Laura Mullen: close up of rhinos at Care for Wild

Lionheart: my experience at Khulula Care for Wild

I wake to Mr. Crow pecking at my window, saying his name repeatedly as if trying to rouse me for the day ahead. I laugh at this oddity and shake off my initial fear that an uninvited stranger is knocking on my window before dawn, and my mind clears. I remember where I am and all that awaits me in this new and unfamiliar place. I dress early and silently in the darkened room by the light of my headlamp, trying not to wake my three sleeping roommates. Somewhat hindered in my efforts by our bedroom's loudly squeaking metal door, I head for the open air long before it is time for morning duties, hoping to catch the soothing sunrise before the bright, unrelenting yellow permeates the cloudless South African sky, turning night into a blue, glorious day.

Walking swiftly through the living room and then clambering out the noisy side door, I'm promptly joined by our resident banded mongoose, Jo-Jo, who waits for her human companions to emerge in the morning and follows us closely throughout the day, chirping noisily and scampering around our feet. I pass under taut clothing lines that stretch from tree to tree, earth-toned tee shirts, work pants and colourful socks waving gracefully in the early morning breeze. I cross over to the West side of the farm, where a hill slopes down beside the antelope enclosure, and you can look East across the rhino pen and see the glowing orange disc set against the indigo sky. In the foreground is an unusually calm, grazing Gilbert. The zebra's silhouette colours itself in as the sun climbs higher and the sky quickly lightens. I can't help mourning the fleeting sunrises and sunsets, how fast our lifeline emerges in the morning and sinks at the end of the day in an artistic display of science, setting the pace for the subsequent rapid passing of the day itself, of the days that follow, of the weeks and months and years. Each year passes more quickly than the last, a fact that frightens me and never entirely leaves my mind. Time is always at the forefront of my thinking and is the basis for my perspectives on life and the world and, in turn, how I think and live, day in and day out. Time is all we have, and it's quickly taken from beneath our feet; nature paints this tragedy beautifully.

I revel in this solitary experience until my coworkers trickle toward the barn. The main house is occupied by the woman who runs the rehabilitation project, Petronel, her husband and two sons. They are joined by volunteers year-round who are vital in helping to hand-rear and care for the various orphaned and injured animals living on the reserve, the lucky ones who were rescued and given a second chance… The chain-link animal enclosures occupy spaces all around the property, and the barn – which the rats, bush babies and squirrels call home and where all feeds are prepared, meat is cut, and washing of knives, cutting boards, scales and bowls is done – is situated directly across a flat grassy field. Volunteers pass back and forth on this route countless times daily, carrying arm-wrenching buckets of meat and vegetables to and from the meat fridges and vegetable chopping area in the castle's feed room.

My new teammate on the Rhino Team, Mel, joins me near the antelope enclosure. We grab a few rakes on our way in, where an enthusiastic Gilbert, a curious eland, approaches us. Also, a wary bushbuck, a shy duiker and a dog-like goat. It is my first week, and she has been training me well. I already feel comfortable caring for the antelopes, Gilbert, and the rhinos, and I have the procedures down pat.

Our daily tasks ensued, and we started with raking and shovelling the antelope pen. My day is filled with more enclosure cleanings, unending chopping of fruits and vegetables in the feed room, lugging buckets back and forth, raking hay for the rhinos' bedding and feed, and timely antelope and rhino feeds. Rhino feeds are my favourite… Mel and I stand at the kitchen sink, looking out the window over the endless, rolling African plains below, and scoop powdered glucose and minerals into one-litre bottles for the weaning baby white rhinos.

The best part of the day on Rhino Team is carrying these warm packs through the antelope enclosure and up to the fence where Lunar and Storm, the baby white rhinos Petronel rescued, come bouncing over to meet us, whining in anticipation of their meal. We cannot be inside the enclosure with them because of their size, but feeding Storm his bottle through the fence is an unearthly experience. Motherly instincts kick into gear as the baby squeals – a sound strikingly reminiscent of a whale underwater – and opens his large mouth, hungry. He sucks down the milk quickly and then does the same with the vitamin pack. Afterwards, he and Lunar love to be petted, and they whine even more loudly, not yet realizing their stomachs are full. Their thick bodies feel like sandpaper, and their oblong, alien-like ears flop and twist in every direction when you tickle them, making these gentle giants even more endearing.

Life on Rhino Team introduces me to the world of wild animals and all that you learn through caring for and bonding with these creatures, things you could never know from a book or from another person, something that you can't understand until you are in it, experiencing it human to animal.

You learn about these animals, others, work and relationships, and yourself. You know that being proactive and making changes must come from within yourself and direct effort, not from dependence or far-away dreams. Your dreams take shape through self-reliance, perseverance and well-constructed, interconnected ideas.

Each day brings more knowledge and understanding, and I bond more deeply with my coworkers and workmates daily. But my life changed when I moved to Cat Team for my second week on the reserve. There are the big cats, the caracals and servals, the kittens, and the six white lion cubs. I am assigned to the cub team and am thrilled and anxious about being responsible for them. I came to this project for the lions, breathing life into a passion that's been present since toddlerhood but has never been nurtured or allowed to grow until now. I've spent the last week listening in agony to their cries and fledgling growls, feisty noises and music I've waited all my life to hear in person, their playful nuances adorable and puppy-like but so inherently wild and cat-like. As the previous week's Cat Team has their final playtime on the lawn with the cubs, I am, as usual, itching to get to know them. Rhino Team and Cat Team cannot interact with each other's assigned animals for fear of cross-contamination, so I have exercised all of my self-control to keep from scooping one up as they come trotting out of the enclosure for playtime and lion walks each day, growling in high-pitched, cracking voices and stumbling over one another. I want to learn about their species and them as individuals.

On my first day with the Cat Team, we slammed the latched gate shut behind us, and I was finally surrounded by the growling, circling cubs. They whine and slink around our feet predatorily, occasionally standing up halfway and clawing at us, hungrily lusting after their food bowls. It is now that I see how genuinely cat-like these cubs are. Their wildness runs so profoundly in their blood that no hand-rearing can impress tame behaviour or domesticity upon them. These were born African wild cats, and so they will always be.

Nonetheless, I'm chronically moved by their tenderness and innocence. But unsuspected sneak-attacks, scratches and hand-bites are constant reminders of their innate characters. I find myself drawn to them and longing to always be near them.

There is a beautiful lioness named Figa at the reserve, which I try to get to know in my free time, though she is very wary of humans. Her situation is being sorted out legally, and there is a shared hope across the reserve that she will be released into the wild or moved to an enormous account soon.

We hear her groans at night, and her loneliness is heart-wrenchingly apparent in the poignant crescendo of her roar. It is my exposure to both Figa and the cubs in their native land that awakens my senses and stirs something in me, something that grows throughout the rest of my time on the reserve, through my camping experience in Tanzania, and is so magnified by the time I get on the aeroplane to fly back to JFK that I barely recognize what it looked like four weeks earlier. This thing already there long before I left for Africa has evolved exponentially and crystallized, and my ideas have become better formed.

On my last morning, I woke to the sound of rain hammering the window beside my bed. There was no sign of Mr. Crow in the early, gloomy dawn. After getting my things for the last-minute pack-up that I will do before the van comes at 11 am to bring seven of us back to Johannesburg, I head across the kitchen and into the feed room, prepared to haul a bucketful of raw chicken hearts and necks down to the barn for my last cub feed. I open the fridge to the familiar pungent odour of livers, kidneys, horse esophagi and chicken parts submerged in their potent blood. I grab the giant bucket with the faded red marker lettering on the lid, knowing these are the cubs' chicken hearts as I had left them up front the night before. I had come in last from the barn after feeding the cubs and updating their files by headlamp light in the dark, cold barn. The wind always whipped late at night after the 8:30 pm cub feed, and finishing clean-up alone down there challenged me mentally as I consciously tried to ward off the hyenas, baboons and murderers of my irritatingly active imagination, who would stroll in through the wide-open barn.

I'd run across the lawn to the side door, casting fearful, suspicious glances around me in the night, hoping to survive just this once again, escaping some mysterious wild terror emerging from the pitch-darkness. I'd burst in through the kitchen door to the warm, odd-shaped room lined with rustic wooden cabinets and packed with my mates eating hungrily after a long day's work or moving through the space around boiling pots of pasta, beeping microwaves, slamming cupboards, and a smattering of sandwiches and stir-fries, chocolates and cereal boxes strewn across the large round table. Everyone would be chattering animatedly about anything and everything, most of us coming from entirely different worlds and finding each other's lives intriguing and unique. These evenings were times of immense comfort.

I felt at ease and on a familial level with these people I didn't know existed mere days before, people from across the globe whose lives never would have intersected with mine if we hadn't all chosen this path – an idea that I often apply to different situations in my life. This idea will never stop boggling my mind and sending me on a contemplative, philosophical rollercoaster ride. It struck me – the irony of it – that perfect strangers could cure my homesickness.

I escape my daydream and grab the steaming water from the boiler with my free hand before stepping outside on this raw, damp morning and starting across the lawn toward the barn, where the hazy light of a still-rising sun brings the farm out of the darkness. The sun cannot break through the thick layer of rain clouds today, and I feel the moisture soak into my skin as the mist enshrouds me until I reach cover in the barn. Z, my roommate from Maine and one of the few volunteers not leaving today, stands next to me, shivering in her tie-dyed hooded sweatshirt as I carefully weigh out each cub's meat, mixing powdered vitamins into their bowls, just as I'd done four times daily for the last week. My hands were frozen from handling the cold, raw chicken pieces, and everyone gathered to help feed the six cubs. I look from girl to girl as we watch the small, grunting cats lick their bowls clean for the last time together. My friends stand rigid with hoods over their heads, revealing humidity-curled hair underneath, their faces stoic with cold and sadness about the impending departure. I'm feeling a swirl of emotions, knowing this is my last cub feed with these people I've formed unlikely bonds with over the last couple of weeks.

After the morning cub feed, reality strikes as we sit on our beds in our room, Tamara – my English roommate – and I packing up the last of our belongings as the rain patters heavily outside our window, Mr. Crow pressing close and looking in at us from the unusually dark mid-morning courtyard. Z, Tamara and I chat as I stuff bunches of dirty and clean clothes into my duffle. We laugh about the fun we'd had, talk gently about what lies ahead for each of us, and talk about the cubs we all love purely. The vibe, nurtured by the weather outside, is mellow, and the feeling of change is imminent. I check the black digital watch on my left wrist and find that it's almost 11 am when our car is due to arrive and bring the seven (out of twelve) of us back to Johannesburg. I know I have to see the Cubs once more.

After I packed the last of my things and stared at the now-empty space around my bed in the room that had been my home for the previous month, where I'd gained a new – but temporary – family, I set out again across the field to the barn. I go inside the cubs' den with Tamara and Joana, who film us playing with them despite the heavy rain, the muddy cubs, and the fact that we are no longer in our 'work clothes.' As I push the enclosure door shut and the latch locks with its familiar metal 'clank,' they come padding around the corner from their playground area, trotting toward us and meowing in their high-pitched voices loudly, longingly. They slink in their puppy-like, cat-like way around us in circles and look up straight into our eyes with their broad, icy blue eyes, uttering their crackling little roars. Their soft white fur is slathered with brown mud and looks even more infantile.

When my friends walk out, I stand alone for a few more seconds, tears in my eyes. I look at the cubs and take them in, trying to memorize them. I say goodbye and shut the gate behind me, knowing memory will never be enough.

The white van arrives, and you can cut the resistance in the air with a knife. No one wants to leave. After throwing our ample duffle bags and backpacks into the car, everyone gathers in the grassy field – the twelve volunteers, Petronel and Angelique, a girl from South Africa who manages the animals under Petronel and who grew pretty close with. Though she is two years younger than I am, we share a birthday as well as similar personality traits and ideas, things we discovered while cutting raw meat every day for hours on end, even one time at 10 pm in the cold, windy barn after realizing there was not enough in the buckets for the morning cat feeds. We hugged each other for the last time and said our goodbyes tearfully in the damp mist under the cold grey sky.

I climb into the van and sit next to Tamara in the middle row, the sound of tires rolling forward on the hard dirt punctuated by a dull sense of gloom inside. Looking back at our friends getting farther away by the second, tears roll steadily down my cheeks, flushed and already moist from the relentless wet weather. I gaze out the front window as we walk down the long, winding, unpaved driveway through the rolling fields. As we descend lower and approach closer to the gate at the main road, I'm penetrated by a profound sadness that is impossible to express with words. I feel rooted to the ground here, yet I am being wrenched out and pulled away. I know at this moment – so completely and without any doubt – that I will return to live and work in Africa.

By Kimberly Hightower, ACE Volunteer