13 August 2019

I’d like to think I’m pretty desensitized to gross things from working with wildlife. I figure I’ve worked on enough dead animals, scat, and environmental samples to have a strong stomach and mind over matter approach. My theory was proven wrong this past weekend… One of the volunteers came racing up to me on my day off saying that the lab smelled like maybe a molerat or mouse died in it. I abandoned my lunch and expected a quick fix to finding and removing whatever poor animal crawled up and died in the lab. But when I opened the door and got hit with a wall of rotten stench, I knew it would be a long day. With limited space at the project, one of our chest freezers for dead meerkats shares the space of my office next to the cell lab. Apparently it crashed overnight allowing the 100+ tuberculosis ridden dead meerkats to thaw and permeate the room with an indescribable smell. I opened the freezer to find it completely thawed out with blood dripping out of the body bags. The cardboard boxes organizing the bodies by group broke as I pulled them out with the other meerkat managers dumping out the bodies and splashing fluids onto us. With nowhere else to put them, we moved them into a chest freezer in the farmhouse kitchen. Our colleagues were not amused as the vile aroma wafted throughout the kitchen during lunch break. The smell has left the lab and kitchen but it will be forever burned in my memory.

The last time we brewed was during a sandstorm so it would make sense to brew with another memorable event. After washing the meerkat blood off of our arms and legs, we brewed 20L of an orange wheat beer and named it “Meerkat Juice.” We bottled our Cochovan stout and it turned out quite nice with hints of the vanilla and coffee we added, though the chocolate didn’t come through as much. I will be inheriting the brew equipment since the 2 managers I joined will be leaving in September. Hopefully I can recruit a few people interested in helping out and keeping it going.

Last week I did not have any bloods so I took advantage of the down time to get out and explore more. My first stop was “Big Dune” right in the middle of the reserve. I foolishly thought that the name may imply that it was tall enough to be a good vantage point to see something on the horizon, but I just saw the expanse of sand without any features to really gage how far I was able to see. It was a stunning sunset from the top.

I had thought I wandered around most of the roads but discovered a new one when I helped a friend try to track down some lug nuts he lost from a truck in the far corner of the reserve. Apparently he had forgotten to tighten the nuts a second time after changing a tire and had maybe been going a little too fast, drifting on sandy turns, and listening to his music a little too loud while following warthog tracks. Whatever the culprit was, he saw a rear tire bouncing away as the back of the truck dropped into the sand. We only found two of the missing pieces but it was a good opportunity to see a part of the reserve that is more grasslands than sand dunes – another cool place to camp. I didn’t see the warthog but there were some really cool large birds (probably vultures) circling above.

I finally went out with a meerkatter to visit one of our study groups – Zulus. I knew all of our groups were habituated to humans but didn’t think it would be to the extent where we could walk in and among the group and even give them some scratches and rubs while weighing them before they went down into their burrow for the night. The social structure and alarm system they have for predators is pretty incredible. They definitely seem less like wild animals now, at least on the reserve, but have very unique group dynamics I’ve never seen in wildlife before. This week I was also able to go on a capture where the blood I process is collected. Seeing the whole process from watching the effects of dominance changes within the group, the work up from the vet to collect blood and take measurements, and then running through the lab protocol was very cool. The last photo is taken through a microscope looking at the isolated PBMCs (white blood cells) from the blood draw that I challenge to assess immune response.

It’s officially scorpion season! I thought it was still too cold for them but our vet found 4 outside her home this morning. The meerkats eat them and are not affected by their venom. A sting probably wouldn’t kill an adult human, but it would be a bad day. I think they’re really neat and am excited to see more of them around, especially at night. My astrology sign is scorpio and we can see the scorpio constellation pretty clear, it’s so big! I still can’t get over the night sky here – on a late night/early morning walk to the fire tower, I saw a shooting star with a long orange tail breach the sky.

The curry dinner alta was well received – we made korma (mild and coconut milk based) and jalfrezi (spicy). We prepared it in panic most of the day chopping up dozens of onions, potatoes, and peppers, and constantly peering into the big pot thinking it wouldn’t be enough for 35 people. Everything turned out great though and there was enough for seconds, as well as extra we stashed in our fridge boxes. Somehow I’m already up again to cook in two weeks.

No big surprise – but an isolated community of 20/30 somethings living in the middle of the desert has its own social structure that may be even more amusing that the meerkats. Perhaps there should be studies on the human social dynamics here as well as the wildlife.

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