The true story behind operation “Rescue FreeMe”
The question everyone is asking is why are the phones at the FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre going unanswered? Why are distressed birds and animals being turned away?
It’s due to a lack of confidence in the present management of FreeMe and the manner in which the Centre is now being run. Open warfare has been declared between the present Paperwork and Red Tape regime and the Volunteers who believe priority should be given to rescue and rehabilitation.
Which faction will win the bitter fight to restore the battle-torn FreeMe to its former status in the community as a major Regional Centre to which the general public can take injured and rescued wild birds and animals?
From the time FreeMe was founded by Sue Slotar and Merle Jankelowitz in 1997, it has been a self-sufficient success. Over 18 years of operation, FreeMe won itself an enviable reputation for sterling work carried out in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of thousands of wild creatures great and small.
The key to its success was the passion of those who ran it purely for the welfare of our urban wildlife – not for personal gain.
The salaried, incumbent Board Members however, claim the paperwork and record keeping at FreeMe has not been up to scratch. General Manager Margo Bansda says they want to, ”streamline operations.”
Which is more important?
Volunteers caught in the middle claim their record keeping methods ensured efficient continuity. Each ‘patient’ had their own clip-board on their cage on which all procedures were written. Different shifts could then pick up where the previous one left off and continue with the medical treatment and feeding schedules set by animal experts Nicci Wright and Penny Morkel.
FreeMe Volunteers work just for the love of the wild creatures in their care. Salaries for office workers and permanent animal staff were always kept to a minimum. All the money raised therefore went into animal care, not NGO wages. Fund-raising went on apace and the good name of FreeMe spread not only nationally but globally. From its inception in 1997 until 2009 the case load increased until they were attending to over 6 000 cases a year!
When fund-raising was at its peak, just before Margi Brocklehurst left, FreeMe had almost R2 million in the bank for expansion. They had also managed to purchase a large property to the value of R1.6 million, in anticipation of further developing FreeMe on their own land instead of being dependent on the ongoing generosity of the Joburg City Council which allowed this important service to be run from an old house on the Rietfontein Reserve in Paulshof.
So what happened to turn this flourishing enterprise into a non-functioning disaster where the needs of wildlife are being put onto the back burner?
Things changed due to the influence of a highly respected animal rehabilitation consultant from the USA. What works in the USA however, with paid official Board Members to run the venture who are totally separate from the hands-on animal workers, does not appear to work in the less affluent South African context. A decision was made to also appoint a highly paid general manager. The idea was for the GM to concentrate on fund-raising to allow FreeMe to grow and expand while also covering his/her salary. Between 2011 until today, there have been three general managers plus the present incumbent, Margo Bansda. Only the first one, John Herbst had any wildlife experience.
FreeMe carried on under the guidance of highly regarded Animal Managers Nicci Wright and Penny Morkel together with their support team of over 100 experienced volunteers.
Red tape and paperwork rose to impossible levels. A plan was made by the Board to pass a resolution laying down various criteria which only allowed certain Volunteers the right to vote for Board Members and not others. Clashes between management and the experienced animal staff and volunteers became intolerable. Nicci Wright and Penny Morkel resigned in July 2015 as a result.
The loss of their expertise was profound.
CEO Margo Bansda had no experience of how to run the animal clinic. Complaints of neglect of the animals ensued. As a result, the NSPCA closed the doors of FreeMe in November 2015. FreeMe staff were given a week to clear some of the cases.
Wild animal centres require special permits from the Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Recreation and Development (GDARD). This permit has to be in the name of the responsible person at the Centre. Unfortunately for the Board, Nicci Wright was that person. FreeMe now had no permit. By law, they were no longer able to deal with any wild creatures.
The first permit holder was Sue Slotar who founded FreeMe. The second was Margi Brocklehurst. The third, Hilary Milward. When Hilary died the GDARD permit was registered in Nicci Wright’s name as the responsible person. After Nicci left, as no Board member was a competent and experienced animal carer, GDARD requested a new application be submitted before FreeMe could continue operating.
Both sides in the ongoing conflict have applied for a permit for the Freeme Centre at Rietfontein.
The present Board have employed one Karien Schmidt as their new animal rehabilitator.
Margi Brocklehurst of the newly formed Friends of Free Wildlife perhaps has the advantage however. Just those mentioned on their current application alone boast a collective 183 years of experience in caring for South Africa’s wild birds and animals.
So far, the refusal of the incumbent Board to come to any kind of mediation has created a stalemate between the original Volunteers (now known as Friends of Free Wildlife), and themselves.
Only when things have been lawfully settled between the combatants, will the NSPCA, GDARD and City Parks move in to work with the ‘winners.’
Why are FreeMe Board members so desperately hanging onto their jobs at the expense of the welfare of the wild animals? This is the question.
In the interim old FreeMe Volunteers have been responding to calls from frantic members of the public needing to know where they can take rescued birds and animals.
Until things are resolved and FreeMe opens its doors once more in the Rietfontein Reserve, Volunteers are lending their expertise in rehabilitating wildlife at CARE in Douglasdale and Wildlife in Crisis (WIC) in Springs.