The Bird Man of Orange Grove
I spent my childhood in stitches--the kind the doctor sews into your skin, not the ones you get from rolling around on the floor in laughter. My mom used to say that I was on a collision course with life. She was a smart one, my mom. There was always a certain wildness in me, that I know. When I look back on my early life, it's easy for me now to see the brave lion, the giggling hyena, and the rogue elephant in the things I did then.
I loved the outdoors, but when I was growing up my piece of Africa was limited to a few blocks in the white middle-class suburb of Orange Grove in the north of Johannesburg. I grew up during the time of apartheid among neatly ordered rows of houses, straight streets, backyard gardens, barking dogs, and meowing cats, not rolling savannahs populated by herds of wildebeest, trumpeting elephants, and stalking lions. It was the suburbs, but it could be just as dangerous as the bush.
My mom was always getting calls from school telling her that I'd been hurt, or else I would simply show up at home, bleeding. I wasnever one to do anything half-hearted, so if I was going to cut myself I would come close to losing an entire limb. I would fall through glass coffee tables, off bicycles, and out of trees, and generally do all the things mothers like to cry about.
"We had better buy this little Kevin a sewing machine so he can sew himself up, hey, Patricia?" the doctor said to my mom once. The doctor and I saw so much of each other we were like buddies. I laughed, then winced, as the dreaded needle punctured skin again and again and again.
One of the earliest mishaps that I can remember was getting on my neighbor's full-sized racing bicycle when I was only three or four years old. It was, I think, the beginning of a lifelong love affair with dangerous things and two-wheeled transport. I'm into extreme sports, I fly microlights, and I play with lions for a living. I have an old 1969 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle and I love riding superbikes on the track. My hero is the Italian motorcycle champion Valentino Rossi and while I can't ride as fast as him, I've probably been in as many crashes as he has.
I wanted desperately to ride that bicycle and although I was too small to reach the pedals, my neighbor took pity on me and we went for a spin. I was whooping with joy as we gathered speed down the street, the wind rushing in my face as I clung to the older boy. Another kid from the neighborhood, however, thought it would be good fun to push his little wagon into our path and wipe us out. He did a good job and down we went. No one knows how, but in the process I managed to get my toe caught between the bicycle's sprocket and the chain. The cycle was on its side and I was still attached to it, by a piece of stretched skin that was just barely connected to the top of my toe.
"Ag, what are we going to do?" asked the panicked owner of the bike.
"We better pull him free," said the evil little shit who had caused the accident. On the count of three the two other boys grabbed meand pulled. Hard. With a piercing yelp on my part, the top of my toe came free from the sprocket and chain--and from me.
"It's moving!" cried the bad boy, pointing down at my severed digit. Although I couldn't see it, the other boys swore the tip of my toe was jumping and wriggling like a gecko's tail when the lizard sheds it to shake off a predator.
While I lay bleeding, my neighbor ran off looking for help and the wagon driver disappeared from the scene of the crime. The cause of the accident--and my considerable pain--reappeared a short while later with a spade. He raised it over his head with his skinny little arms then slammed it down hard onto the ground, and my missing toe.
"Why are you doing that?" I wailed.
"It's freaking me out. It's alive, man!" He raised the spade and smashed down again and again, as if he were killing a snake. Once he was sure he had killed my toe, he dug a hole and buried the evidence. Shortly after, the man from across the road arrived and bundled me into the back of his brand new BMW. It was a lekker car and I bled all over the leather upholstery.
"Okay, where's the toe?" asked the doctor when we arrived at Johannesburg Hospital.
"Um, they buried it," I said to the doctor.
The boys were dispatched back to Orange Grove to exhume the missing digit. South African surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard may have made history by performing the first successful heart transplant, but not even the most skilled surgeon in the world could reattach the crushed, earth-encrusted lump of skin that those two boys brought into the operating room.
I was born in downtown Johannesburg in the Nightingale Clinic in 1974, two years before television arrived in South Africa, although my family didn't get a TV until I was eight years old. When we did,we were so excited we'd watch the test pattern, but it was no wonder that I learned early on in life how to get my thrills in the backyard and on the streets, and with my animals.
My mom, Patricia, worked as a trust executive for Barclays Bank. She was born in South Africa, but her parents emigrated from England. I don't know exactly what my father, Peter, did, but he worked for a pharmaceutical company--in quality control, I think. He had moved to South Africa from Reading, in the county of Berkshire in the south of England, early in his life. Our relationship was very formal and separate. He was a quiet man. I didn't have the chance to ask him too many questions, we didn't do father and son things together, and he died when I was twelve or thirteen. Like most of the people in Orange Grove, we lived in quite a small 1940s brick three-bedroom house on a big block. I had an older brother and two older twin sisters. We lived on a busy street, Ninth Avenue, which connected the major suburbs in the area. We had tarred roads and "robots"--what we call traffic lights--and my primary means of transport, until I was old enough to ride a bicycle and, later, steal cars, was my red skateboard.
I didn't have the most privileged upbringing. As kids, we never got pocket money or had many toys. We ran our own jumble sales, finding unwanted clothing and knickknacks and selling them to black African people who were worse off than we were. We'd also do gardening chores for neighbors and wash cars. The little money I made usually went for sweets or small toy cars and my dreams were not very grand. The toy I wished for most was a radio-controlled car, but there was no way I was ever going to be able to afford one. I worked hard and finally saved enough money for a remote-control car--one of those where the car is attached to the control via a cable. I was so disappointed. I saw myself watching the car zoom around the room while I stood still and watched. Not so with this one. The wire from the remote to the car kept on getting tangled on things and I had to follow the car everywhere like a dog on a lead.It was the poor man's version of a true radio-controlled car and not much fun.
Perhaps because of disappointments like the one with the car or the fact that I didn't have every toy or bike I wanted, I developed a love of animals, reptiles, and insects early on in life. People who know me usually assume that passion came from my mother, but she is not, in fact, a big animal person. It was quiet, reserved Dad who brought our first pet home--that much I can remember. It was a tiny stray kitten called Tiger, which he carried in his lunch box. I was about six years old at the time. Dad said he wanted to give us something that we could nurture. He told us the cat had been left to die at a rubbish dump.
We only went away on holiday as an entire family on one occasion when I was a child, in 1980, to the Drakensburg Mountains in Natal. Money was becoming a problem in our household, so all our school holidays, except for that one to the mountains, were spent at home. My brother Gareth and twin sisters Corrine and Candice and I developed a theory that our parents were giving us pets instead of holidays. After Tiger the cat, there was a procession of parrots, goldfish, and dogs as birthday and Christmas presents. The excuse for not going away somewhere exotic on vacation was that we could not leave the animals behind. My dad probably thought the pets would keep our minds off things at home, which were becoming steadily worse as his grip on his career, and his sobriety, became looser and looser.
At any one time we would have about four dogs, three or four cats, the goldfish, and several species of birds including pigeons, doves, weavers, mouse birds, parrots, and other wild birds. I graduated to brown house snakes, and eventually to anacondas. Until recently I had an anaconda which was more than ten feet long. It even had its own small house on the property where I now live. Even though Dad was more interested in the pets than Mom, I don't remember him being around a lot to share them with us. As I said, hehad a drinking problem. He seemed to be away a lot and eventually he was downgraded at work. Even with all his troubles, I do recall him bringing home more stray animals and injured birds, which helped spark my interest in caring for things. He seemed to be trying to make a connection with us, but at the same time always seemed so distant and far away.
One of my schoolmates, Warren Lang, kept homing pigeons--big white fantails--and for whatever reason he was told he had to get rid of them. It seemed natural for me to take them on. Without anyone's permission, we disassembled his pigeon hok (the Afrikaans word for cage) and moved it, piece by piece, three blocks away to my house, where we reassembled it. We then shuttled the birds, one at a time.
I started breeding the birds and found that I loved it. I would spend hours with my pigeons in the hok. Sometimes I would even sleep in there. My mom wasn't too charmed by this, but I found the whole experience of life in the hok to be amazing. I would sit patiently beside a mother while she was sitting on her eggs and calculate the days remaining until the chicks would hatch. I was like an expectant father, although it wasn't enough for me just to watch the females and wait for their eggs to hatch--I wanted to be a part of their lives.
"Come on, kick one out. Let me raise one," I would plead with the nesting mothers. It often happened that when a pigeon had two eggs the mother would favor the stronger and fitter of the two offspring. I would take the frail one and try and bring it up, feeding it and nurturing it to full strength.
Where there are pigeons, of course, there are also mice and rats. The rodents came to the hok in search of bird feed and eggs that had been kicked out. The mice bred under the bricks beneath the hok, and if I took a brick out of the floor I could look in and see a whole family of mice with their little pinkies--their babies. I had my own mini ecosystem happening in there and it was fascinating.As my father's drinking worsened and things became tougher inside the house, the pigeon hok became my refuge.
If the hok was my alternative home, then the backyard was my game reserve. I was always mucking about in the drain or digging up crickets or earthworms--anything I could get my hands on. As a child, you want to catch and collect things and keep everything in a box, and not let anything escape.
One of the few occasions our family escaped Orange Grove was to visit my uncle in Fourways on the northern side of Johannesburg, not far from where I eventually ended up working at the Lion Park. It always seemed like a hell of a trip, for which we'd have to pack, even though it was usually just for a day. I was incredibly jealous of my uncle, because he had a pond and frogs in his garden. I was fascinated by my birds and the other household pets, but frogs--amphibians--represented a whole new subset of the animal kingdom.
On one visit my uncle said I could take a frog home with me and I thought he was the best uncle in the world. I was easily impressed. I named my small frog Paddatjie, which is Afrikaans for small frog. Okay, so I was never terribly imaginative with names, although once TV took hold in our house there was a spate of celebrity naming. The American soap opera Dallas was the top rated program in South Africa at the time, so our African Grey Parrot was named J.R. after Larry Hagman's character, J.R. Ewing. I also had a gaudy lovebird called Madonna.
Paddatjie was a leopard toad, as common as crap, but I was in awe because I thought I had discovered a totally new species of toads. I made him a little terrarium, decorated with the sorts of accessories I thought a frog would like. I used a cardboard box and even though I covered it, he was able to knock the lid off and jump out. He would leap through the house, and at the time I thought he was a particularly smart and tough guy, being able to avoid being eaten by our pack of dogs and pride of household cats. With thebenefit of a bit of education, I now reckon they all probably had a good taste of Paddatjie at one time or another, and, finding him thoroughly unpalatable, spat him out.
I was convinced that Paddatjie recognized me as his friend and would escape from his box in order to find me and watch Dallas with me and my parrot, J.R. Ewing. I think I managed to convince my family of this, too, and they were no doubt impressed with my way with wild creatures from a very early age. I used to catch insects for the frog's dinner and take him for walks in the garden to give him a taste of the great outdoors, rather than spending all his days as a caged, though tough and intelligent, amphibian.
I learned a lot through Paddatjie--especially that it wasn't essential for everything I picked or dug up to be kept in a box twentyfour hours a day. Even though I thought it was good for him to experience life as a free-range frog from time to time, I was terribly disappointed when one day he hopped out of his box and disappeared for good.
More rewarding, of course, was when I released my homing pigeons and they actually did come home. However, even in the pigeon hok nature could be cruel. One day our Rhodesian Ridgeback, a big, fierce, sandy-colored breed of dog, and our Labrador got into the hok and killed all thirty of my pigeons. I think my mother was secretly happy, as I'm sure she had long wanted all the pigeons dead. I just wanted to kill the dogs.
As I got older, my reputation earned me a nickname--The Birdman of Orange Grove. Any bird which was sick or injured would be brought to my house. Some enterprising criminals even began stealing baby pigeons from their nests and asking me for five bob--fifty cents--for them. That was a lot of money for me, but I was usually able to sweet-talk them into giving me the chick for nothing, or forsome food from our house. The African people who were taking the birds were doing it because they were hungry.
I couldn't count how many baby birds I rescued, reared, and released. The nicest thing was when a bird I had sent back to the wild returned to the house or sat on my shoulder again. I also found that I was enjoying setting things free far more than trapping them, so I adopted this policy with my collection of parrots, letting them out of their cages. Some flew away and never returned, and although I took to putting up reward posters around the neighborhood, I eventually realized this was part of life. Sometimes things left and never came back.
A couple of birds stick in my mind. Mouse the mouse bird, whose name was about as original as Paddatjie the frog, had been kicked out of his nest in the wild because he had a deformed wing. Because he could never fly, he really was like a little mouse. He walked everywhere with me and really touched my life. He depended on me totally, and it gave me a great deal of satisfaction knowing that without my care he wouldn't make it in the world. J.R. the parrot had lived in a cage all his life, and when I released him for the first time he was like a long-term prisoner set free from jail. He didn't know what to do with himself. He would run around the floor in circles acting crazy. It was as if he was panicked by the sudden excess of space around him. J.R. was a vicious bird, who had savaged many a finger in his time, but over time I was able to tame and calm him and he became a gentle companion inside and outside his cage. An African Grey Parrot can live to fifty or sixty years of age, but after having soothed this traumatized jail bird, it was crushing for me when he died of a bird cold. It was always tough for me when one of my pets died. Although I toughened up as I got older, there were some animals that would stay in my heart forever.
From an early age I realized I wouldn't be content just to look at my pets. I wanted to get to know each one, to build a relationship with it and to test the boundaries of how I could react to it, and vice versa. I wasn't cruel to them, just curious. I learned that each bird or animal was an individual. For example, in the pigeon hok I discovered the bird in the end box would peck my hand if I tried to take her eggs, but the one at the opposite end would sit aside and tolerate my prying, because I had a better relationship with her and she had a more tolerant nature. From this early age, I became an observer of note, and to this day I am fastidious about keeping notes and records about my animals and every aspect of their lives. I would study my birds and animals for hours on end. I was pretty good at sketching. I could draw a pretty good cheetah from an early age, even though I had never seen one in real life. So I started drawing my animals. I'd draw from life or memory and got help from photos in books. As I drew them, I understood them even more.
My sisters were interested in animals, but not to the same degree as me. My brother liked our pets, but was not as hands on as I was. I have never been one who can look at an animal and say, "That's very pretty." Instead, I'd say, "I wonder what would happen if I touch you? If I could just get to know you a bit better perhaps we could do more together than just look at each other. Do you know me and recognize my voice? If not, I wonder if I could I form a relationship with you?" These were the questions I asked.
I used to talk to my pigeons. They knew my voice and they would come when I called them, which was very nice. I could bounce things off them, as well, and like the dogs and (sometimes) the cats, they gave unconditional love. The pigeons just wanted some food and a scratch on the head. "Kevin, come and get your dinner now," Mom would call. "If you don't come now you can sleep with those pigeons." Sometimes I did, as it was simply better to be with them in the pigeon house than going inside and being witness to the strained relationship that was developing between my parents.
I even tried to develop relationships with the goldfish, which were more my sisters' than mine. I wanted to be interactive with the fish and found the whole concept of keeping them quite amusing. I couldn't believe that anyone would be happy just staring at a fish in a bowl. I used to pat the water and I loved it when the goldfish would come and suck my finger. Eventually I learned that rather than my being able to commune with the fish, they were actually just trying to suck the tiny air bubbles that formed around my finger. I soon realized I'd never be a big keeper or trainer of fish.
I did, however, try and get my animals to do things. I was fascinated with those stories about bird trainers in America who could get their parrots to ride bicycles and perform all sorts of tricks. Before he died, I was able to teach J.R. the parrot how to do bench presses with a pencil.
My career choices as a child included bird trainer, veterinarian, zookeeper, or game ranger. Every young boy in South Africa wants to become a game ranger, but the closest I came to South Africa's national parks and private wildlife reserves in those days was listening to stories from other kids. The Kruger National Park is less than three hundred miles from Johannesburg, but it may as well have been on the other side of the moon as far as I was concerned. Boys would get up in class at show-and-tell and talk about seeing lions and elephants and all sorts of other wild animals in the Kruger National Park, or their family's visit to the pools at Warmbaths, which was considered the height of sophistication as a holiday destination for the people of Orange Grove. I didn't know anything about the wider Africa, with its wide open plains and thorny Bushveld teeming with wild animals, other than what I'd read in a book or seen on television. To me, Africa was my backyard. When it was my turn to get up in front of the class for show and tell, I would say, "Well ... err, I found a bird's egg."
I changed my mind, though, about wanting to be a zookeeper after a visit to the Johannesburg Zoo when I was in grade one. Zoos in those days were pretty bad. The animals basically lived in concrete cages, and the first time in my life that I saw a lion, pacing from one side of its tiny enclosure to another, it was pretty uninspiring. That visit certainly didn't make me want to abandon my birds and bugs and work with big cats. I stood in front of the concrete pen and looked at the king of the jungle, and all I could think was, "Shame, man, what a way for you to end up." I hated the zoo from that point onwards. It didn't go with what my little animal kingdom in Orange Grove was all about. There was no one, at least that I could see, who was interested in keeping that lion active and alert during his captivity.
While zookeeper was off my list of preferred jobs, I did start thinking that I would quite like to be a vet when I grew up, as I would get to play with animals and make some serious money at the same time. I did well at primary school and I was voted head boy, even though my parents didn't believe it when it happened. I was becoming a naughty child at home, although I maintained an angelic front at school. When I came home, all proud and puffed up, I told my folks the good news, but they accused me of lying. I persisted and they only believed me after they made a point of visiting the school and saw my name inscribed on the big wooden board at the end of the list of all the past head boys. After that, they were very proud of me. I think.
Despite my shiny public persona at school I still managed to get into mischief behind the scenes and out of hours. When I was about ten years old and well into my animal-liberation phase, I became concerned about the plight of some frogs that lived in a terrarium in the science classroom. A mate and I decided that it would be better if we set them free--that is, if we took over their custody until I decided the time was right to return them to the wild.
One Friday at the end of school, we helped close up the classroom,but made a point of leaving one of the windows unlocked in the science room. We hung around until everyone had left, including the cleaners, then climbed up on to the window ledge and into the classroom. The following Monday all hell broke out and everyone was talking about the missing frogs. Some people thought they might have escaped on their own, but in the end the finger of blame was pointed at one or two environmentally conscious teachers, which my mate and I thought was hilarious. Back home we convinced ourselves that the frogs were living a much better life in a shoe box under my bed than in their purpose-designed terrarium in the science room. Unfortunately, I didn't give them nearly enough water and they died. It taught me an important lesson: just because an animal is caged, it doesn't necessarily mean that animal is neglected.
Thanks to the family situation, which was deteriorating, I never really wanted to go home at night. I became so hooked on releasing things that I took it to ridiculous extremes. Not content just to set free our existing stock of birdlife, I took to raiding nests with a friend after school. We'd take out baby birds which I would raise with the sole intent of later releasing them. When I think back on it I realize what I was doing was horrific, but I loved birds so much I wanted to be part of their lives--even the wild ones'. I climbed an aloe and found a common turtledove's nest. There were two babies, and I remember thinking that if I took one then there was no way the mother could reject the other. In my young mind, I was doing good by raising one of the birds and then letting it go. The problem was that my zeal to raise wildlife--indoors--slowly started taking over our suburban home.
My brother and I used to share a bedroom. While his side of the room was always neatly organized and spotlessly clean, mine was a mess. I'm neater these days, but once my brother moved out, mybirds, snakes, dogs, cats, bugs, and I took over. Mom and the twins and I came home from a night out and there was an officer from the local security company waiting for us outside the house.
"Your burglar alarm went off. There's been a break-in," the man said. He looked at us and his face was set like granite. "Don't touch anything when you go in as the police are on their way to take fingerprints. Prepare yourself for a shock. The house has been ransacked and one room is far worse than the others."
Nervously, we followed Mom and the guard into the house, expecting the worst.
"It's actually fine," Mom said to the man, trying to hide her embarrassment after a brief inspection of our home and my room, which looked like it had been ransacked. "Everything's just as we left it, including Kevin's room."
My room was a mess, I admit it. Within that mess, I had a growing collection of grasshoppers and locusts, which I kept under my bed. Even though they were right under my bed, the chirping noise of locusts, outside on summer nights, used to terrify me. I could never work out what kind of monster was making this incredible racket just beyond my window. My father found out I was scared of the mystery noise and one night he took me outside and told me it was just a little black cricket that was responsible. We couldn't find one in the dark, and I wasn't completely convinced, but when I heard the same sound screeching from within a box under my bed, I realized my dad wasn't talking rubbish.
Even though he had his problems, I think my dad had a good job, especially when I was much younger and we once went on a holiday to the mountains. I'm sure some people overseas think that everyone who lives in Africa has a small army of servants, and while we had a maid when times were good, when things changed at my father's work we had to let her go. Mom would have to comehome and clean the house and as Dad's drinking got worse, she was under increasing stress.
Things might have been going bad for Dad, but he was still our father and he was a strict disciplinarian. When we were naughty we would get lashed with his thick leather belt. It was his tool of choice and it was effective in getting one of us to talk when no one had owned up to a crime. It sounds harsh, but that was the way things worked when I was growing up.
My brother Gareth was a Goody Two-shoes who always had his nose in a book. I used to read books about birds and animals, but he was into everything, including fiction as well as nonfiction. He studied hard, and these days he works as a veterinarian in the UK. Me, I was the naughty little runt of our litter, with a knack for getting up to mischief and bleeding all over the place.
Gareth and I used to fight like cats and dogs. Although he was four years older, I was much more physical and feisty than him. He was always finding ways to show how much smarter he was than me, and how superior he was. He would taunt me, telling me how he was going to end up as a vet, while I was no good at anything and would come to nothing. We'd end up in full-blown fistfights. I don't remember it, but my friend Dave still tells the story about the day he thought I was going to kill Gareth. I can't even recall what started the fight, but it was one of those real Hollywood punch-ups that went from our bedroom into the lounge room, then into the kitchen and finally out into the front garden. There was a heavy old brass weight in our room and apparently I had taken this out of the house with me. Dave said he had to pull me off Gareth as I was about to bash his brains in with the weight. I guess I was in such a rage at the time that I later blanked it out.
I wasn't only curious about animals. I was just as curious about how different mechanical sorts of things worked. One thing thatfascinated me was the toilet. I guess all little kids are interested in this funny thing that people make jokes about and I wanted to learn how it worked. One day, when I was still quite small, I decided I would take a peek inside the gurgling thing at the back of the toilet that made all the noise after you flushed. I was able to slide the heavy china lid off, but I wasn't quite strong enough to lift it clear. It slipped from my hands and landed on the bowl. The whole thing, lid and toilet, was smashed into pieces.
When Dad came home from work, my brother, the twins, and I were all lined up and told to drop our pants and bend ourselves forward across the big kitchen table, where we used to eat our meals. My dad unbuckled his belt and slid it from the loops on his trousers. He ran the tap in the kitchen sink until it was half full. We could hear what he was doing, and knew why, though none of us dared to turn and watch as he dipped the leather belt in the sink full of water. Wetting it, we knew from painful experience, made the lash of the belt sting even more. We could hear Dad's footsteps on the kitchen floor as he began parading up and down behind us, while we waited there, quivering.
"Right, who's responsible?" he asked.
"Well, it couldn't have been me, Dad," I piped up. "I mean, I'm not strong enough to even lift the top off the toilet."
My brother and sisters all blamed each other, but in the end I convinced Dad I was too much of a weakling to have destroyed the toilet and the rest of them all ended up in the shit. I was naughty back then, but later I became a monster.
PART OF THE PRIDE. Copyright © 2009 by Kevin Richardson with