This video features some of Prospero's story, as well as more information about the project. Thank you Justin and Eugenie Bonello for your help with putting this excellent video together!
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Blog by Laurel Serieys, PhD
This time last year, if someone called me to report a caracal caught in a gin trap in an affluent part of Cape Town, I would've thought it was one of those fluke rare cases. But the longer I work on the Urban Caracal Project, I am realizing that the struggle to live in harmony with wildlife is more pervasive than I could've imagined. My fear is that the story of our 26th caracal, Prospero, is not rare.
I was at home asleep for the night on a Saturday a couple weeks ago and woken at 11 pm by a phone call from a local community member. The request– "please come help – a caracal is caught in a snare and we don't know what to do...." A bit groggy, I started to ask questions– a snare? Where are you? Did you set the snare? Is the animal severely injured...??? They didn't have answers, and it didn't matter. Quick action was the most important thing, and not just by me.
The family that called me, renters in a home nearby where the caracal was illegally caught, were just as surprised as me by the circumstances they found themselves in. And they are to be applauded for mobilizing to action in every way they could. They got in touch with one of our project vets, Dr. Aimmee Knight, so that she could bring the drugs I would need to dart Prospero. They also called Megan Reid, the Wildlife Unit Coordinator for the SPCA. Along with Urban Caracal Project field team manager Joleen Broadfield, we quickly gathered so that we could set Prospero free.
When I arrived, I saw immediately that Prospero was actually caught in a gin trap that was affixed to a shed with rabbits. It was unclear if whoever was tending the rabbit shed was having issues with predators killing rabbits. In these cases, the best tactic to keep the rabbits or other pets safe is actually to reinforce the shed. But as is a story I've heard now so many times, rather than reinforcing the shed they were choosing to persecute any potential wildlife that got close to the shed instead.
Prospero had fought himself to exhaustion in his efforts to break free. And further fighting meant that he could seriously injure himself beyond what the trap itself did to his paw. I could see he was caught by just a few toes. Because of this I was optimistic as I loaded my dart that if I could quickly drug him and get him out of the trap, he could be released somewhere safe, possibly even that night.
When I approached Prospero to dart him, he lunged and jumped around, trying to get away from me. He was terrified. I was quiet and calm so I could slowly sneak close to him. He calmed down a bit too and finally I had my shot. I blew into my blowpipe and the dart hit him square in his flank with a lucky perfect first shot.
Within 10 minutes, he was asleep from the immobilizing drugs. Aimmee and I immediately released him from the trap to start assessing the extent of his injuries. Our examination revealed he had been caught by only two toes. During his efforts to get free he had clearly dislocated them, and it was possible that they were broken.
We decided to take him to Aimmee's clinic to get x-rays on his foot before we would make the next decision– release him that night, or take him to the SPCA to give him a chance to recuperate the mobility in his foot before release. Putting wild animals in cages is stressful, and we wanted to choose carefully for Prospero and minimize the time he was stressed.
We conducted the xrays and the Penzance Veterinary Clinic and found that he only had 2 dislocated toes that Aimmee was able to reset. We decided Prospero could still benefit from a couple days in rehabilitation. We wanted to ensure that he could move on his foot before we released him back to the wild where he would have to hunt on his own to survive.
Within three days, Prospero’s foot healed nicely and he was in excellent condition. He is an adult male caracal that weighed 13kg– what we typically see in full-grown males in the Peninsula. We fitted him with a collar, and loaded him up in the SPCA bakkie. We then took him to a protected area in Table Mountain National Park where, with permission from SANParks, we released him.
Prospero was fortunate in so many ways. But not all caracals, or other wildlife that are illegally trapped, are this lucky. I am learning that the frequency with which landowners choose to take persecutory action against predators is shockingly high– and seems to be the first stop measure taken to try to resolve conflict with neighboring predators. Last week we received 7 different calls about caracals causing trouble by killing cats, chickens, sheep, duikers, and grysbokkies! Each person calling requested we trap and relocate the animal, even in the case where caracals were doing what caracals do: prey on native species like grysbok.
All of these animals that were attacked by a predator were roaming free and caracals were blamed every time. But there are predators, other than just caracals, that will also take advantage of an easy meal of chickens or domestic cats. And so even if we rid the landscape of caracals entirely, the problems would persist! The only solution is to protect your pets and livestock like you protect your family- keep them safe inside, especially at night.
We often imagine this type of human-wildlife conflict to be far away in farmlands, but it hits close to home even in the city. Many people live near those green spaces because they appreciate nature and the beauty of the mountains. Predatory species play an integral role in that beauty that we desire; yet many residents only want a slice of the beauty without taking it as a complete package.
With ever-increasing habitat loss and encroachment into the areas that wildlife occupies, we are creating this conflict that surprises us. We are transforming wildlife habitat into homes, concrete driveways, and roads. We are fragmenting the landscape with electrified fencing. In this landscape we are so drastically modifying, we are also introducing domestic animals that are vulnerable to predation if they roam around free. We are creating novel ecosystems in which predators are forced to adapt to or perish.
Those predators that struggle to adapt to the rapid loss of their own habitat, and loss of their own natural prey when the habitat loss occurs, will opportunistically prey on easy meals of free-roaming geese, ducks, lambs, and domestic cats because it is their biology to do so. So, in areas where many pets or livestock roam free, it attracts many other predators too that are also trying to adapt. By trying to shelter and protect our animals as much as possible, there's less enticement for a variety of predators.
Propsero's story, luckily, hasn't ended thanks to the community that supported his release– the SPCA, the family that called, Penzance Veterinary Clinic. We have been monitoring his movements using his radio-collar, and find that he largely "hangs around" the area where he was initially caught in that gin trap. We hope that he lives a long productive life given this second chance, but that will rely on us, as a community, also changing the way we interact with our environment.
We lose our humanity when we choose predator persecution as the first-stop solution. By promoting the safety of our domestic animals, we also promote conservation. And by keeping pets like domestic cats indoors more, we reduce the risk of death due to the primary cause of death for free-roaming cats– being hit by cars. Many feel that keeping pets and livestock sheltered is mission impossible, so the best we can recommend is that we accept the risk that domestic animals are vulnerable to death because of a variety of reasons. If we let our cats roam free, we accept the risk they may be hit by a car, and so the same is true for being vulnerable to predators.
The Story of Prospero's name
Prospero's name was chosen because we felt that his story resonated with that of Prospero in Shakespeare's the Tempest. The name also means "fortune" or "luck." This passage in particular resonates with Prospero, the caracal's, own struggle:
"Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free."