Uganda wildlife center has changed with the times

Uganda: Sanctuary For Wildlife

Ahumuza Muhumuza
27 June 2009


Kampala — The Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) has changed tremendously over the years. From the nostalgic nineties when I was a little boy and used to spend time by the chimpanzee cage where Zakayo swang, swayed, thumped his chest and did acrobatic moves to the amusement of adults and run the children into a frenzy of excitement.

Among the highlights back then was feeding the baby animals born at the zoo; from chimpanzees to baboons, monkeys et cetera.

It was my favourite place in Uganda. Up to now, every year hundreds of fans gather to attend Zakayo’s birthday party.

At 44 years of age, Zakayo is the oldest and most popular chimpanzee in Uganda and is the Alpha male of the troop at UWEC. It watches over the rest as they take time grooming or cavorting with each other.

Formerly known as the Zoo, it became Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in 1994 and there was a major makeover, the animals were moved from tiny cages to large, open-air enclosures, simulating their natural habitat in the wild, with plaques bearing information on each animal’s biography, biological and social information.

That is identical to their natural habitats. The centre aimed at recreating Uganda’s extraordinarily diverse ecology, from rocky savannahs to lush wetlands, along the sandy shores of Lake Victoria, and allow free-ranging antelope to mix with Vervet monkeys and more than 250 bird species.

Some were surrounded by moats (those like lions and chimpanzees which cannot swim). Therefore, unlike other places like Nairobi orphanage or Safari Walk, you get to see the animals up close and personal.

Other animals like the proud and graceful Crested Crane which is the national symbol of Uganda and most Ugandans are proud of; the elegant and colourful peacock; Vervet monkeys, which move around playing with tourists petting their cameras, receiving flowers and leaves and hoping we are carrying delicious snacks concealed about our persons, roam around entertaining visitors.

I can remember the excitement when the Sherino and Kabira thefirst white Rhinos in decades were brought to Uganda from Kenya (White Rhinos became extinct in Uganda in 1983 due to excessive poaching).

Two more hand-raised White Rhinos were imported from Disney’s theme park in Florida Nande, a seven-year-old female, and Hasani, a five-year-old male, grew up in man-made savannah conditions at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

The fully grown Rhinos were imported hand-tamed. They were, therefore, fond of people. Hordes of tourists both domestic and foreign lined up for the rare opportunity to take photos with the generally fierce and dangerous animals for photo albums, personalised calendars and post cards.

I had the rare opportunity to be with the White Rhino and stroke its coarse skin. But my all-time favourite was the feeding time for the more than 20-foot long African rock python (one of the longest snakes in the world).

The caretaker coiled the large reptile around his body and brought it out of its enclosure. There we gathered around to pet its soft scaly body as it slithered round his body.

The tour continues with a wide variety of animals, including the rare shoebill stock (one of the only 350

remaining in the world); Serval cats (these hunt flying birds and can leap as high as 10 feet in the air to grab a bird); Patas monkeys; Spotted necked otters and more

than 250 other animals and a medicinal plants garden with over 500 herbs plus information about the diseases they cure.

After a stroll through the 1,000-metre forest walk encountering wild monkeys, birds, free-ranging antelope, beautiful debrazza monkeys, vervet monkeys, hundreds of beautiful coloured butterflies, other creatures and indigenous plant species, we relax at the shaded tables near the Lake Victoria shore as we feast on the famous Ugandan fried Nile Perch

and French fries. Regardless of the tremendous changes UWEC has gone through over the decades, from the days when Amin’s soldiers used to butcher the animals to gorge themselves and their families to the days when the animals were in cages. No matter the time of the year, there’s never a boring moment at UWEC.

It remains the most visited fauna and flora park by domestic tourists and a “must see” for anyone going to Uganda for the first time. Funded by the World Bank, the centre is now home to more than 50 species whose existence in the Great Lakes region is under threat.

They include an African rock python normally found in a dusty savannah. Initially housed in a cage it was the prime target of villagers’ taunts.

Desperate to escape, the python cracked his skull on the metal bars. More of these animals have amazing stories behind them. Few animals are likely to have endured a more miserable existence than Sarah.

By the age of four she had spent most of her life being used by a witchdoctor in a Ugandan village. Locked in a cage and deprived of any contact with other

chimpanzees, parts of Sarah’s body would be shaved and her hair used in traditional ceremonies to banish evil spirits. Spotted by a middleman for an animal smuggling ring, Sarah was bought for a few dollars and prepared to be flown out of Uganda, bound for either the Middle East or Europe , where conservationists believe she would have been sold to a collector.

But Sarah refused to go quietly. As she was being taken away in a bag, on the way to Entebbe airport just outside Uganda’s capital, Kampala, her incessant wriggling and screeching alerted the Police.

The trafficker was arrested and Sarah found herself in a new home: the UWEC in Entebbe. Here, along with more than 10 other chimpanzees, Sarah has been nurtured back to health.

Three animals were accidentally caught in fishermen’s nets over the past 20 years. The youngest was only brought in after a fisherman visited the centre and saw the other two.

After finding the otter caught up in his net, he had panicked and kept it in a drum, unsure of what to do with it.

The shoebill stork, a five-foot tall grey-feathered bird was found in the boot of a car, about to be smuggled out of the country.

Sarah is not the only chimpanzee to have been saved from a life of pain with a witchdoctor. Kikyo, who is still being kept in quarantine while vets carry out a thorough examination, had also been kept for use in traditional witchcraft ceremonies.

Despite the sad stories behind the animals, UWEC still aims atpromoting and creating an understanding of conserving the biodiversity in Uganda among the public, with specific emphasis on the young generation using the facilities at Entebbe; rescue and rehabilitate animals, breed species while still remaining a zoo where people come to see and learn about animals while remaining a recreation park.

History of UWEC

The UWEC was opened in 1952 by the colonial government then, as an animal orphanage that offered sanctuary to young animals found abandoned in protected areas due to the death or poaching of parent animals. In the early 1960s, it became a traditional zoo and became commonly known as Entebbe Zoo in which even non-indigenous species like bears and tigers were kept as an attraction. Because of the political turmoil and inadequate government funding, the zoo became continually run down until May 1994 when a proposal was made by the New York Zoological Society (now the World Conservation Society) to turn it into a conservation education centre for conservation awareness purposes; hence the name ‘Uganda Wildlife Education Centre Trust’.


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Florida man owns cougars, servals, other wild animals

May 11, 2009

Creature comforter
Flagler County man discovers 2nd career as caretaker of exotic wildlife

Staff Writer

BUNNELL — Between growls, purrs and hisses, a large cougar calmly crunches through the bones of what appears to be a whole chicken, easily swallowing chunks of meat the size of a human foot.

“Just imagine, that could be your arm,” Lynn Fenimore says to a wary visitor. He laughs, but his eyes aren’t smiling.

Fenimore respects the potential for fury possessed by the more than three dozen exotic animals that prowl the cages and pens on his 10-acre spread in western Flagler County. Although all of the creatures were born and raised in captivity, every guttural growl through a mouthful of dagger-sharp teeth, every claws-extended swipe of a furry paw, is a reminder that these cuddly-looking big cats are still, at heart, wild beasts.

It doesn’t stop Fenimore from snuggling with a toothy cougar, though. He gets right into the cage with it, nuzzling its face, letting it bat at his arms and climb on his back to groom his neck and hair.

As he walks by, other caged animals spot him. They whine, purr and roll on their backs as if begging for a quick belly rub. Fenimore says he even trusts a few of his critters well enough to allow them to interact with his grandchildren, who live in the area. He says the grandkids were the main reason he relocated to Flagler County.

Raising cougars, tigers, bears and other flesh-eating creatures is not the life one might expect of a guy who spent 23 years working in the medical electronics industry. It certainly isn’t the future the 66-year-old Fenimore envisioned for himself when he was younger.

But a short-term volunteer project in the 1990s changed everything.

Fenimore said he was growing increasingly unhappy with his medical job. His wife, Janice, encouraged him to “get out of the house” during the day, he said. It wasn’t a suggestion.

So Fenimore said he volunteered to work in the “birds of prey” exhibit at Flamingo Gardens, an Everglades native wildlife sanctuary in Davie, just west of Fort Lauderdale. He loved it. Owners of the attraction must’ve been impressed; they offered him a job creating educational programs for the facility.

“It was only about an 80 percent pay cut,” Fenimore said.

But with support from Janice, who died four years ago just before Fenimore moved to Flagler County, he took the job. He said it later led to another job at Native Village, a native wildlife sanctuary in Hollywood, just north of Miami.

It was there that Fenimore said he fell in love with a cougar for the first time.

“Animals give unconditional love,” Fenimore said. “People often want something in return for theirs.”

In 1999, Fenimore said he opened Talons and Tails Inc., a nonprofit animal sanctuary, at his home in Pembroke Pines and moved two cougar cubs that had been rejected by their mother into the living room.

He collected more and more creatures and said he began taking some on the road, doing as many as 200 live shows annually with animals he’d raised and trained. He said most came from owners who thought they could handle an exotic animal but learned they couldn’t.

Over the years, so many animals have called his sanctuary home that Fenimore said it’s hard to remember them all. He said he’s raised everything from black bears, foxes, cougars and other exotic cats, to parrots, anteaters, coatimundis (sometimes called South American raccoons that resemble a cross between a monkey and an anteater) and numerous species of wildlife native to Florida.

“It’s been an interesting 15 years,” Fenimore said.

Some of his animals have even helped earn their keep by starring in feature films, like “Jackass: The Movie,” appearing in magazines, like Vogue, and showing up in TV shows, like National Geographic’s “Animal Planet.”

Fenimore said he misses the days when it was possible for him to attend schools and birthday parties where dozens of kids could get close enough to touch his beloved critters. But now legal restrictions and the skyrocketing cost of liability insurance “took all of the fun out of it for me and the kids both,” he said.

It’s also making it impossible for Fenimore to generate enough money to cover the cost of caring for the animals he raises. Depending on how many of the cages on his property are filled, Fenimore said it costs between $25,000 and $70,000 annually to care for them.

“I would spend my last dime to take care of these creatures — and I have,” Fenimore said.

Fenimore said he gets by with the help of a trust fund left by his late wife. More help comes in the form of chicken and vegetable scraps and leftovers donated by one of his neighbors, Linda Ferguson, who runs a restaurant at Flagler County’s Bull Creek Park and Campground.

Ferguson said she’s not scared or bothered by Fenimore’s wild bunch and points out he has all the proper permits to keep them. Carl Laundrie, county spokesman, said Flagler officials have never received any complaints of any kind about Fenimore and he knows of no complaints against him or his animals.

Fenimore said he feeds his animals twice each day — two periods of peace in his world. With birds providing an early-morning soundtrack, it’s just Fenimore and his animals greeting the day.

At night, two of his six dogs make the rounds with him. And as he returns to the comfort of his country home for the evening, each animal seems to give him a vocal salute as he passes.

“Even after all these years, I still thank the good Lord that I was given the privilege of working with these animals,” Fenimore said.

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Escaped serval hybrid shot in La.

Cat killer suspect arrested in Violet as owner mourns $3,500 feline

by Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
Friday May 01, 2009, 9:30 PM

Ever since Raja arrived by airplane from California in late 2007, Linda Authement and her daughter, Jaylin, had marveled at the intelligence of the rare $3,500 Savannah cat they had saved for years to buy. It could fetch, retrieve and even open the door to their Violet home with its paws.

Two weeks ago, the clever feline escaped. And soon after, Linda Authement received a telephone call that sent chills racing down her spine.

It was a neighbor who had seen a reward sign for her missing spotted cat, she said, and he let on that he shot at it while grilling outside the night of April 18.

“He didn’t tell me he shot the cat, he said he shot at the cat,” Authement recalled. “That’s when I frantically told him, ‘You didn’t shoot the cat? Please tell me you didn’t shoot the cat.’ And he said, ‘I missed.'”

She raced to the home of the caller, Rene Paul Desselle, who lived two doors down from her. He told her he had seen the skinny, leopard-like cat come near him and was worried it was a wild animal that might harm his dog.

So he shot at it, Authement was told.

Authement and her husband searched around Desselle’s house for several minutes, after being told the cat might have hidden beneath it. Then Desselle pointed out the cat, dead, in the vacant lot next door. It clearly had a hole in its head.

Fuming and heartbroken, Authement called the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“I could have accepted it if the cat got hit, if something would have happened accidentally to it,” Authement said. “But a cat getting shot in the head point blank like that, I can’t accept it.”

Desselle’s wife, Cora Desselle, said Friday he didn’t kill the cat. She said their gun was never taken out of its cabinet.

She said he told the Authements that he “shooed” the cat when it came near, which might have sounded like “shoot.”

“We didn’t shoot the cat. We don’t hurt animals,” she said.

Nonetheless, Rene Desselle, 50, was booked Monday with a felony, aggravated cruelty to an animal, and illegal discharge of a weapon. He has since been released on a $6,000 bond.

Linda and Jaylin Authement said they had been saving up for years to buy Raja from breeders in California after spotting a Savannah in Cat Fancy magazine. Linda Authement said they paid $3,500 for the cat, plus airfare for it to be shipped to Louis Armstrong International Airport.

“That cat didn’t have a claw or a mean bone in his body,” said Linda Authement, whose animal-loving household also includes three other cats, three golden retrievers, two tortoises and a
cockatiel. “The cat slept with us in the bed. The cat was part of the family.

“We can get another, but it’ll never be the same. Nor will we be able to afford a cat that cost that much ever again.”

Chris Kirkham can be reached at or 504.826.3321.

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