I had an opportunity to spend a day and night at Daktari, visiting with Michelle Merrifield and her husband and counterpart Ian. This was truly an eye-opening experience for me, because I did not grow up with animals in my house. The closest thing I had to a pet was a goldfish in a tank that my brother, sister, and I foolishly tried to clean one night by refilling it in our bathtub, only to wake up the next morning to see that we had broken the seal of the tank and all 10 gallons had leaked onto the floor. Being surrounded by wild animals of all kinds, ostriches, warthogs, a leopard, a donkey, a porcupine, etc. was an entirely new experience for me.
That said, I am so grateful to have had the chance to spend time at Daktari and to learn so much about the good they are doing in their surrounding communities. Michelle and Ian use animals to educate children about life, caring for those that cannot help themselves (a lot of the animals came to the orphanage because they were injured in some way and left to be killed or experimented with), and social etiquette like politeness and being considerate of others. Every week Ian drives to a school that is more than an hour away to pick up a group of eight to ten 8th grade students. The students spend a week “camping” out at Daktari, where they learn about wildlife, participate in classes about basic math and reading, and also discuss life issues like how to reject drugs and alcohol and practicing safe sex. Their days are packed with activity from a dog walk that starts at 7 a.m. to dinner that is complete by 8 p.m.
Volunteers help maintain the camp and also serve as coaches and mentors for the kids. Michelle and Ian also live on the bush school grounds, and they have visitors there 90% of the year. In 2010, kids were visiting 49 out of 52 weeks. Michelle and Ian exude passion and enthusiasm for the children they serve and the animals they care for that is contagious. It is clear that the kids and animals love them just as much. Michelle and Ian have literally given up all personal freedom and luxuries to fulfill their vision. Michelle, for example, moved from a big city in France to the wild, with no electricity, and the closest airport more than five hours away. What they have been able to build and maintain is really special and unique, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to meet and spend time with them.