A series of low growls gradually drew me from my sleep. It was my new natural alarm clock that I had grown accustomed to ever since I had been put in the room next to the hyena pen. The snarls and roars of the night no longer sent chills up my spine but gave me a sense of comfort, as if the darkness were no longer complete with the stillness I was once familiar with.
It only made sense to end our travels through South Africa at a rehabilitation center on the out skirts of Kruger National Park. Numerous injured and ‘problem animals’ called Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center home and much of the farm was run by volunteers, like myself, from all over the world. Larry from China, John from Holland, Bethany from Canada, myself, and a few others had all found ourselves at the rehab center in the midst of our wanderings. The scorching, dry landscape stretched out for miles in every direction. No matter what season it was at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center the weather forecast was always hot, especially for someone from Colorado, like myself, where you enjoyed almost 8 months of winter.
As we began our morning chores, my mind strayed to previous adventures amongst our travels. How did I end up at the world’s highest bungee jump or in a cage amidst some of the world’s most dangerous sharks when I was an ignominious swimmer myself? I thought about how traveling was supposed to change people and wondered if I would have a better understanding of myself on the plane ride back to the States. I thought about how easy it is to get caught up in the moment, not realizing the importance of the story we are creating until it is turned into a memory. Could I fully understand the significance of the experience while in the midst of the story or would it not hit me until I retold the tales when I got home?
Eager about what the day would bring, I looked at the schedule, like I did every day after chores. Maybe I would get to go on a safari or babysit Pinky and Brain, two of the baby cheetahs we had at the center. Pinky and Brain were being raised by human hands in hopes that one day they could be used to educate the public on the growing endangerment of wild cheetahs. With the continually expanding cities and the hatred that farmers had for the animals, the species’ numbers were beginning to drop. Educating the public was one of the best defenses the rehab center had. While rescuing an injured cheetah would only save that specific animal, educating the public could save the entire species.
I scanned through my schedule full of the daily chores I had to do and my eyes became stuck on the words ‘babysitting Della.’ Della was the center’s single baby black rhino. Della had been found a couple weeks before stuck in a mud pit where she had been digesting mud for almost a week since no other food source was available. The insufficient nutrients damaged Della’s digestive system, but the workers at the center had high hopes for a full recovery. Since she had been digesting mud for so long she had to be watched 24/7 to make sure she didn’t go back to her old habits of eating dirt or mud. I let out the breath I was holding in as I stared at the two words. Although Della appeared cute and innocent, she was like a moody two-year-old child who got upset over spilled milk. However, unlike a human baby, Della didn’t just cry. When she was upset, she charged whoever was in her path with her minuscule horn until she got tired or got what she wanted. If you were the one watching her when she had one of temper tantrums then you quickly went from her babysitter to her next victim. And managing her outbursts could be impossible. She was covered in thick black skin so rough-looking it could be mistaken as rock, so she was insensitive to touch, making any sort of discipline difficult. Despite rhinos being known for their eminent sense of hearing, Della didn’t seem to react to any voice commands. Needless to say, she wasn’t my favorite animal to work with and not knowing how to communicate with Della gave me a fear-like feeling whenever I had to babysit her.
I had the last shift before her next scheduled feeding. I settled into her quarantined enclosure with a journal and pen, hoping for the next few hours to be smooth sailing until the next volunteer came in to feed and babysit for the following couple hours. I made myself at home on the bed that had been situated in her pen. Della chomped away at her pile of grass, and I began to breathe easy and stroke Della periodically, thankful for her state of solitude.
She started shaking her head and let out a huff warning me that her quiet disposition was only temporary. Slowly I backed to the corner of the bed, keeping my eyes on Della’s unsettling movements. Surely she just needed to blow off some steam and then she would go back to eating. Moments later she began charging the bed, like she had done multiple times before, but this time she did it with more force. Enough force to actually lift up the bed. Throwing my journal and pen to the ground I backed further to the corner of the bed until my back pushed against the cold cement walls. With each charge her strength increased and I watched in bewilderment at how quickly this animal had become enraged.
Panicking, I used the only shield I had within reach: a pillow. As Della now began jumping onto the bed, I let a yelp escape my lips and held onto the only barrier that was keeping Della from coming in contact with my helpless body. Knowing that I had nowhere to go, I jumped over the angry rhino and began running to the other side of the pen. With Della close at my heels, I finally reached the rhino’s five-foot-tall feeding table and hoisted my body up. Della circled under the feeding table, charging the air. As she realized she no longer had a target she began quieting her movements and making her way back to the hay pile.
A sudden sense of security brought a chuckle to my lips and I began cracking up about what had just happened. Did I actually just get attacked by a baby black rhino? Did I actually just get away? That was when it hit m: I was understanding the moment for what it was. All it took was a baby black rhino pushing me into a cold cement corner to come to this awareness. My stomach began to ache as an uncontrollable laughter escaped my lips. I thought about how sometimes going out of our comfort zones can lead us to realizing the true significance of a moment. Minutes later, the next volunteer walked in through the door. Feeling alert, peaceful, and complete I moved on to my next chore.