A fortnight ago, a member on a Somerset West neighbourhood WhatsApp group posted a photograph of a little owl sitting on a gate post at Forest Hills, with an urgent request for any information regarding someone who could come and investigate, as she seemed to be in a state of distress.
Ria van der Wel, who had put out the request, told Bolander that the owl had been perched there for most of the day, and she became increasingly concerned by its apparent lethargy.
“We had to go to Cape Town, and upon leaving the house at just before 11am, we noted the owl sitting on our gate post. I commented to Rainier that is was very unusual for an owl to be active during the daytime.
“When we got home roughly five hours later, the owl was sitting in exactly the same spot. I was concerned about the owl and phoned my vet, and they gave me the number of a local Helderberg animal rescue.
“I immediately called Rico Pentz, and he agreed to come out and assess the owl. Upon arrival, his fiance Eva Nelipot – who occasionally attends recues with him – distracted the owl, while Rico sneaked up behind the owl and grabbed her by the legs.
Rico gently put the little bird on her back, and opened her beak and smelled her breath, by almost putting his nose in her beak,” Ria described.
Rico immediately determined that she was poisoned, and it was a race against time to get her to the vet.
“The whole process only took between two to three minutes, and I’d never seen anybody smell an owl’s breath before,” added Ria.
“They gave us an update the next morning and the day after that. Six days later they returned with the owl fully recovered, and released her exactly where they captured her. They made it look so easy, which I am sure it is not.”
Bolander was on the scene of the release, to capture the beautiful moment, and it was extraordinary to see the combination of gentle firmness with with Rico handled the bird.
Given her rather diminutive size, her talons were relatively enormous, and it is easy to see why owls (indeed all birds of prey) need to be handled with such caution.
Rico elaborated on Ria’s story, saying that it is a common problem to encounter birds of prey (or other mammalian predators like foxes and jackals) that suffer the dire effects of toxins, generally because people have put out poison to kill rodents on their properties, which inevitably end up back in the food chain, indiscriminately threatening whatever may eat them.
Rico takes up the story: The owl that I was called for, was reported sitting in the same spot for more than six hours. At times, owls will sit in a tree for some hours on end, but this owl was out in the open, so I decided to go and assess it. It was a quick and easy catch, I checked the wings, and couldn’t find fault, so I checked the inside of the owl’s beak, and she was pale.
“After smelling her breath, I knew that she had ingested poison. In cases like that, time is of the essence. I raced her home, and immediately administered activated charcoal and plenty of fluids. Then I took her to the vet, just for extra measurement, and kept giving fluids to help flush the system. Five days later she was fit as a fiddle, and was released where she was found.”
Charcoal is a very potent antidote for toxins as it it strips poison from the body.
Rico regularly removes snakes from private properties, and relocates them to higher ground where they pose no threat to humans. He reiterates that snakes are a normal part of the environment, and should never be killed unless absolutely necessary, but rather taken to another habitat where they can continue in their vital function as part of the greater ecosystem.
“I’ve always had a love and passion for animals, and moving down to the Western Cape from Pretoria, had me realise that the wildlife needs help as there are not many people that will do whatever it takes to keep our wildlife safe.
“After working for the SPCA Wildlife Unit, I decided to rather start my own organisation that focuses completely on rescue, rehabilitation and release. As word got out about what I do, more and more calls started to come in.
“At first, I was doing all of my rescues free of charge, until the community encouraged me to ask a fee to help cover vet costs and fuel costs. We don’t make any profit off any of the calls that we attend. We do it purely for the love of animals,” he said.
I first heard about Rico’s work doing wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, when a friend told me about some caracal kittens that had been found near Raithby, after their mother had been knocked over and killed by a car. Rico captured them, and after caring for them until they were ready to be released, he took them to an appropriate location and set them free.
Rico “skrik vir niks nie” – he’s been bitten by a puff adder, which sent him to hospital, and he bears the marks of many teeth and claws as symbols of his chosen trade, about which he is passionate.
He says that 80% of all rescue missions is because of the human population.
“Habitat for wildlife has shrunk tremendously, and as the result, they seek refuge in the suburbs. The negative side is that when wildlife is seen in the suburbs, most people do not think about the fact that the animal is looking for food, water or shelter.
“Snakes get killed on a daily basis when they are found in a garden or in a house. Animals like caracal, duiker, otters, leopards and foxes get hit by cars at night, and most times the animal needs to be humanely put to sleep, as the injuries are too severe,” he adds.
“Poison is also a major factor in killing wildlife. There is no such thing as ‘eco-friendly poison’, no matter what the label says. If the poison can kill a mouse or cockroach, it will cause secondary poisoning in the animal that eats the mouse/rat/cockroach,” he cautions.
“I have had several owls die from secondary poisoning, and also snakes, chameleons, hadedas, cats, dogs, and small birds. Pesticides sprayed onto plants also causes secondary poisoning, and one in 20 animals are lucky enough to be saved in cases of poisoning.”
He has rescued many interesting animals, but there are some that really stand out
For example, the female adult caracal that decided to make herself at home inside of a house in Durbanville… The call came through as a “spotted genet” that was inside of the house.
“On arrival, I got surprised by the female caracal laying down on the kitchen cupboard. To this day, I still have no idea how I managed to catch her with my bare hands, and place her in a travel crate without getting as much as a scratch from her.
“Another call that stood out was Llwandle police station phoning me, telling me that they received a call about a dolphin stuck in a toilet. When I got to the address, it turned out to be a fully-grown Cape Clawless otter.
“Well, after several attempts to catch the otter and put him in the travel crate, he bit right through my safety glove and through my thumb. Blood was gushing everywhere and the crowd that formed were screaming… some with joy, and some with fear.
“But I managed to get the otter into the travel crate, and received a police escort to the hospital where I got cleaned up and had a couple of stitches.”
As for snake rescues, he once received a call at 3am from Somerset West SAPS for a puffadder in a bathroom. T
“The lady woke up, went to the toilet, and as she sat down, she saw the puffie laying just centimeters away from her,” he said. “She calmly got up, and left the bathroom to call for help. It turned out to be an adult male puffie that just wanted some company (LOL),” he said.
In most rescue missions, he walk away unscathed, but there are times that he ends up bleeding.
“Most of the times that I get injured is because of the tricky situation that the animal is in. I feel that I would rather get injured in the process, that the animal getting hurt or injured,” he said.
Rico offers the following advice: “The best thing to do when coming across an animal in distress, is to immediately call for help, keep an eye on the animal from a safe distance and do not try to intervene yourself if you are not sure what to do. Depending on the situation, I will instruct the caller what to do while I make my way there.”
Call-out costs vary upon the type of animal. Larger animals are more expensive to have treated by a vet, versus smaller animals. Most of the cases they attend to are injured wildlife. Other cases are as simple as “catch and relocate” in a suitable and safe area.
To get in touch with Rico, contact him at Helderberg Wildlife Rescue, 24 hours a day, at 074 560 0711.