The way others caress their dogs is the same way Holly Oliver Akello plays with lions, hyenas and snakes.
At the age of 23, one would expect Akello to be enjoying her youthful years. However, Akello is taking care of 12 rare species of animals and reptiles in the central Ugandan district of Butambala.
“You cannot run away from animals. They are part of nature just as human beings are also part of nature,” she told Xinhua in a recent interview.
“You just need to understand them, read their body language, respect them and they will not harm (you),” Akello said, as she caressed one of the four lions in the den at the Conservation Through Commercialization (CTC) Conservation Center.
The CTC is a privately-owned center set up by an individual mainly to conserve rare species of animals for the purposes of research, education and tourism.
Founded in 2014, the center is home to lions, hyenas, crocodiles, bat-eared foxes, Serval cats, African golden cats, African Palm civets, snakes, tortoises, chameleons and iguanas. All these animals have been placed under Akello’s care.
From one cage to another, Akello is welcomed by the animals as they happily roll over in a manner a dog welcomes back its master after an outing.
“Animals are not dangerous. You just need to be patient with them and learn what needs to be done,” she said.
“Personally I cannot explain why I love animals so much. I don’t know what nature does to my soul. My soul connects with nature. I love nature,” Akello added.
Akello’s passion for animals dates back to the time when she was five years old.
“I found a Gabon Viper under a log, played with it and placed it back, hoping that I would return and play with my new-found friend,” the conservationist, animal handler and tour guide said.
“When I returned, I could not find the viper. My brothers and sisters told me that an eagle had taken it. I cried and wondered how a bird could carry such a big snake.”
From that time on, her passion for animals only grew. Akello said that while in the village, she used to see many animals. However, often the elderly would be chasing the animals, especially the edible ones, to kill them.
“I started training and reading about animals until I became a professional handler. Now I’m brave enough to interact with them. However, you need to be so observant,” she said.
Unlike leopards and tigers which are solitary cats, lions and hyenas are social cats which are easier to interact with on a daily basis, Akello said.
“However, sometimes they also get moody just as human beings become angry. So, at times they need their space. You need to observe them and back off. You must respect their privacy,” Akello said.
She has also received scratches from the animals. This was not because they intended to harm her, however, Akello explained.
“They don’t know how strong they are. They think you are as strong as them. But to me, these are beautiful scars inflicted on me by my friends,” Akello said as she showed off the scars on her hands.
Akello said she has been able to train a number of people in schools and her community.
“We only carry one message to them. We can all co-exist with nature. We can live with animals because we are part of them. If we destroy nature, we shall suffer the consequences,” she said. “Let us come together and protect the environment.”
Concerning future plans, Akello said, “I hope to become an expert in animal handling, get new sets of skills and write books about wildlife.”
“Actually I have exams to sit very soon at one of the wildlife institutes in the country,” she said.
To other youths, Akello said: “Put passion in everything you do and you will have enormous achievements.”
Akello is not the only youth at the CTC.
Martina Kia, 25, a veterinarian, has been at the center for nearly one year.
She said she is working there because she is passionate about wildlife.
“I like animals. I started with cats and dogs. The passion kept growing.”
Kia said her life goal is to try as much as possible to “bring animals to people’s hearts.”
“People need to know that animals are harmless if you do not harm them. When you respect an individual, that person respects you back. It is the same with animals,” she said.
Just like Akello, Kia tells young people to follow their passions to succeed.
“Of course passion comes with hard work and perseverance. Everything else will work out,” she said.