05 March 2014 by Andrea Weiss

Behind the scenes at the Johannesburg Zoo

The Johannesburg Zoo is an island of calm in the urban jungle. Here’s a peek behind the scenes.

Associate vet Brett Gardner prepares a dart before vaccinating one of the zoo's lions. Photo courtesy of Miona Janeke

Within a relatively short distance of downtown Johannesburg is the Johannesburg Zoo, a green haven of 55ha and one of the city’s top tourist attractions.

Here, many of Africa’s animals are on display – housed in large, open enclosures that recreate the natural environment as far as possible, along with more exotic species like tigers and Andean condors. In all, the zoo is home to about 320 species.

Aside from the zookeepers and many others who work here is a team of vets that not only looks after the health of the zoo animals, but also other wildlife that may have been confiscated or strayed into the streets of Johannesburg.

So, one summer’s afternoon, it’s my privilege to be shown around the zoo hospital by Mia Janeke, married to associate vet Brett Gardner, both passionate about wildlife, the environment and their animal patients.

Whether it’s darting lions to give them their annual vaccinations, wrangling crocs into their winter quarters, or treating a young brown hyena that unwittingly found its way into suburban Johannesburg, Brett is no stranger to dealing with unwilling patients.

But this afternoon’s charge is far more compliant. It’s a little leopard tortoise, one of an estimated 200 to 400 tortoises that are confiscated each year from people who break the law by keeping these animals without permits.

The leopard tortoise on the left has a spongy shell from a poor diet

The tragedy is that many of these animals become seriously ill due to bad diet and neglect as their owners do not know how to care for them. Tortoises lie close to Brett’s heart, and he shows me the consequences of poor care.

This little fellow’s shell is like sponge compared with the healthy tortoise he has X-rayed with it by way of comparison. He says it will take a year before it will recover fully from the inadvertent abuse.

The shell at the bottom has almost no visible calcium compared with the healthy tortoise at the top

We leave Brett to it so that Mia can show me around.

A seriously ill sable calf, a rare breed of antelope from the zoo’s farm in the Free State, is clearly not doing too well, having contracted a tick-borne disease, and is being watched over by zoo keeper Jan du Toit.

A second calf has already succumbed and everyone is looking a bit anxious about the prognosis for this one (I later learn that, sadly, the sable calf did not make it).

Zoo keeper Jan du Toit keeps watch over the sick sable calf

In a happier state is a blue-tongued skink called Clyde that Mia lifts out of his cage for a cuddle. For anyone who thinks reptiles don’t respond to the human touch, the way in which this old fellow curls his toes tells a different story.

Mia explains that he’s living out his retirement here on a diet of Purity and tickles from whomever drops in to see him. There used to be a Bonnie once...

Meet Clyde, a geriatric blue-tongued skink from Australia

Not all hospital residents are ill. Several are in quarantine, like the caracal that spits at us as we take a peek, and the African wildcat and her two kittens. Also in are a couple of feral domestic kittens from the zoo's cat population, here to be sterilised.

As the visit comes to a close, Brett rejoins us for a chat – and speaks animatedly about his numerous research projects on sugarbirds and tortoises and how he believes that there are more leopards and brown hyenas living on the periphery of Johannesburg than people think.

His enthusiasm for his task, for setting as many animals free in the wild as he can, and his care for each and every one of his charges shines through.

Brett Gardner prepares a pair of honey badgers for release into the wild. Photo courtesy of Miona Janeke

Category: Attractions, Wildlife

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