Book Excerpt: Soul of a Lion

Welcome to the weekly installment of Library Fridays, where we excerpt from an upcoming title put out by our colleagues at National Geographic Books. Today’s title is Soul of a Lion: One Woman’s Quest to Rescue Africa’s Wildlife Refugees, by Barbara Bennett, which tells the story of Marieta van der Merwe, who runs the Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia. Order a copy of the book here.

It is the lion’s roar, answered first from one direction and then another, increasing in degree until you can feel the vibrations in your chest, each roar beating to the rhythm of your heart. When the lions’ calls have reached their peak, they begin to wane, until the sounds are mere growls expelled with each deep animal breath. In and out, in and out, the growls lessen, and then there is stillness. Territory has been marked for the moment–as it will be again at sunset and at tomorrow’s sunrise and each day after.

So the day has begun at the Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary. In her bedroom, Marieta van der Merwe is beginning to stretch, having heard the lion alarm clock. As she sits up in bed, she takes stock of the babies surrounding her. A three-month old baboon, Ita, is strapped to Marieta’s waist with a scarf, sucking on her spindly thumb, eyelids bluish and still closed. Ita was brought to Harnas because her mother had been shot by a trophy hunter who then found the baby clinging to her dead mother’s underside. The hunter brought the baby baboon, in shock and dehydrated, to Harnas rather than selling her, and Marieta took her willingly, even gratefully, cradling the small, fuzzy head the size of a baseball, gazing directly into her eyes, and making the small and fast tongue movements in and out of her mouth– exactly what the baby’s biological mother would do–signifying love, safety, and connection. Ita found a new mother, and she clings to Marieta obsessively, gradually recovering from the shock of her mother’s deathly stillness next to her own beating heart.

Marieta unties and then rewraps Ita in a protective circle of pillows,

hearing only a small squeak in protest. She lays her next to two other

baby baboons, slightly older, who had been clinging to each other in

sleep. Both were brought to Harnas when their families were scared away

from a water hole by tourists. The baboon mothers had to leave so

quickly that they weren’t able to gather up their brave, exploring

infants. The tourists found the babies and asked around about who might

care for them. “Harnas” was what the locals told them over and over.

Concerned ecotourists, the people drove hours out of their way to bring

the babies to Harnas, where they were taken in with a smile. Marieta

never says no to animals. It is a rule she lives by.

During my

two-week sojourn at Harnas, I worked harder than I had ever worked in

my life, and I got dirtier and more scratched and bruised than I had

thought possible. And I adored every second of it. I was mystified and

awestruck by Marieta van der Merwe, the woman who had started the

sanctuary, who could identify almost a hundred baboons by face and

name, and who seemed to fear nothing. My visit went by like fire

through the savannah, and when it was time to go home, I cried all the

way to the airport. I kept apologizing to the driver until he said,

“Everybody cries when they leave.”

In June 2008 and again in

December 2008, I returned to Harnas for a month. I went with a clear

idea of the book I could write–a linear story about Marieta and the

evolution of Harnas. After a few days, though, I felt the idea

dissolve, to be replaced by a much more complex and interesting story

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of the people and animals on the farm. The story became a web, with

Marieta at the center. Strands headed out in all directions, connecting

and reconnecting in unexpected places. The story started to be more

about the cycle of healing than merely the creation of an animal

refuge. Animals come to Harnas to be healed–by people who are then

healed through their service to the animals.

Learn more about

Marieta van der Merwe and Harnas in Barbara Bennett’s new book Soul of

a Lion: One Woman’s Quest to Rescue Africa’s Wildlife Refugees. You can also plan your next volunteer vacation at Harnas Wildlife Foundationvolunteer vacation at Harnas Wildlife Foundation, where you have the opportunity to feed, care for, and rehabilitate the animals, discover the untouched continent, and fall asleep to the sound

of natures own symphony: the lion roar. More information is at www.Harnas.org.

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