Ten years ago the BBC presented Meryl Harrison with a Special Award for Outstanding Work in Animal Welfare. This ‘outstanding’ work was taking place on Zimbabwe’s farms, at the unstable core of Mugabe’s chaotic land redistribution programme.
It is hard from outside Zimbabwe to get a true sense of the terror aimed directly at Zimbabwe’s farmers at the start of the 2000s. One of the few who experienced this repeatedly, across hundreds of farms, was Harrison, then Chief Inspector of the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA). She and her small team of inspectors drove relentlessly into the heart of turmoil whilst others were either being denied access or forced in the opposite direction.
In March 2002 one of the farming districts suffering the most upheaval was Chinhoyi in the north of the country. The ZNSPCA, led by Harrison, attempted rescue after rescue under volatile, dangerous conditions. Rob Gordon, a private vet in Chinhoyi, had to abandon his pets in his final frantic minutes on the property he leased. He could not get back on to the land and had to ask the ZNSPCA to attempt to save his animals.
The rescue was successful and deeply important to Gordon. He wrote to Harrison a few days after the rescue:
“I cannot even begin to find words appropriate enough to fully express my appreciation … It is our animals that are the silent victims of this madness. Uninvolved and uncomprehending, stolen, starved, beaten and shot; these innocent victims of a man-made situation often bear the brunt of this senselessness. The courage that you and your team have shown is exemplary.”
Harrison is now living in the UK in a comfortable but empty flat waiting for her belongings to arrive from Zimbabwe. I met her there for the first time at the end of October this year. We talked over lunch at a garden centre.
“Obviously during the farm invasions it was very difficult because very often they [invaders and sometimes the farm workers] wanted to hang on to the animals. That was probably the most normal thing that happened. They wanted to hold on to the livestock and pets as a sort of bargaining tool … It was a question of survival and what is going to happen to us. Everybody was grabbing land with the blessing of the government.”
Harrison and a handful of fellow inspectors covered thousands of miles of Zimbabwe’s roads, normally in one small ZNSPCA truck, as they tried to save the country’s animals from prolonged abuse. Many properties were guarded by thuggish gangs whose mood was unpredictable and easily inflamed. Levels of police protection varied from district to district. There might be one sergeant available, perhaps a riot squad, or nobody. It was all a question of negotiation and trust.
“I always used to go to the nearest police station to let them know that we would be in the area and that we would be visiting X, Y, Z farms so that even if they didn’t give us an escort they were aware that we would be there.”
She laughs – it is warmed with a tiny spark of pride. “The guys used to laugh, the inspectors, because at almost every police station we went to a senior policeman would say to me: ‘I remember you. You’re very cheeky.'”
How much fear had she felt?
“Nervous in advance. More so. We really didn’t know what was going to be … especially driving up to the gate of the farm … there would be a picture of Mugabe, flags fluttering and a crowd at the gate. You just didn’t know what the reaction was going to be like. So, I think those were the worst ones – as we approached.”
Does she have nightmares about her work? “Oh yeah. That lasted for a couple of years. Now the same thing has happened to me again. We had the most terrible case of some horses at the University of Zimbabwe just before I left that were axed … It got really unpleasant. It is fatal. Once you start thinking about it. The same thing is happening to me again.”
I asked why journalists had so little footage about the work she had done on the farms. “They wanted to follow me on to the farms to film me. I said: ‘Absolutely not. It is the quickest way for me to be turned away if we have got cameras rolling.'”
The kitchen staff start to clear around us. Harrison has told me that she has been accused of being a rascist – is she? “I am confrontational and hate cruelty of any kind and I speak out about it. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are black, pink or green. It really doesn’t. I don’t see it like that.”
What about those who say she should worry about people rather than animals? “When people used to say that to me during the farm rescues I used to say: ‘Well there are over 700 welfare organisations for people in Zimbabwe and probably five for animals and three of these are wildlife.” At the time of the invasions the ZNSPCA was the only organisation with inspectors who had the law behind them.
We leave the garden centre in the late afternoon and return to the echoing flat in its cul-de-sac.
Harrison is thinking about her next project – establishing a charity to protect the donkeys in Beitbridge on Zimbabwe’s border with South Africa. “In the rural areas it is the donkeys and goats who get a really tough time – especially the donkeys. With the rainy season coming up now they are ploughing 24/7. Once they have done their own ploughing they hire them out to plough for other people … the sores, the wounds, we see on their backs …”
Harrison is utterly focused on animal welfare. She has told me of the rescues in Zimbabwe as she wants the world to recognise the consequences to animals when communities collapse.
She loves animals with a passion and has honoured that relationship between man and beast again and again.
It has not been easy. She knows what it feels like to have to euthanase 500 guard dogs that have been tied up and abandoned as the structures that required them have imploded. She has shared the trauma of trying to relieve the suffering of horses that have been set alight. She had to bear, largely alone, the awful responsibility of knowing just how crucial her work was to the battered livestock and abandoned pets stranded on the disputed land.
Harrison has stood in the midst of cruel destruction and made a difference. Now she does not want us to look away. It is not for her sake that she wants us to look but in the hope that we might all learn the consequences to animals of turmoil and, if necessary, prepare.
In 2004, four years after the rescue of Rob Gordon’s pets in Chinhoyi, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals awarded Meryl Harrison their Overseas Gallantry Award.
Her courage is recorded in ‘Innocent Victims’.
Short extracts from the book ‘Innocent Victims’ by Catherine Buckle about Meryl Harrison’s work in Zimbabwe will be published on this blog every Wednesday for the next four weeks. The book, published by Merlin Unwin in 2009, can be brought direct from Meryl Harrison on firstname.lastname@example.org or through Catherine Buckles’ website http://www.cathybuckle.com/innocentvictims.php