Tagged wildlife education

IWRC Member Spotlight: Michelle Watson

Name: Michelle Watson

Organization: I’m between posts at the moment but run my own “Wildlife Rescue Johannesburg” Facebook page.

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

IWRC: Hi Michelle! So, tell us a little bit about yourself…

Michelle: I’ve doing rehab since 2007, have worked for all the local rehab centers at some point, now permitted to do rehab at home. I am one of only four IWRC CWR rehabilitators in South Africa but dream of opening my own center. We have a huge diversity of species in South Africa so networking with specialists is imperative. I am passionate about what I do and strive to improve the level of rehab here.

IWRC: What brought you into wildlife rehabilitation work? 

Michelle: I first became interest in wildlife rehabilitation in 2002 while working as deck crew on private yachts. In the middle of the Indian Ocean an exhausted marine bird landed on the yacht during a severe storm. After tending to it and hand feeding it for 2 weeks, it flew off the deck near the Maldives.

When I returned to South Africa in 2007, I worked at the Free Me Wildlife rehabilitation centre where I dealt with around 300 different species. The huge diversity of urban wildlife in Johannesburg means that an average day could include anything from handling venomous snakes to dealing with roaming brown hyena. I am especially partial to genets which I have raised from new-born to release back into our leafy suburbs. But the highlight of my career was having the opportunity to work with pangolins at the Johannesburg Wildlife Vet Hospital. This elusive, charismatic and highly threatened species has a special place in my heart.

IWRC: What wildlife species do you rehabilitate?

Michelle: I have dealt with over 300 different species in my time as a rehabber. South Africa has a huge diversity so in one day I could deal with anything from a venomous snake to a baby genet, to raptors and larger animals. Currently I am limited with space but hope to open my own center soon.

IWRC: What challenges have you faced in your wildlife rehabilitation work?

Michelle: Currently I face issues with space and finance of course, but generally speaking we face the bigger problem of country-wide poverty and lack of wildlife education. Our urban wildlife is persecuted as bush meat and traditional Muti [medicine].

IWRC: Has the IWRC aided you in your journey as a wildlife rehabilitator? If so, can you explain how or give an example?

Michelle: YES, greatly! Having the certificate has given me some standing as a certified rehabber, and the information available sets the ground work for the standards I would like to see as the norm here one day. The IWRC courses and online support has been instrumental in helping my career along. Since passing the Certified Wildlife Certification (CWR) last year I have had the opportunity to network and assist various centres in and around Johannesburg and am currently permitted by the South African Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.

IWRC: What common misconception about wildlife rehabilitation would you like to dispel?

Michelle: That you get to cuddle cute and fluffy animals! Haha, but seriously, the misconception that you can actually make a living from it in South Africa!

IWRC: How has your wildlife rehabilitation work been impacted by COVID-19?

Michelle: South Africa has some of the strictest lockdown rules. Movement has been seriously restricted. I cannot go out without a dozen valid permits and, even then, the cops stop you demanding bribes! It’s a nightmare.

IWRC: What local, national, or international policy would you like to see that would support wildlife rehabilitation?

Michelle: Locally I would like to see our own department of environmental affairs implement some sort of minimal standards for rehab centers! Of course policies need to change internationally to curb wildlife trade and prohibit hunting as a “sport”!

IWRC: What do you hope for the future of wildlife rehabilitation?

Michelle: In South Africa we desperately need a rehabilitation center that meets international standards. I hope that I can be the person to do that.

Rampant loss of habitat and persecution through hunting, superstition and fear has put a lot of our urban wildlife in peril. My dream as a rehabber is to use my skills to help “flatten the curve” for threatened wildlife species in South Africa.”

IWRC: What message would you like to share with other IWRC members and wildlife rehabilitators across the world?

Michelle: Supporting each other gives us strength and hope.

IWRC: Where can people learn more and follow your work?

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/adviceforrescuers/

IWRC: Thank you so much for everything you do and sharing your story with us, Michelle!

We want to hear from you! If you an IWRC member and would like to share your wildlife rehabilitator story with us, please click here.

Spotlight on Aya Cockram

Aya joined the IWRC staff on December 2nd, 2019.
You can find short bio’s on each of our staff members here!

Q&A with Aya:Staff member Aya Cockram standing in front of a waterfall.

Please share an early/childhood experience that was pivotal to your personal relationship to wildlife.

When I was twelve years old my neighbor rescued a baby squirrel from the jaws of her dog. She gave the little one to me and my parents to care for. The process of researching squirrel care, building her an environment, getting to enjoy her presence and then, the bittersweet experience of releasing her had a significant impact on me during a formative moment in my life. It helped me comprehend that wild (or domestic) creatures, and the natural world itself, has an intrinsic value completely distinct from human valuations. At the same time we all live within systems that inextricably connect us. The act of rehabilitating a creature that, hopefully, will never look back upon its release, seems a significant way to respect their value and those systems upon which we all depend. 


How did you initially become involved with IWRC?

The first time I encountered the IWRC was through the job posting for my current position. I was immediately drawn to the blend of wildlife protection and education and love the office culture and passion of the employees! 


Describe a specific area of interest or a particular passion within the scope of IWRC’s mission.

I have a great affinity for bioregionalism which, among many other things, asserts that knowing ones bioregion not only allows us to live within our environments in an informed way but also creates a deep sense of belonging to a physical place. This knowledge and sense of belonging is believed to naturally lead to pro-environmental behavior. I view the IWRC’s focus on education and their work to continually build on the field of wildlife rehabilitation as critical for improving the welfare of individual wild animals. However, this educational component also creates an important awareness and an ethic of care that is much needed given the current climate and extinction crises. 


Describe a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.

I am particularly proud of what some of my past students have accomplished. One such student cited my Islam and Nature course as an important factor in her decision to pursue a JD in environmental law. Another student from the Environmental Ethics course I TA-ed went on to become a prominent member of the Sunrise Movement and was very informed by this course as well. These are not my accomplishments but they make me feel incredibly fulfilled and part of something larger. I love working in education because you never know how your work will affect your students, they can go on to do things you yourself could not have imagined. 


If you could choose, who would you have as a mentor?

Aldo Leopold! Leopold is a particularly incredible conservation trailblazer because of the ecocentric view of the world he developed and that he was able to do so long before others came to the same conclusions. Through his writing Leopold is able to uncannily express what I feel but cannot myself put into words. Besides all this, he was a dedicated parent and partner, a knowledgeable forester, scientist, and conservationist!

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”

– Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 262

IWRC staff member Aya in a red sweater sitting on a dune in sunllight


If you were to do something else professionally, what would it be?

While going to school I really enjoyed my research studying Muslim and Islamic environmentalists in Senegal. Although I ultimately don’t see myself as an academic, I still think it would be amazing to continue that research and write a book on the topic.