South Africa has plenty of land does not mean that one can afford urban sprawl.  One simply cannot meet expectations of  paved roads & street lighting, water & stormwater reticulation, waterborne sewage, refuse removal, and even schools,  health and sporting facilities nearby when you have large plot sizes and low densities.  It’s just not possible!

Urban sprawl also adds to the costs of all road networks and personal transport expenses.  Successful towns of the future will be those that are the most efficient for those who live there.

Central government’s infrastructure grants may address some expectations in poorer areas, but it’s the municipality’s  responsibility to maintain and service the infrastructure, but that alone will be sufficient to bankrupt municipalities or mean that the level of service they render is vastly diminished.

Large plots could be partially justified if they were used to sustain the inhabitants with extensive planting of vegetables and fruit, but this doesn’t happen, or it’s the exception… there is no water!

I attended a meeting of township residents on the outskirts of Mokopane where the only service they receive is electricity from Eskom.  (They have to buy water from those residents that do have boreholes.)  “What do they need most?” I asked.  “Jobs and job opportunities,” was the unanimous reply.  Municipalities need to rethink their roles.

What was possible and affordable 50 years ago is not possible today.  Towns and townsfolk trapped in the past are doomed to failure.

Mokopane faces even greater challenges.  Many of its citizens live on tribal lands and pay minimal rentals to tribal chiefs.  The municipality collects no rates and taxes. It’s going to take brave and inspired leadership to tackle these challenges.

What sort of future can the town guarantee to the 38% of the population who are under the age of 14?

One measure of a successful town is the number of tourists and travellers who make a detour because the town offers some or other attraction or facility that makes the detour worthwhile.

The other measure is the number of people from outside the town and region who choose to relocate to it for their retirement because it is an attractive place.  Local pride is important but what others think of you is as important.

Related content:

Postscript: Driving east from Polokwane on Route 71 did impress (after one finally leaves the peri-urban sprawl of Polokwane).  Mopane region does seem to do things differently:  Haenertsburg must be Limpopo’s gem, but Tzaneen and Phalaborwa also impressed.

The town that lost its soul

MokopaneThis is a story about a mining town where very few people feel good about themselves and the lives they lead.  It’s worst among the whites who feel trapped without upward mobility and with limited opportunity — a characteristic of most mining towns.  It is a very patriarchal, church-going community.  Speak to anyone and they tell you about how cliquey the townspeople are.  This is Mokopane in Limpopo, where a Monday for lawyers means sobbing wives who try to hide the bruises behind sunglasses and makeup.  By Wednesday, all talk of divorce is over and it all starts again.

Among blacks, there is a more genuine sense of community but the challenge is staying alive.  There are few jobs, especially if you are a member of the DA, and not nearly enough for everybody.  New mines, it is claimed, only offer jobs to ANC members.

Last Saturday, a dog was killed — murdered would be a better word — at someone’s house near the centre of the town.  Witnesses who saw what happened clammed up when they were asked to testify so exactly what happened never found its way to an affidavit.  But it’s claimed that the dog was beaten with a chair, driven over by a bakkie (or the attempt was made) and shot several times.  The dog’s owner claims the dog bit him, but whether this was before or during the beating is unclear.

Since a firearm was discharged in a residential area, the police were called but took no action.

The local SPCA took the report very seriously and it’s chairperson is Marcelle Maritz, a DA councillor for Mokopane.  She’s no stranger to difficult situations, having been the town’s Sheriff for 18 years.

They SPCA asked to collect the dog’s body to establish how the dog died.   The owner agreed and undertook to call them back to make arrangements.  When he didn’t call back, they called again only to be told that the dog’s body had been disposed of.  It had been taken to the edge of town, and buried under tyres which had been set alight.  Does this sound like the actions of someone with nothing to hide?

When I spoke to Marcelle, she said that she had just been speaking to the man’s boss.  He was clearly unhappy with the events and had issued the man with a final warning — he had used the work bakkie without permission to dispose of the dog’s body.

He also told Marcelle that the man is under a lot of stress.  His wife is out on bail and his kids have no food.  The boss was worried that the next act of violence could be directed at the wife and children.

In discussion with Marcelle, she conceded that this cannot justify his actions but she had to look after the best interests of the community… and her priority was the children.  She would obtain food for them from the Noodforum.

But what about the gun, I asked.  Had it been fired while under the influence of alcohol?  Marcelle felt it probably was.  So surely the police should open a case, confiscate the firearm and revoke the licence?  Surely, given the fact that South Africa has the highest rate of family murders in the world, one cannot take chances?

What about the other dogs?  If the children have no food, do the dogs have any?  (Let’s ignore the fact that there’s probably money for alcohol.)  Surely the SPCA should remove the other dogs?

Marcel agreed and her next stop was going to be the station commander at SAPS Mokopane.

The next thing I hear is that the man has agreed to do voluntary community service at the SPCA, and that’s the end of the whole episode.

Or is it the end of the episode?  If he walks away after the first day of community service, does the SPCA have any recourse?  Are his wife and children safe?  If they become his next victims, who is to blame?  Is it the witnesses who let a whole community down by refusing to testify?  Is it Marcelle Maritz who tried to find a middle ground?  Or is it the SA Police Service who — yet again — ignored all the obvious signs and did nothing?  A former neighbour says the man has a history of violence and alcohol abuse… a suitable candidate for a firearm license?

The real sadness is that communities allow things like this to happen.  Is this how the people of Potties (the old affectionate name for the town) want to be known — turn-a-blind-eye, sweep-it-under-the-carpet kind of people because it’s not too bad?

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.”  — Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

Lessons for a lapdog

Akela & Beezus

First lesson… see what big teeth I’ve got

One Sunday, just after lunch, the phone rang and Stephanie said she had to dash off and would explain later.  She arrived back a little later with… a really tiny dog of indeterminate breed.  It was about the size of a small hamster and looked like a cross between a hamster and a rabbit with its fluffy white fur.

Kenya & Beezus

Is tiny the word? Kenya can be a bit grumpy but most times he puts up with almost anything.

There’d been no discussion and I was more than taken aback.

Firstly, although I like all animals, I’m no fan of lapdogs and barking handbags.  Secondly, how would this tiny creature fit in with a wolf and a staffie?  A friend had a minature Yorkie and, while Akela was fine with it, there was always the danger she would step on it!  Both Akela and Kenya are senior citizens now — heading for 14 years of age – and not always too sure on their feet.  And then there’s Akela’s habit of pawing anything and everything — with enough force to squash a hamster.

Beezus, the new “dog,” was tiny.  His legs were the size of one of Akela’s nails.  Of course he was cute, a tiny bundle of thick fur.  But would he survive the roughness of Akela & Kenya, weighing in at 100 times his weight?

Well they were inquisitive and cautious, but started off by trying to avoid him.  I’m sure they sensed our concerns and rather kept away.  Slowly we allowed them to get closer and Akela frequently lay down, to get a better view and be less intimidating.

The difference in sizes and strengths made its point one day.  Akela lay down in front of Beezus, and Beezus sprung forward (he did seem to hop like a rabbit at the beginning) just as Akela swung her paw.  Beezus went tumbling… and lay dead still.  I rushed to pick him up and there wasn’t an iota of movement.  I was terrified and preparing to rush to a vet.  I stroked his chest and massaged him, but there was no response.  I breathed into his tiny mouth and he squawked, and slowly started moving… and I felt his heart beat.

He’s doubled in weight and size since then — with most growth in his ears and tail — and, after what seems like a long time of always watching the animals while they’re together, he seems able to more or less hold his own now.

Neither Akela nor Kenya are vicious or aggressive animals.  While we lived in Hout Bay some years ago, a group of pet bunnies escaped from a hutch somewhere and were rambling around the weir at the end of the property.  My two went up to sniff them and then left them alone.  Neighbourhood dogs descended on them a little later and killed them all just for the fun.

Akela’s behaviour to the puppy has been fascinating.  Firstly, there were her growls whenever she went near him.  I learnt when she was young that Akela’s growl has a very different meaning to a dog’s growl.  It’s a sound to get attention, and she’d come up close to my face snarling, but then her tongue comes out to kiss my cheek.

But with Beezus, her snarls and growls became something else.  They grew into the sound of a gentle wolf howl, and one could see the telltale way in which she pursed her lips, ready for a full-on howl.

And then there was the performance every meal time.  After she had eaten, Akela would fetch Beezus to take him outside and then regurgitate a small amount of food.  The first time she did this, Beezus run up to eat but Akela took his whole body between her jaws and moved him aside.  She licked at the food and then allowed him to eat… her first lesson in manners to the tiny dog.

Beezus eating Akela's regurgitated supper

Akela fed Beezus every night with her regurgitated supper

Since then, he’s allowed to eat as soon as she regurgitates.  Beezus knows not to bother either animal while they eat.  He’s allowed to eat from their bowls after they have finished.

Maybe, just maybe, Beezus will grow up to be a well-mannered dog after having been raised by a wolf!