The truth about what happened to Spencer the Rhino who died suddenly during a treatment to help protect him from animal poachers in South Africa.
[When this was originally posted we weren’t aware of the huge issue that was about to immerge surrounding the legalization of trading rhino horn. Many rhino owners are pro trade, while others conservationists, including organizations like Nikela, remain opposed to such.]
Why did Spencer die? Who’s to blame?
Sadly as Lorinda Hern and others involved in the Rhino Rescue Project reel from the unexpected loss of their rhino named Spencer the internet is a buzz with why, who and how come.
In an effort to set the record straight here are the stories right from the people themselves:
Lorinda Hern (Rhino Rescue Project) speaks out about Spencer the Rhino:
As you can probably well imagine, last night was fraught with much reflection, a crushing sense of loss and endless “would have, could have, should have” questions. I woke up with the realization that, if I were given the opportunity to perform this particular procedure again, there was not a single thing I would have changed or done differently. By anyone’s standards, Spencer’s horn treatment was the perfect procedure – from start to finish, everything ran absolutely smoothly; a fact to which I believe every person present on the day can attest. To be honest, I myself did not realize disaster had struck until I sat down to do the media briefing after and received the devastating news: “We’ve lost him”. Stupidly, in that instant, I had an “ER moment” – I was convinced we could resuscitate our unresponsive patient with a shot of adrenalin or a heart massage… had it not been for the fact that the “patient” weighed in at a hefty two tons, I think I would actually have tried.
I have unfortunately become, from one day to the next and certainly not by choice, a rhino owner in a very unique position: I have lost an animal due to poaching and I have lost animal in an attempt to protect it from poaching. Although the emptiness and the sense of grief is the same, I am at peace with Spencer’s passing in a way I was not with Queenstown’s. You see, my sadness over Queenstown was punctuated with feelings of guilt and shame that we had not done enough to protect her. With Spencer, I am comforted in the knowledge that we could have done no more for him.
I am sure many will question the need for this procedure, and why we invited the press to attend it. These are valid questions. Some time ago, we received information that Spencer was a potential poaching target, as he did not form part of our initial treatment sample and was therefore vulnerable. We had reason to believe that he was in danger and scheduled the treatment accordingly. Such is my belief in this project, all the research we have done and the number of successful treatments we had performed previously that I was happy to have the media attend, given that so many had expressed an interest before in seeing what exactly the treatment entails. We were certainly not engaging in any activity we were embarrassed about or did not want recorded. I believed openness and transparency about the procedure would debunk many of the myths that still surround it, hence our willingness to engage with the press.
In my mind, we could only ever have handled the ensuing tragedy by telling the truth. Although I will gladly admit that running away was a very attractive (albeit completely unrealistic) alternative as sheer panic set in. The truth is that, in this industry, losing animals under anaesthesia is not uncommon. In fact, losing humans under anaesthesia is not uncommon either. Rhinos especially, are very sensitive to sedatives and these animals are often lost during relocations, dehornings or other medical procedures. Whenever an animal is immobilized for whatever reason, the possibility exists that said animal might not regain consciousness. Needless to say, this does not mean we should no longer perform medical procedures on animals, only that we be aware of the risks involved every time we do.
On the surface, Spencer (I called him “Seuntjie”) appeared to be in excellent health, and the risk of immobilizing him was a calculated one. It was only after the veterinary team failed to revive him that a preliminary post-mortem examination was performed during which it was revealed that Spencer had a particularly high body fat percentage. This, coupled with his age (he was in his mid-twenties) could possibly have brought about his negative reaction to the anaesthetic. We are still waiting for the toxicology, hematology and histopathology testing to be completed and will give feedback on the results as soon as we can. However, I can categorically state that the horn treatment was in no way responsible for, or a contributing factor to, Spencer’s passing.
In closing, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has shown their support and sent messages of encouragement in the wake of yesterday’s events. What happened was, and remains, a humbling experience, and the unexpected kindness of virtual strangers is equally humbling. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and we are not exempt from our share of suffering. I am sure that we will face many vindictive attacks about Spencer in days and weeks to come. However, we shall continue the work we are doing with the same level of integrity we always have. I am happy to answer any questions anyone may have about Spencer or the treatment. But right now, I’d like to take some time to just be sad. Goodbye my old friend, you will be sorely missed. I promise you will not have died in vain – we will continue the good fight however long it takes.
Peter Stewart Rogers Tells it Like it is:
Dr. Peter Stewart Rogers a notable wildlife veterinarian posted on the Rhino Revolution Facebook page in regards to this unfortunate incident:
One must always bear in mind that any anaesthetic procedure carries a risk-so let`s put everything into perspective-even human beings die under anaesthetic and they are examined before undergoing anaesthesia !!! Although the risk is very small, it is obviously impossible to examine a wild animal before anaesthetising it, so the vet darts the animal in good faith and just hopes that there is no predisposing underlying condition that may negatively influence the anaesthetic procedure. In this particular case, it would seem that the animal may have had some underlying problem-probably cardiac related-the death would most definitely have had nothing to do with the chemical treatment of the horn.
Lorinda has a few things to add…
There are a few people who deserve to be singled out and thanked for the hard work they put into the preparations for Thursday and also for their efforts on the day itself. Susan Walley worked non-stop, Dr. Joseph Okori turned out to be a wonderfully supportive figure, Brett Gardner was an absolute trooper and my friends Marc, Allison and Pam kept me up when I would almost certainly have keeled over in sorrow. Karen Trendler, Ainsley of the NSPCA and Reinette from EWT engaged with the press and addressed numerous questions we simply didn’t get around to.
Possibly the single biggest surprise on the day was the media. The entire Rhino Rescue Project team would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to every member of press and all invited guests that attended the horn treatment. With the sad death of Spencer the media could, by all accounts, have had a field day. Instead, every single report we’ve thus far heard, read or seen about the incident (produced by those who were there) has proven to be a fair and accurate reflection of the events that took place. Your actions speak volumes about the integrity of the South African press, and the sensitivity and lack of sensationalism with which you handled the matter is very much appreciated.
We are grateful that, instead of destroying the project and all the good work done to date by everyone involved, you instead reported on a simple truth: wild animals are lost under anaesthesia frequently, despite humans’ best efforts to save them. A very sad day ended on a more positive note through the support and compassion shown by everyone present, as well as personal emails and messages throughout the remainder of the day.
As I mentioned in my previous post, a preliminary post mortem examination has been done and we will issue an official statement on Spencer’s cause of death as soon as we receive the results of the toxicology, histopathology and hematology tests. We can, however, categorically state that the treatment procedure itself was in no way a contributing factor in the loss of this animal. If anything, our veterinary professionals did extraordinary work on Thursday, and their sense of loss is possibly even greater than ours.
Spencer’s passing is a stark reminder that rhino poaching is one crime that leaves little room for happy endings.
Dr. Ian Player’s Note of Sympathy
Dr. Ian Player. the renowned rhino conservationist, wrote this note to Lorinda:
Simon Bloch phoned me today and told me of your tragedy.
Very sorry to hear about the death of your rhino Spencer. I can appreciate how you are feeling.
The same thing happened to me in the early days of Operation rhino. I had invited a whole lot of politicians to attend a capture. I had a long crawl to get close enough to the rhino but when I darted it, it died within a few minutes. The dart had nicked a vein and the m99 had gone straight to the heart. As you can imagine there was much embarrassment and one official’s l took particular umbrage and blamed me for carelessness.
This is just to let you know that I sympathize with you having been there myself. These things happen and there is little we can do but to accept it as fate playing a hand.
With warm personal regards.
These are the people who deserve our gratitude for being in the trenches saving and protecting the rhino. We salute you!