I’m broken, says ‘Bird Lady’

Margo Wilkie, better known as Cape Town’s Bird Lady, says last week’s confiscation of the animals in her care by the Humane Society and CapeNature has left her feeling “broken”.

The Pinelands resident shares that on Monday, August 15, she was in her arthritis doctor’s waiting room when she received a call from the SPCA, saying they wanted to inspect their facility.

When he got home, he says, he found 10 police vehicles parked on his street with about 20 people in uniform.

“My first thought was that there was a drug bust somewhere down my street, but then I found out it was for me. They had come in full force with a search warrant. It was beyond ridiculous,” says Wilkie.

According to a press release published on Friday, August 19, the Cape of Good Hope Humane Society Wildlife Department and CapeNature inspected the facility “after several complaints about the conditions in which animals were kept at Wilke’s. Wildlife Rehab at Pinelands.”

In addition, he claims the center was found to be operating without a valid CapeNature permit, a legal requirement for the keeping and rehabilitation of wild animals.

“This resulted in over 100 animals being removed from the property and brought to safety,” it said.

When people post contacted Wilkie the same day the press release was published and picked up by various news platforms, it was clear that the 67-year-old, who until recently had been celebrated for turning her home into a shelter and rehabilitation for injured wild animals, she was devastated by the way she was now being portrayed by the media.

“Over 100 Sick Animals Found at Cape Town Wildlife Rehab,” read one headline. “CapeNature and SPCA clamp down on wildlife rehabilitation following reports of ‘suffering’ animals,” read another.

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“My reputation is destroyed. That for me was always the most important thing. If I said I would, I would,” she says.

Wilkie admits he was wrong to let his CapeNature permits expire. She describes the last five years as “terrible”. She says that having to undergo two knee surgeries (the most recent in April) made it difficult for her and her husband to cope.

“Because I had this situation with my knee and with the Covid I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t find time to do the paperwork, between taking 40 calls a day and taking care of the animals.

She says that with the mounting tension and her “70-year call,” she felt she was “too old for this” and reached out to a group of people involved in rehab. She wanted to start handing over some of the responsibilities to her, but she suspects that it was one of this group who reported her to the Humane Society.

“Now, as anyone who knows how the system works will tell you, God himself couldn’t get a ‘good’ after an inspection by the Humane Society. Everything has to be perfect,” he says, adding that it was impossible to have everything flawless all the time.

Wilkie describes the media statement as grossly unfair and misleading.

In it, SPCA Chief Inspector Jaco Pieterse discusses a single-legged peacock (a female peacock) with a damaged wing found on the premises.

“(She had) to be euthanized due to her poor condition. She had no quality of life and she fell over when she tried to move, immobile and unable to express natural behavior,” Pieterse said.

The SPCA said it also found underweight and dehydrated snakes, overcrowding, a lack of drinking water for “some” animals and filthy conditions, including a months-old buildup of excrement in “some” of the animals’ cages.

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The word “some” was also used in the news release to describe the number of animals the Humane Society and CapeNature said they found “suffering” at the facility.

“Especially how they described the peacock; they made it sound catastrophic. I have that peacock as a little animal. He had been seriously injured by a horse. When the vet removed the peacock’s leg, we decided to see if he would be able to cope with a leg once he was fully grown. Not all birds can, but some can. Recently, his body weight was high enough to tell,” explains Wilkie.

He adds that once it became clear that the bird could not support its own weight, the process had begun to cull it. She says that she even informed the SPCA that the process was underway and asked them to make sure it was done.

“And, yes, it was missing a leg, but the wing was not damaged. She used to fly in my garden. They did not reveal the truth,” she says.

She also denies the snakes were underweight, saying she could show in her books how much of her husband’s salary they spend each month on food for the animals.

“I had one that was anorexic and an anorexic snake is like an anorexic human being, it’s a struggle to get them to eat.”

The press release also specifically mentioned two protected blue cranes as part of the animals that were removed. Wilkie says, ironically, that the SPCA recommended one of the blue cranes to him 11 years ago.

“If they didn’t like what I was doing, why give it to me?”

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Wilkie says they first moved into their Pinelands home on February 15, 1977.

“That week they picked up the first turtle on the trail and brought it to me,” she says.

It wasn’t long before she became known the world over as the person you could take an injured animal to for care.

When the Expresso Morning Show published a story about the “Cape Town Bird Lady” in 2016, that first rescue had grown to include ducks, pigeons, owls, parrots, orphaned goldfish, koi, geckos, lizards, toads, frogs , snakes and even Bats – basically anything that needs help other than cats and dogs.

Now, after nearly half a century, Wilkie says it’s finished.

“How do you start over after 45 years, knowing that every year you are going to have the same situation, exposed to the same bureaucratic bureaucracy?” She says that the worst thing for her is not knowing what the fate of the animals that were removed will be.

She says that many of the animals in her care had the most incredible stories behind them.

“Just because of the stories they came with, they should have a chance to live. I had an old leopard tortoise that came to me from the Eastern Cape. She was rescued by a man who, passing by in his car, saw her in a pot, ready to be cooked. He bought it out of the pot and flew it to Cape Town where he ended up with me.

“That tortoise learned to push my door open, and when it was cold it would come in and sit under the table where my birds are. Every animal had a story like that.”