Rwanda, Africa — I just returned from the trip of a lifetime to Rwanda and Kenya, Africa. I traveled to Rwanda to trek into the Virunga Mountains to see mountain gorillas with Terra Incognita Ecotours, but I wasn’t expecting to see how universal the human-animal bond is around the world.
We flew into the capital city of Kigali before heading out to the mountains. Instantly, it’s apparent how rebuilding and infrastructure repair and growth has occurred since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when 800,000 men, women, and children were massacred, one of the most horrific atrocities in human history. Finding trash or litter in Kigali is a challenge; this booming metropolis of about 11.5 million is incredibly clean.
And by any standards, Kigali is safe.
Still, what’s also a challenge is to find cats – even feral cats are hard to see. In fact, it’s also a challenge to find dogs, owned or stray.
It turns out that for reasons unexplained, cats have never been a part of the Rwandan culture, ever. I asked many Rwandans why – and no one seems to know. It’s not that cats are poorly thought of – it seems they just hadn’t been considered. At least until now. As more Americans, Europeans and Asians influence culture, particularly in the big city, there is an increasing interest in “getting a cat.” I did see a couple of small animal veterinary clinics and a groomer in the city, so that means cats, dogs or other small animals are kept as pets and receiving veterinary and grooming care.
Yet high up in the mountains, near the lush forest homes of the mountain gorilla, at the Virunga Lodge where we stayed, lives Puss the cat. Overall, Puss has a darn good life. There’s no shortage of love, food or entertainment.
Tourists (like me), missing their own cats at home, ask for handouts from the kitchen and snuggle with Puss (who clearly enjoys the love). The kitchen staff offers up whatever Puss wants, and there are plenty of lizards and birds with which Puss supplements his diet. It’s amazing that Puss isn’t overweight. Like a pampered housecat, Puss’ routine consisted of hunting, eating, sleeping and soliciting petting.
Puss figured out that we were watching gorillas in the morning, so he would make a morning pass at the kitchen and disappear to do his own thing. When the tourists reappear, Puss reappears. Puss, like a lot of cats, has it down. He really likes the affection from tourists and is himself a very affectionate cat.
Still, I didn’t see any veterinary clinics in the Rwandan countryside should Puss become sick or injured. And if one did exist, it would probably be a goat or cow vet. Of course, that’s the reality in many nations around the world; veterinary care or even pet food is considered a luxury, even though people still keep pets, but not always cats and dogs.
In the countryside, instead of dogs on the other end of leashes there are goats. Now, goats aren’t exactly kept as pets like we think of pets, but then they kind of are. Children even take their goat for a walk. They have names. They have value. And though the goats don’t sleep indoors (happily), they are well cared for, one might even say loved.
Before the genocide, dogs actually were quite popular, even in poor areas. Typical of poor nations, dogs in Rwanda might roam from home to home for handouts, and sometimes pick at the trash. Still, they had names and were loved.
With the genocide that all changed. As people fled their homes, and often fled the country – there was no way to take the dog. Many dogs were left homeless and without any caretakers. Entire villages were sometimes wiped out, leaving dogs behind. The truth is that with nothing else to eat, dogs either starved or scavenged on what they could find in order to survive, including human remains. As the genocide came to an end, dogs were vilified for this. And that disgust continues to linger in the Rwandan culture – at least for now.
I did see some dogs, though only a few. When I asked one owner about his mixed breed dog, he told me the dog’s name. I’m sure he wondered why this tourist asked his vehicle to stop and jumped out to have a conversation about his dog. Neighbors were staring. But instead of asking me about my interest in his dog, he inquired if I was interested in purchasing – not a single puppy – but the entire litter. I declined.
From Rwanda, I went on to the Masai Mara in Kenya to view the migration of the wilderbeest and zebra, a spectacle I had seen on TV but never before in person. With so many prey animals, there are predators, including lions and hyenas. I learned about their population numbers in East Africa, which appears to be good news. However, the same can’t be said for cheetahs. In fact, feline infectious peritonitis and mange are among the factors influencing cheetah numbers. I will write about all this and more in the February issue of Cat Fancy, which will be available on newsstands on Christmas Day.