The death of Phoenix, one of the juvenile baboons burnt in the recent fires in the far south, has sparked a heated debate between animal activists and the animal welfare teams involved.
The City’s service provider, Human Wildlife Solutions (HWS), employs 63 rangers who, between them, manage 11 baboon troops around the city.
Three of the troops have home ranges near Ocean View, Glencairn and Simon’s Town, which were affected by fires on January 11.
During the post-fire assessments, two juvenile baboons from the Da Gama Troop were spotted with burn wounds.
The City’s urban wildlife veterinarian, Dr Dorothy Breed, together with animal welfare professionals, monitored the injured baboons on a daily basis.
The City, on advice of animal experts, took the decision to just monitor the two juvenile baboons; in the hope that they would recover in their natural environment.
The juvenile baboons were monitored and site inspections were conducted. However, Phoenix died on Saturday night, January 21.
The backlash on social media was fierce – with Claire Mullins saying: “Well, HWS is good at something at least. Combining arrogance, cowardice and contempt in breathtaking proportion”; while Sharon Dreyer wrote: “It’s absolutely disgusting how this juvenile baboon was left with such horrific burns to her hands and feet with no veterinary care. It took days for her to die a long painful torturous death and those in authority that stood back and watched and did not either give her treatment or end her suffering, should be ashamed of themselves. Those ‘animal experts’ that advised to leave her to this horrible situation, should no longer be used for advice as they obviously care bugger all for her suffering.”
An HWS employee was screamed at – in person by the woman in a car beside her, who rolled down her window and yelled “You cruel b*tch, you should have died in that fire.”
Baboon Matters claimed on Facebook that they were refused access to the juveniles for inspection and treatment.
The Facebook quote read: “We were denied access to the baboons, the HWS refused to tell us where they were and the TMNP refused my specific application for myself and our vet to be allowed to see the baboons. In fact, the authorities went so far as to hire security guards to ensure no one went to the baboons.”
Baboon Matters founder, Jenni Trethowan, said: “It was abundantly clear to us two days prior to the City’s statement on Tuesday January 17, that all was well, that the little girl was struggling.
“For a baboon that age to be riding on its mother’s back is a sign that something is wrong, not that it is doing well. We believe a more accurate description was that she was hanging limply on her mother’s back.”
Ms Trethowan said Baboon Matters put pressure on the authorities, and the City capitulated, allowing her to accompany the Cape of Good Hope SPCA wildlife inspector and HWS staff for an assessment on Saturday January 21.
“It was immediately clear to me that the juvenile’s condition had rapidly deteriorated. She had lost fingers and toes off her burnt hand and foot, had lost weight and was appeared to be severely dehydrated. She must also have been in excruciating pain.”
Ms Trethowan was not convinced by the City vet’s claim that capturing the juvenile for treatment, would habituate her to people.
“Baboon Matters has captured, provided medical treatment and released many juvenile baboons successfully, but again, our experience was discounted. In addition, this girl was part of the Da Gama Park troop, arguably Cape Town’s worst raiding troop and therefore already the most habituated baboons on the Peninsula. To suggest that medical treatment would cause a juvenile of that age to go out and raid on her own is ridiculous,” she said.
Brett Herron, the City’s mayoral committee member for transport and urban development, weighed in on the situation: “At the time, we decided that the kindest action would be to leave the juvenile with her mother and not to traumatise her any further by separating her from the troop.
“It is sad and very unfortunate that she did not survive. We are monitoring the other juvenile baboon who is feeding well.
“Animal welfare professionals will continue to monitor the injured baboon for as long as required,” he added.
Allan Perrins, chief executive officer of the Cape of Good Hope SPCA said on Wednesday January 18 (one week after the fire), one of SPCA wildlife inspectors and a social media officer accompanied representatives from HWS and the City veterinarian on a tour of the area with the focus on the baboons, the two injured juveniles, as well as food and water availability.
“At that point, despite their injuries the veterinarian decided that it would be best not to remove the juveniles from the troop but to rather intensify monitoring efforts and to medicate in-situ.
“The injured baboons were monitored daily, and photographs and videos (where possible) were taken by HWS staff,” he said.
He said that until Friday, the wounds on her hands were still sealed, and the hope was that the skin underneath the scabs would heal.
“But unfortunately she started picking them off, and by Saturday, the scabs under her hands were completely gone – and the flesh exposed.”
He said that – bearing in mind that the troop and the injured juveniles would have been severely traumatised by the fire – it was decided to rather leave them with the troop as opposed to removing them which may have added to their stress levels and complicated their recovery and return.
Another complication, was that Phoenix was the infant of the former alpha male.
“If removed, upon her return, there would be a really high chance of the current alpha male trying to kill her,” he said.
Mr Perrins said on record the HWS had one request from Kathy Kelly (of Baboon Matters) via SMS on the night of Tuesday January 17, to find out if they could join the assessment with the SPCA, Dr Breed and HWS.
“At the time we said no, because we didn’t want a large number of people out there at the same time, as this could cause more stress to the animals and make them skittish and hard to observe,” he said.
He said that the decision not to interfere and remove the injured juveniles came under criticism by a number of well-meaning activists.
“While we are very grateful for their empathy towards the animals – which we share – they appear to have completely discounted the professional assessment and decision of the veterinarian and the authorities,” Mr Perrins said.
He said when faced with Phoenix’s situation during the later visit with Baboon Matters, they were still cautiously optimistic that, despite her deterioration, she would bounce back and recover.
“Baboons are resilient. But sadly her injuries; combined with the trauma and stress of the fires, took its toll and she passed away in the company of her troop – allowing them the opportunity to naturally grieve,” he said.
In response to the claims that Baboon Matters were denied access to the baboons, he said: “To the best of our knowledge, no-one can ban anyone from a National Park without good cause.”
Mr Perrins pointed out that Baboon Matters have no capacity to admit or treat baboons and said that the SPCA’s mandate is not wildlife, but the prevention of cruelty to animals.
“No acts of cruelty were observed – only an obviously painful healing process – as with any burn wound.”
He said the decision not to intervene, unpopular though it was with a minority, was the same one taken by a veterinarian in the 2015 fires – and in that instance it worked.
“Euthanasia is an absolute last resort,” he said.
He cautioned that the Cape fire season has only just begun and said all service providers, animal activists, writers and NGOs need to unite in a pragmatic and intelligent way, to ensure the best possible outcomes whenever disaster strikes.
To that effect he is in the process of setting up a meeting with all who expressed opinion in this time, to create an optimal plan for everyone to become involved with, so that when facing the next fire, there is a unified, cohesive approach which ensures that no wild, nor domestic animal, is hurt or left behind in the next fire.
Ms Trethowan has called for Baboon Matters to be allowed to sit on the Baboon Technical Team (made up of SANParks, City of Cape Town and Cape Nature) and to be involved in all decision making around baboons moving forward.