Orphaned and injured African wildlife, power cuts, bush fires and hundreds of waggly tails – it’s all in a day’s work for the Twala Trust’s irrepressible Sarah Carter. She tells Ashley Davies all about it.
Many of us know what it’s like to be woken up by a hungry cat or two – and possibly spending anxious time and money at the vet with a poorly pup. Think that’s involving? Now imagine waking up to a day that involves taking care of lions, monkeys, birds and more besides, in one of the poorest and most chaotic countries on the planet. Welcome to the world of Sarah Carter, who runs the Twala Trust animal sanctuary in Zimbabwe.
What does Twala do?
The Twala Trust is a dedicated African animal sanctuary. We offer safe haven to any animal in need, from lions to parrots, and everything in between. We have a rehabilitation centre where injured wildlife receives specialised care prior to their return to the wild.
A current, and challenging, patient is George the African rock python who is not at all appreciative of our eight-month intensive treatment of a debilitating infection that involves us having to give him warm baths every day. He will return to the wild soon and we will all be very happy!
We also run educational conservation programmes for Zimbabwean children, teaching them about the value of wildlife and also how to take care of their own pets and livestock.
We work with organisations such as Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the SPCA as well as vets, all of whom will send animals in need of care to us. The general public also bring animals in. We rescue animals from all over Zimbabwe. Many are ill, injured or orphaned. Some are victims of poachers or come from commercial wildlife parks where they have been exploited and abused. Others, including some of our lions, are former pets.
My husband, Dr Vinay Ramlaul, is our resident vet and many of the animals at Twala got a second chance at the life they so deserve thanks to his care. We also have 14 dedicated staff members who work long hours under some very difficult and challenging conditions to make sure the animals are safe, happy and well cared for.
How did it all start?
The Trust was set up in 2012 to create a permanent safe haven for an increasing number of animals in need. Twala means ‘to uplift’ in a local dialect, and the sanctuary is named in honour of a truly inspirational caracal that I rescued from a breeder as a kitten.
What are the biggest challenges?
Running an animal sanctuary in a third-world country takes a judicious mix of optimism, pragmatism, determination, a sense of humour and a good dose of lunacy. The biggest challenge to me personally is staying positive and maintaining my belief that even saving one animal makes a difference, when we are faced with sometimes overwhelming numbers of animals in need.
“We live in one of the poorest and most chaotic countries in the world but every single day someone does something kind and generous to help our rescued animals.”
The biggest challenge in terms of practicalities is juggling everything that needs to be done in a day – we could be heading off on a cross-country rescue where we will need half the staff to help load and monitor animals, but the hundreds of birds and animals at Twala still need their daily feeding, cleaning and care.
We constantly have vehicles on the road, hauling food and equipment; we constantly have new arrivals coming in, often with little or no notice, the phones ring incessantly and there are unexpected dramas every day – sick animals, power outages, bush fires, flash floods, rabid dogs. There’s really never a dull moment.
What are your favourite animals?
This is an interesting emotional mix in my heart as I started off my life as an animal carer by looking after a number of African cats such as lions, leopards, caracal and serval cats. These cats still claim a huge amount of my time and my heart and I try wherever possible to educate people about the evils of breeding lions and other big cats in captivity and the horrific exploitation of captive lions whose cubs are taken away from them for the extremely cruel and unethical practice of cub petting and walking with lions.
I am equally devoted to that unique breed of African dog that you find in the rural areas – little brown dogs with gigantic ears and curly tails, hearts full of love and heads full of wisdom. We have 20 of these dogs in our family, all rescues, and all adored.
Tell us about your work with the village dogs.
Doggie Wednesdays at Twala bring more than 300 dogs to the sanctuary each week for free vet care; we vaccinate, dip, de-worm and treat sick and injured dogs from low-income rural families. Every single dog gets a delicious meal. We cook up 600 litres of chicken and rice over open fires in big metal drums. It takes two days to prepare the food and five hours to serve it up to a patient queue of dogs, and it’s worth every second, seeing the joy on the dogs’ faces and the frantically wagging tails.
Owners, often children, walk from up to 15km away every single week just so their dogs can have a good meal. Unemployment in Zimbabwe is now over 90 per cent and life here is incredibly tough, but people still make this extraordinary effort to get their dogs a meal and vet care. We sterilise up to 40 dogs a week, to stop the irresponsible breeding that creates puppies no one can take care of, and takes such a toll on the mother dogs.
The response from the community has been overwhelming. At our first clinic we saw four dogs; now we have the trust of the community we can see up to 500 dogs in a week. We also do ambulatory clinics where we head out to remote areas in our rattle trap truck, loaded up with dog food and vet medicines to treat dogs that live too far away to walk to our clinic.
“There are unexpected dramas every day – sick animals, power outages, bush fires, flash floods, rabid dogs. There’s really never a dull moment.”
We also visit a number of elderly people who are physically unable to get their dogs to us. We have some elderly dogs on the list too! The clinic started with a cooler box of vaccines and a tree stump as an examination table but is now rather more impressive with a prefab building to house the dogs and a considerable array of equipment.
How is Twala funded?
Twala is funded by fantastic people in Zimbabwe and all over the world who donate food and other essentials, or sponsor a specific project or a particular animal. All our vet work is done free of charge by Vin’s surgery in Harare. A small number of visitors and volunteers also help with funding but we are reliant on donors.
I think this is one of the most positive aspects of Twala – we live in one of the poorest and most chaotic countries in the world but every single day someone does something kind and generous to help our rescued animals. While there are unique and sometimes downright frightening challenges to living here, I wouldn’t change this amazing community of people for anything.
Is it possible to visit or get an internship at Twala?
We are open to a limited number of visitors by prior booking only. Visitors are always accompanied by a guide to ensure the animals’ daily lives are stress-free.
We run a small, hands-on and unique volunteer programme for those people who want an authentic experience living and working in a genuine African animal sanctuary. Volunteers are fully involved in our work and help with everything from raising orphans to vet care as well as the daily feeding and care of the animals.
The volunteer experience is perfect for vet students and for anyone who wants to be involved in a conservation and animal welfare project that is making a real difference to both animals and the community. Our website www.twalatrust.com has more details.
Like the Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary on Facebook for regular updates on the furry featured residents. As a taste, here’s Shani the lioness sneaking up on Shangu.
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Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.