WASHINGTON (Sept. 8, 2010)—Imagine a place where you can sleep with a cheetah, bottle-feed a young giraffe, be a surrogate mother to a troop of baby baboons, cross paths with a meerkat, mongoose or warthog, and find a crocodile basking in the swimming pool. There is such a place in Namibia — the Harnas Wildlife Foundation, a unique refuge where nearly 400 orphaned, injured and abandoned wild animals are cared for by the dedicated owner, Marieta van der Merwe, and her family, staff and volunteers.
In SOUL OF A LION: One Woman’s Quest to Rescue Africa’s Wildlife Refugees (National Geographic Books; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0654-2; Sept. 21, 2010, $26 e-book and hardcover), publishing this fall, Barbara Bennett, one of the Harnas volunteers, chronicles her experience at the sanctuary and tells the inspirational story of how the wildlife haven began and the remarkable work of Van der Merwe and her team.
Readers will meet a menagerie of animals, including Boertjie, the baboon with epilepsy and Down syndrome; Savanna, the one-eyed lioness; Gumbi the brown hyena; Doo Doo the tiny owl that lives in Van der Merwe’s kitchen; and Asem, the white-backed vulture, who rose to fame co-starring with Angelina Jolie in the 2003 film “Beyond Borders.” Jolie has since become the official patron of Harnas and has donated over a million dollars for electric fences for the large carnivore enclosures.
Being a caretaker for needy wild animals was not how Van der Merwe envisaged her life. The only child of cattle farmers, she thought she would carry on the family tradition and take over the family farms. But she married Nick, another farmer who shared her love for wildlife, and after rescuing their first animal — a baby vervet monkey that was being sold on the side of the road in 1978 — word got around that the couple would take in orphaned and injured creatures, and the number of animals that arrived on their doorstep grew steadily. Nick died tragically of Congo Fever in 2001, but Marieta’s passion, shared by the couple’s three children, spurred her on to grow the refuge.
At last count, the sanctuary housed 16 adult lions and several litters of lion cubs, 30 cheetahs, eight leopards, a pack of wild dogs, 85 baboons, seven caracals, two crocodiles, 16 jackals, a hyena, a giraffe, several ostriches, springboks and blesboks, 18 dogs, 45 cats, sheep, donkeys, goats and numerous other animals. Not a week goes by without some new abandoned or injured creature making its home there, and these are the luckiest of the many homeless animals in Namibia.
“Saving animals because each deserves to live is a guiding force at Harnas,” writes Bennett. “Virtually every animal at Harnas is being given a second chance and would most likely be dead if not for Marieta van der Merwe. She never turns away an animal just because it’s unwanted, it’s not in the right place, or it’s not perfect. … Marieta looks at each animal separately, in light of its history, any abuse, and any physical problems. As a result, each animal Marieta rescues and adopts can count on receiving the best possible individual care.”
Initially the Van der Merwe family took care of the animals themselves, with a small staff of local help. But as the animals’ numbers grew — and Marieta had to cope with personal tragedy (the deaths of both her husband and son) — she started a volunteer program and a guest program. These now attract people from all over the world — volunteers and visitors whose lives are changed forever as they spend time interacting with the wildlife and forming close bonds and relationships with them.
“I live my dream every day,” writes Van der Merwe in the foreword to SOUL OF A LION. “Taking care of animals was an easy choice for me. I am the happiest woman on Earth, not only because I can do what I’ve always dreamed about, but because I have the opportunity to share my dream with thousands of people in Namibia and around the globe.”
Bennett’s charismatic tale of the creatures and caretakers at Harnas Wildlife Foundation will capture the hearts of all who love animals. It is a must-read adventure about the African bush, told with insight and humor.
About the Author
Barbara Bennett is a professor of English at North Carolina State University and a frequent volunteer at Harnas Wildlife Foundation. She has written numerous articles for local magazines and scholarly publications. This is her first book.