“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong in the broken places.”
I’m familiar with the concept of trauma. In fact, I know it intimately – I have had more than my fair share. But trauma is not a problem unique to my experience. In some cases, people are traumatized so badly that there are lasting effects, as in the case of soldiers who see intense and brutal combat, or women who are the victims of domestic violence. Many of these people are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In case you are lucky and have no idea what that is, I’ll explain. PTSD occurs when any brain, human or animal, is under extreme duress. Each individual case is slightly different, but they are all defined by altered brain chemistry due to scarring along neural conduits. I won’t get into the specific science of it, but let’s just say that trauma can imprint itself on the mind by treading too hard on the pathways of our thoughts and feelings. And from then on the hormones that control emotions take the best-worn path, the path of least resistance.
Why, you may ask, am I sharing this? I’ll tell you why. Working for the conservation of rhinos in South Africa means that I am confronted with animals that have witnessed or been the victims of unspeakable horrors. They are victims of the war on wildlife, and their brains have been hardwired by trauma. And no wonder. The rangers tell us stories about rhinos on the reserve that were shot one time, dozens of times, that were hacked with machetes… the list goes on. Some made it out alive, but just barely. We can still see the scars when we go out on game drives, the physical ones at least. Emotional scarring is almost impossible to see, no matter how good your lens is.
And then there are the rhinos at the orphanage. These babies were left all alone in the world, often having seen their mother killed in front of them. The poachers who hack the horns off rhinos don’t care about a witness when it is a baby rhino. Like Pemba. Pemba was recovered by the anti poaching team four days after his mother was killed. He saw the whole thing, and he stayed there, and he wouldn’t stop crying and squealing for his mother to wake up. She never did.
One calf, Nyani, was abandoned by her mother because she was born premature and was too weak to follow after. Nyani was a day old when the anti-poaching team found her, and whisked her away to safety. Thank goodness, for she would surely have ended up as the main course for some predator. But despite her continuing rehabilitation there, she still cannot “speak” the way the others do. Her voice catches in her chest, and instead of emitting a smooth, soprano scale, like that a whale would make, the best she can do is to eek out a high pitched, scratching tone. It is short, and shuddering, and quiet.
I am very fond of Nyani, and I think she feels the same: she always comes when I call. And she reminds me of myself when I was young, more than any of the others. She is so sweet and affectionate, and is always eager for a scratch behind the ear or a rub on the nose. But any sudden movement, any surprising sound, sets her flying. The experts refer to it as being “flighty”. As in “fight or flight”, I suppose. She has learned like so many others that running away is always the safer option. She can’t talk to us about her feelings or her experiences, but clearly she is still afraid of something creeping in the shadows. Its presence is as real to her as she is, or we are. Sadly, she has no idea of the massive power she will one day carry in her horn and her sheer weight. She has no concept of her potential strength, for now.
But someday she will be a fighter.
I hope that she can heal soon, and feel strong as well as have strength. But it can take a long time for those broken places to heal. Because of the impact of feelings and memories, trauma is something that has to be survived every day. I suppose that sounds silly, talking about an animal remembering. But anyone with a rescue pet knows what it is like. Your dog is extra sensitive to smells, or sounds, and especially new people. Just like a human with PTSD, they are always on guard for danger – every day things trigger memories they would rather not have. They remember what their life was like before you found them, and cared for them, before you saved them.
It is possible to heal, though. Not through triggers or treatment (is there even such a thing as an animal shrink?), but through kindness and understanding. We feel safer when people show us that things can be different from what we remember. That is why I have hope for the rhinos at the orphanage. They are surrounded by good people – truly good people – with big hearts and open eyes.
In the end, healing orphans is not the solution to the poaching problem. And I can’t make people stop hurting wild animals, for all my personal experience with trauma, I can only persuade. I hope that you might understand, after reading this, that these creatures have feelings and memories, and that they can be damaged like you or me. I am still healing, but I am getting there. Part of my process has been standing up for others who have been hurt, and that is why I want to make it harder for anyone to dismiss rhinos as unfeeling, as ancient beasts with no emotions. Maybe if mankind begins to show kindness towards more than just man, we can remember what true strength is.
– Clara Bowe