RATEL DEATH FALLOUT
Anger after trapped national park honey badger shot for catching pigeons
Underestimating the fury of a trapped ratel led to a killing at the West Coast National Park that should never have happened.
On the face of it, the issue was uncomplicated. Some racing pigeons were nabbed by a honey badger so it was trapped and shot. On closer investigation, however, the questions begin stacking up.
The honey badger (commonly known as a ratel) was a resident of the West Coast National Park. The pigeons belonged to Glen Johnson who is staying with his aunt and was given permission by the park a year ago to keep. But the local Churchhaven Homeowners Association (CHA) warned him it wasn’t a good idea because the area contained predators almost assured of being interested in fluttering, caged birds.
As far as can be pieced together from several often conflicting sources, the story unfolded like this…
Three honey badgers came sniffing around. Johnson reinforced his cote, but almost nothing stops a determined ratel so one got in and he lost some birds.
The correct procedure would have been to inform the CHA, but instead, he called up park ranger William Brink, who, without informing his superior, senior ranger Pierre Nel, came over with a trap.
The correct procedure would have been to ask permission. If he had, says Nel, he would have been informed that the route to follow was to tell Johnson to remove his pigeons because a ranger’s primary responsibility was towards the park’s animals and not to a resident’s pigeons.
David Slingsby of the CHA agreed:
“If Mr Johnson contacted us, we’d have said, sorry, there’s no catching of any badger. You have to sort out your birds because they and not the badger are the issue.”
The trap caught the honey badger and, being the creature it was, things rapidly went pear-shaped. The animal attacked the trap with extraordinary force. Even lions, it has been noted, are afraid of honey badgers. The trap, being made for lesser creatures, was in danger of coming apart as the furious creature lashed and clawed against its confinement.
Johnson and Brink tried to shore it up with bricks and rocks. Cape Nature, when contacted, told them to throw a blanket over the trap to try to calm it down. Any thought of removing the cage seemed out of the question because of the state of the cage and because anyone touching it was liable to lose their fingers.
At this point, the spectre of the badger escaping and turning on its captors occurred to the pair and Johnson, described as “a very forceful man”, demanded that it be shot. He said it was a threat to his family and his children, for which he would hold SANParks liable.
At some point, the police were called and the story gets murky. One version is that a policeman shot the badger. Another version, purportedly corroborated by a resident, is that the policeman refused to fire his 9mm service pistol in a built-up area, so Brink grabbed the weapon and shot the animal. Neither version has been confirmed and inquiries are ongoing.
Are there consequences? The CHA is furious and may be considering charging Johnson under the Animal Cruelty Act. Cape Nature and the SPCA have asked for and been given a report and are considering the options.
Pierre Nel is doing a manful job trying to manage the situation, but admits things went badly wrong and that Brink is on the carpet.
“The long and short of it is the men were scared of being mauled so they shot the animal. Johnson should have first informed the CHA but went directly to Brink. He set the trap without informing his superiors.
“It’s unheard of for Parks to prioritise someone’s private pigeons over animals we’re expected to protect. It’s not the right thing. The actions weren’t best practice.
“Brink and Johnson should not have communicated with each other. Johnson should have gone to the homeowners and Brink should have come to us and said we got a problem. In no circumstances should Brink have engaged directly with the landowner. If he’d acted correctly there would have never been a trap set.
“We’ll deal with it internally through our disciplinary process and we need to sort out Johnson’s pigeons. This time it’s a honey badger, next time it will be a caracal, then an African wild cat, then another badger and we’ll be back to square one. This can’t happen again,” said Nel.
The Homeowners Association wants the pigeons gone. “We’re highly unhappy about this,” said Slingsby.
“Our chairman is going to write to Johnson saying his right to keep pigeons has been rescinded and if there are any pigeons left, he must get rid of them. And I think his cote is also an illegal building.”
Of course, none of this will be of any use to the dead honey badger, but it might make things safer for what remains of its family in the future. DM/OBP