The dog raced through the bush, searching for a wounded Rhino. As he leapt over some rocks, his leg got caught in a crevice. He tried to keep running, but the leg snapped at the shoulder, shattering the bone into fragments. The dog fell over, whining in pain.
Shaya, a Belgian Shepherd, works as a detection dog for Transfrontier Africa and the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit, two organizations set up by Craig Spencer to protect wildlife in the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa. Shaya can sniff out Rhino horn, ivory, weapons and ammunition, and track poachers through the South African bush. He’s also trained to protect Spencer’s back whenever Spencer conducts searches in local villages and roadblocks.
For Spencer, Shaya is more than a working dog — he’s Spencer’s “right hand man” and constant companion. So when Shaya was hurt, Spencer did everything he could to help him. “We had a veterinarian with us at the time, so we got Shaya on a helicopter and took him back to the city. “The initial vet we saw said we’d need to amputate. We said no, we want a second opinion.”
A veterinary clinic in Johannesburg gave Spencer the opinion he wanted: They could pin Shaya’s leg back together, but Shaya would have to take it easy for several months so the bone could heal. Once Shaya got fitted with his cast, Spencer tried to keep him calm and quiet in a kennel. But Shaya refused to keep still, wriggling and squirming — so much that he broke his leg again, this time above the cast, severing the nerves.
When the vet re-examined Shaya, he told Spencer they’d have to amputate now. “It was a very difficult decision,” Spencer says. “He was such an incredible animal — so intelligent, so smart — and he lived for work. Work for him is play.”
Everyone believed Shaya wouldn’t work again, including Spencer, and this was absolutely devastating. “I felt as if my right arm was going to be amputated,” Spencer says. “I’d become used to working without the need to carry a firearm, and I always relied on Shaya. I’d have to adjust to the loss of having Shaya with me day and night, and this was a big blow.”
Shaya spent four months recovering at the clinic in Johannesburg. When Spencer eventually collected him, Shaya was obviously missing a leg, but otherwise, he seemed pretty normal. “On the way back to Balule, I stopped on the side of the highway and hid a few old bullet casings in the shrubs to test his working drive and ability,” Spencer says. “He performed as if he’d never been through the trauma.”
Not only did Shaya still have his working drive, but he also seemed to have the same amount of physical energy. “He honestly didn’t seem to notice that he didn’t have a leg,” Spencer says. “He used to knock into a few things here and there, and he’d fall over when he lifted his leg on a tree or something until he figured out that he’d have to lean against the tree now. But it doesn’t slow him down, and it doesn’t stop him. He jumps around, he flies around, he runs around. He sniffs and works like a Trojan still. It looks a bit awkward, but he just doesn’t notice.”
Shaya was 3 and a half when he lost his leg, and he’s now 8. Spencer needs to make sure Shaya keeps his body weight down so he’d not putting undue stress on his remaining legs, but Shaya’s in excellent health. “He is more than a working dog,” Spencer says. “Shaya is my friend and companion, my emotional crutch and inspiration to continue saving wildlife even when I feel it’s hopeless.”
The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit is a mostly-female group that patrols the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa to protect Rhinos, Elephants and other endangered species. To support the group’s important anti-poaching work in Africa, you can donate here.
All Images By Transfrontier Africa
If this story inspires you please SHARE it with others. You can sign up for email alerts and news articles by clicking on the button in the top right-hand column. Thank you.