Dr Christine Steyrer inspects a crate during the transfer of Romanian lions

The story of a LIONSROCK vet

LIONSROCK vet keeps her resilience up by being fit and inspired

The medical examination of lioness Tokkelos

When big cat veterinarian Christine Steyrer wakes up in the morning just after five in the mountainous area of the LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary near Bethlehem in the Free State, it is to the sound of lions greeting the morning with their hallmark resounding roars.

To this Austrian born vet, who has more than 100 rescued big cats under her care, the early morning roaring is something that she got quite used to after she decided in December 2020 to join up with the sanctuary team. She says the familiar sound always make her feel she is home when she returns from a holiday.

The theme of this year’s commemorative day for vets is to focus on ways these professionals keep their resilience up. Christine has her own way of keeping up to the challenges that her 24-hours-a-day-on-call duty requires of her. She regularly takes to the road for a jog with the LIONSROCK rescue dogs.

“I am generally a self-motivated person but to be physically resilient is something you need to work at especially if you are working with animals.” 

She says there are specific challenges to caring for rescued animals with special needs as they were often exposed to circumstances that compromised their health.

“Even if we get the history of the animals rescued by FOUR PAWS, we still often must do without the medical history. With continuous observations, you can possibly diagnose certain conditions or illnesses, but it is much more difficult to ascertain what psychological trauma they have been through.”

Christine explains a lot of observation is involved in the caring of the animals. For this the management team also depends on the well-trained animal caretakers as they see the animals continuously whenever they are fed, or the enclosures are cleaned.

Christine’s tasks also include the vaccination of the big cats. These are particularly important with new animals being introduced. She is also responsible for the animals in the Special Care Unit. Christine refers with a twinkle in her eyes to this unit as being like ‘a frail care unit at an old age home.”

She continues: “Some cats are in the Special Care unit as they don’t move as well anymore. The ground is more even there and flat, the enclosures are smaller, and all the structures and platforms have additional steps to accommodate these needs. For us it is also easier to observe them.”

When asked for an individual that is an inhabitant of the Special Care unit, she mentions Nora, the rescued circus lioness and rescued former performance lion Giovanni. She says these two arrived separately in 2014 and 2015 but have become inseparable since they were socialised years later. Both did struggle with their spondylosis in their previous hilly enclosure but are coping much better now in the Special Care Unit.

Emergencies at the sanctuaries are rare but if an animal does not feel well, it is important to make a call how quick to react and in what way. Christine says for these decisions fortunately Hildegard Pirker, the site manager and head of the Animal Welfare Department, is the best resource “as she knows most of the animals as long as they have been at the sanctuary.”

She adds that she would consult with the team as well as the animal caretakers if an intervention should be made. “The main thing is to know how quickly you need to intervene.”

Christine wishes this sort of work satisfaction for all her colleagues on World Veterinary Day.

“Vets should not be too hard on themselves. The work takes its toll as all of us are unfortunately dealing with loss daily. Be kind to your vets as most of us will go above and beyond to take care of animals entrusted to us. I do not know a single professional who did become a vet for reasons other than a love for animals.”

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Train Tiger Mafalda Medical South Africa, Bethlehem


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