Today we feature an interview with SPCA Wildlife Supervisor Jon Friedman, whose dedication to helping wildlife through his work is nothing short of inspiring.
Jon’s love for wildlife began at a young age and inspired him to pursue a career in conservation. A published author, Jon has written numerous articles for the SPCA and has been involved in various aspects of wild animal care throughout his career.
Jon shares his experiences working as a Wildlife Inspector with the SPCA in Cape Town, including the challenges and rewards of his job and some of the most memorable moments he has experienced during his time with our organisation.
Allow us to share a glimpse into your personal background?
I have been a wildlife conservationist my entire life. My deep love and appreciation for wildlife was instilled in me by my parents from a very young age where my fondest memories are of visiting game reserves and going exploring in the bush as a kid. I got into writing about wildlife somewhere around the age of nine when a story I wrote for fun about African penguins at Boulders Beach was published in a kid’s conservation magazine (‘Tok Tokkie’), that I used to collect every issue of. This event took me into conservation journalism – which to me was the perfect means of communicating our need to live harmoniously alongside Nature…
I went on to study conservation after leaving school, I have published two books and have been involved in some aspect of wild animal care ever since.
I have travelled extensively in pursuit of my career but I now live in Cape Town with my partner, her daughter, three dogs and a cat.
Do you have a favourite animal/breed?
I have gone through periods in my life being obsessed with different species. From snakes at the age of seven, to birds of prey to polar bears to wild cats, back to snakes, to frogs to marine vertebrates to sharks to penguins! At this moment I am obsessed with caracal cats and baboons.
Tell us about your history with the SPCA
Growing up, I was always aware of the SPCA and held the organisation in awe for the work they do. Later on in my career, I got to work alongside some of the Wildlife Department staff from time to time and could always see myself in their position. I was eventually able to volunteer for the SPCA Wildlife Department around the Table Mountain wildfires of 2021 and was thrilled when Chief Inspector Jaco Pieterse emailed me one day to ask if I would be able to come in on a short-term contract to assist the Wildlife Department in a supervisory capacity after the department supervisor’s departure. This seemed like a logical next-step in my career-path so I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and jumped right in at the deep-end. Thankfully my experience up to this point has kept me afloat and the job role has allowed me to even swim beyond my comfort zone into unchartered waters around the islands of law enforcement and community engagement and has allowed me hands-on experience with animal species I had not worked with before (for example honey badgers and bat-eared foxes!)
Every day in this role provides opportunity for a new memorable moment. No two days are ever the same and every day is a learning opportunity into some aspect of animal nature, which I am very grateful for.
What does your job entail?
My job entails ensuring that our short-term care facility is well-run, and that any and all of the animals we have in our care for treatment or pre-release back into the wild are attended to; are fed, have access to adequate clean drinking water, that their enclosures are clean and sanitary and that they are receiving whatever medical care is required. We are a small team; comprising myself as Supervisor and one, sometimes two, animal collection officers who might also be trainee inspectors. We report to the Inspectorate Division under Chief Inspector Jaco Pieterse and we take our guidance from him in aspects that require senior input, advice and decisions.
A typical day begins with checking up on all our animal guests, feeding them and cleaning their enclosures. There is a fair amount of admin to attend to in terms of completing reports, answering email queries, attending to media queries, updating animal care records, filing of admission forms, liaising with stakeholders on animal cases, sometimes also meeting with collaborators across various projects and cases. Then there is the hands-on aspect of attending to animal cases in the field that may require a deeper level of experience or facilitation than what one of the officers may be able to provide. Sometimes we will inspect public facilities were wild animals are kept to ensure that the proper welfare standards are being adhered to.
What are the challenges and rewards of being a Wildlife Inspector?
Working with wildlife, the challenges very often are the rewards.
In what way is your role rewarding?
Knowing that you are in some way helping an animal in distress is hugely rewarding. Getting to take a sick or injured animal through the recovery process to a re-release back into its natural range is a very special aspect of this job. Working with animals very often means working with people (see: challenges), and it is rewarding to be able to give somebody a sense of relief and hope when they see the SPCA vehicle arrive after they have called us to help a sick or injured wild animal. People are often at quite a loss when it comes to dealing with wildlife, so it is rewarding to be able to be a source of rescue for them.
In what ways is your role challenging?
By the very nature of the organisation, we are often called up to assist in cases where an animal is so severely injured or sick as to be beyond recovery and the option to end that animal’s suffering is sometimes the kindest, most humane act that we can offer.
Sometimes people will be difficult and expect extraordinary things of us, not fully understanding our role, the nature of welfare or the laws that we are governed by. Having to intervene is cases of animal abuse or neglect can also be hard to witness and collectively trying over a span of time.
Can you tell us about your most memorable experiences/moments/cases over the course of your time with the SPCA that has stood out for you the most?
My very first day on the job will forever be memorable, mainly because there were so many rescues to attend to; from an injured crow in someone’s backyard to a stray mongoose that had ended up beneath the floorboards of a home in an informal settlement where we had to remove the entire floor to find the animal (which escaped anyway).
Another memorable case was being called to rescue a bat-eared fox that was trapped inside a gated community at 2am in the morning. Unassisted, I had to chase this very quick animal all over the housing complex as it deftly evaded capture while emitting a high-pitched scream that sounded very human-like, gradually awakening the entire complex. Terrified residents were peering out from behind their curtains only to see me sprinting through their flower beds with my net in hand. Just before sunrise, the fox and I were both too exhausted to keep up the chase and he gave himself up. He was successfully released outside of the complex into the wilderness where he came from.
Do you have any advice for someone who may wish to become an SPCA Wildlife Inspector?
Know what it is that you want to do and be obsessive about finding out all that you can to best arm yourself in that position. Never stop learning. Attend courses, read manuals, watch tutorials online, sign up for newsletters from institutions that do the work you wish to do. Follow the pathways on social media. Make yourself available. Engage with the topics facing conservation challenges in this country (there are many). Become an expert in one field that interests you and continually put yourself out there.
Please tell us about the training process and what it entails?
There is currently no formal Wildlife Department-specific training available besides that which you are likely to pick-up on the job. As a trainee inspector at the SPCA however, you will be expected to fulfil some of the duties of a qualified Inspector according to the SPCA manuals that cover aspects of domestic animal care, welfare and legal procedure. You will be required to shadow a qualified Inspector to train in certain aspects of the role. You will be required to attend SPCA training sessions, complete specified projects and write an examination to qualify as an SPCA Inspector.
Is there any aspect of your role that people might be surprised to learn?
That we can survive on very little sleep (and lots of energy drinks)! This role does not conform to standard working hours, nor days of the week.
Being in animal welfare is not the easiest environment to work in, so what inspires and drives you to keep being a part of this organisation?
The knowledge that we are able to help an animal in distress and that we are able to make a difference in the lives of many animals and also people is inspiring. Being surrounded by colleagues who are all very passionate about animals and their welfare is also very encouraging on a day-to-day basis.
What do you like most about working for the SPCA?
The fact that every day is a learning opportunity while getting to work with a wide range of wild animal species.
What do you hope for the future in your role? What do you look forward to going forward?
I hope that we can encourage greater empathy towards our wild species, to be instrumental in helping people to see that we are an integral part of Nature, not separate from it and that what we do to Nature, we ultimately do to ourselves.
I look forward to seeing our small team grow and to be able to be a source of inspiration to those students and volunteers who come to work with us. I look forward to being instrumental in the establishment of protocols that benefit wild animal populations and species management on a provincial and national level.