Ten years ago the BBC presented Meryl Harrison with a Special Award for Outstanding Work in Animal Welfare. Her ‘outstanding work‘ was done on Zimbabwe’s farms whilst Mugabe’s chaotic land redistribution programme was in full surge.
This was in the early 2000s.
I first meet Meryl Harrison at the end of October in 2012 in England. We talk over lunch at a garden centre about the animal rescues she led in Zimbabwe.
“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.”
Meryl Harrison, at the time of the upheaval, was Chief Inspector of the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA). Desperate to help the animals, she and her small team of inspectors, drove repeatedly towards the farms, just as others were either being denied access, or forced in the opposite direction.
Chinhoyi, in the north of the country, was just one of the areas to tip out of control. Rob Gordon, a private vet who lived on a leased a property in the district, was amongst those who suddenly had to abandon their land and their pets. He was not allowed back, and had to ask the ZNSPCA to try to save his animals.
A few days after a successful rescue he wrote to Meryl Harrison:
“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.”
This team, led by Meryl Harrison, covered thousands of miles of Zimbabwe’s roads 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, and 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, with just one small ZNSPCA truck for transport.
“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.”
Meryl Harrison laughs as she tells me this – 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.”
She also points out that at the time of the invasions the ZNSPCA was the only organisation with inspectors who had the law behind them.
How much fear had she felt, I ask?
“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 ask why journalists have so little footage of the work she did 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.'”
Around us the kitchen staff start to clear the tables.
Meryl Harrison tells me that she has been accused of being a racist. Is she, I ask? Her denial is immediate and emphatic:
“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.”
We leave the garden centre in the late afternoon as Meryl Harrison tells me about her next project – to establish 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 …”
It sounds a slightly easier project, in some ways, than her rescues at the turn of the millennium when the collapse of Zimbabwe’s farms caused such devastation. Then she and her team were left to face unpredictable, exhausting situations, including: the need to euthanise five hundred guard dogs, tied up and abandoned as the farms imploded; to relieve the pain of horses that had been set alight; and to bear, largely alone, the awful responsibility of knowing just how much they were needed by the battered livestock and abandoned pets stranded on the disputed land.
As the sun sets on the interview Meryl tells me that she hopes that her experiences in Zimbabwe will alert the rest of the world to the needs of animals when communities collapse.
In 2004 the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals awarded Meryl Harrison and Addmore Chinhembe their Overseas Gallantry Award for their work in Zimbabwe.
Her courage is recorded in the book ‘Innocent Victims’ written by Cathy Buckle.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019