Vets go wild in Wupperthal

The children queue up to get a good view
The children queue up to get a good view
Published: 27 June 2014

Sometimes The Cape Leopard Trust gets a request for assistance from other worthwhile projects, and this one really appealed to us. When vet Annelize Roos contacted us to say she and a team of helpers were heading out to the Cederberg on a mass domestic animal sterilization drive in the communities around Wupperthal we immediately committed our support. Pets can make a positive difference to people living in difficult conditions, but if these animals are left to breed freely because people can’t afford to sterilize them, we know our wild animal populations will feel also be impacted. This is the story of that journey out into the rural villages meeting the people and their animals


Think of Wupperthal and what comes to mind?

Handmade veldskoene? Donkeys? Mission station?

At the end of May 2014, the EnviroVet CVC team embarked on a journey deep into the Cederberg Mountains to Wupperthal, to discover hearts of gold, homemade bread, and dogs that all have names.

The desire to conduct a mass sterilization campaign in this tiny, remote village, and the even smaller settlements around it had been incubating for a long time. Because of its isolation, the area gets little attention, except from adventurous tourists. But like many communities throughout South Africa, it has cats and dogs that breed virtually unchecked.

The misery this causes in urban areas is bad enough, but in a place like Wupperthal, situated in mountains where wildlife roams past your front door, the problem is compounded. Domestic cats, for example, breed with the African wild cat and dilute the wild species’ gene pool. Dogs hunt the dassies and small antelope that predators like the Cape leopard depend on.

Because Wupperthal is an isolated community, we will be easily able to measure the effectiveness of a mass sterilisation programme, which will help us with future programmes elsewhere.

As always, the main hurdle was fundraising, but fortunately several major donors offered help: EnviroVet CVC itself (a special thanks to Rene!), The Cape Leopard Trust (which is active in leopard research and conservation in the Cederberg), Dancers Love Dogs, Clanwilliam Animal Welfare Society and Budget Van and Truck Rental. After some careful planning and budgeting, the project to sterilize and treat cats and dogs in this remote area was ready to roll.

The proposal was to process 150 animals, a figure based on the most recent pet census conducted by local State Vet officials in Wupperthal and all 19 satellite villages. But just one day into the Pet Population Management Programme, we realised that there were many more animals than we were aware of.

Organising the project in Wupperthal brought challenges of its own. Founded in about 1830 by two German missionaries – one of them the father of C. Louis Leipoldt – it lies about 70km from the nearest town, Clanwilliam. And most of those kilometres are along a rutted, potholed, winding, gravel mountain road. The town is still run by the Moravian church, and all planning had to be approved by the church authorities.

Our first night in the village of some 1,600 people brought home the realities of the remoteness of the area. No modern communication, no Wi-Fi or cell phone reception. Here you have to think on your feet and deal with situations as they arise as best you can, with no chance of quickly nipping into Clanwilliam to get something you might have forgotten, or calling for outside help.

There are advantages too of course – the peace and quiet and nights spent gazing up at the amazing array of stars, made bright and spectacular by the absence of light pollution. Sleeping arrangements were basic but clean, and the fireplace in the kitchen was heavenly.

Curious children queued up after school, hungry to learn, and some even got involved with the project by monitoring the recovering dogs and cats after their medical procedures as well as leading us to the hiding places of feral cats. The positive response and cooperation by all community members was overwhelming.

Humane education was provided through individual consultation with all pet owners, as well as community leaders and school children. 

We decided to first tackle the area with the highest density of animals recorded, Langbome. There we found one family who refused to have their dogs sterilised, a breeding pair of collies. They said the dogs were used as working dogs, looking after the goats and protecting the other farm animals from predators. There were indeed caracal spoor around the houses.

A lovely border collie named Ringe took a while to bring in because he was so obsessed with his goats he was reluctant to leave them. He herded them into the mountains in the mornings and in the evenings brought them back home. Ringe’s owner baked delicious heart-shaped bread for us in her Dutch oven.

Langbome proved difficult; some residents had taken sterilization of their dogs into their own hands by self-administering a drug called Depo-Provera – a human contraceptive. As a result, nearly all the female dogs had developed a condition called pyometra, a uterine infection. 

One woman had castrated her male cat herself with a "skaap rekkie" and a sharp knife. The same had been done to some male dogs. This is a sad reality in this area and underlines the need for proper veterinary intervention.

By the third day we started to include the settlement of Beukeskraal. At the first house we met a man who had seven dogs, most of them working dogs that stayed with his goats. There were many animals here and fortunately their owners were very keen to have them sterilised. 

After our journey to scout the communities of Prinsekraal, Nuweplaas and Agterfonteinskloof we realised that we would have to base ourselves closer to them because the road -- although scenic and only 22km from Wupperthal -- was slow and bumpy. We were so grateful for the vehicle - our mobile ambulance donated - for the project by Budget Truck and Van Rental, with a trailer from the MS Group. We could just not have managed without these tools.

Prinsekraal was a breath of fresh air; there we met Katriena who offered us accommodation in her home and organised a room to operate in.  The six-member team slept like logs in Prinsekraal. Katrina made sure we were well fed on homemade bread, baked in her Aga stove. Her grandson was the hero of the day; he talked an unwilling dog into getting a lead over his head, a true dog whisperer in the making.

Once again we found people administering Depo-Provera to their animals, and more cases of pyometra had to be dealt with. The vet did a practical demonstration to try and show the community the negative effects of the ‘Depo’ on an animal’s uterus.

Nuweplaas was close by and here we encountered the first severe mange victims. Nuweplaas is also a poorer community and it shows in the condition of the animals. Until then, the animals we had worked with were in good general condition and had minimal parasites.

Our last day and night was spent operating on a number of feral cats that we had habituated into traps with food. Many owners, who had initially refused sterilizations, changed their minds after seeing how quickly their neighbors’ animals recovered, and after learning of the risks regarding the use of Pyometra.

It rained during our visit and the Tra-Tra river that flows through Wupperthal rose in flood. Annette and Rene managed to access Langbome to drop off patients, but on their return found the bridge under water. A crowd had gathered at the bridge, shouting and waving, finally convincing them that it was not a good idea to try to cross the river, even in a 4x4. This meant a detour on rough tracks up and down hills, guided by a few excited children.

Finally after much fun, bites and scratches we all got home in one piece, with part of the mountains and the kindness of the village inhabitants imprinted in our hearts forever. A total of 190 animals (119 dogs and 71 cats) received all elements of primary health care (sterilisation, vaccination, deworming and external parasite control).

Due to time and financial constraints, EnviroVet CVC unfortunately had to omit other villages from the program for this intervention, but it is envisaged to incorporate all remaining villages in the not-too-distant future! We would like to thank each and every one of our sponsors who helped us to make this campaign a reality. We hope to be back soon!


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