As some of you know from a previous post I am a supporter of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.
So, it is by no accident that I chose to feature a woman who I felt was important for you to know in my column Worldly Women. Wendie Wendt is based in the United States and works tirelessly to assist the Trust through fundraising. She volunteers, along with a group of other dedicated people, to support the Trust and it’s effort to help elephants.
Dame Daphne Sheldrick, whom you will also learn about in the interview is inspirational. She has been featured on 60 Minutes twice and I understand a third show may be in the future. We will have to see, but until then take some time to get to know this worthwhile organization.
Jennifer Chandler’s Interview with Wendie Wendt, Vice President of The US Friends of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
First of all I have to tell you this truly was a special day. Talking to Wendie Wendt with The US Friends of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was not only informative but refreshing. If anyone doubts that passion can transfer through the telephone wires you would be sorely mistaken. This Worldly Woman knew where her energy was going to go and what organization was going to receive it.
At the beginning of our conversation I was treated to a picture taken in Kenya of Wendie and a newly rescued baby elephant. It was rescued on her last day at the Trust and Wendie was on hand to witness the event. This little baby would not leave her side, everywhere she went it would follow. People joked “It wants to go home with you”. Judging from this picture this baby was thankful and Wendie had an incredible day she will not soon forget.
It all started with a woman, Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who inspired Wendie some time ago; but the elephants captured her heart and didn’t let go. Join me in celebrating The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and this month’s Worldly Woman.
How did you become involved with The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust?
In my day job I’m an attorney and before attending law school I had looked at travelling to Tanzania and working with elephants because elephants have always been something I have been passionate about. I find them magical. So, while I was doing my research I came across a woman by the name of Daphne Sheldrick, at the time there wasn’t any Internet to track people, as there is now. I came across her name here and there, she was on National Geographic and I just thought, “Wow, this woman is amazing and what a great place to go volunteer!” So I tracked the agency down and found out they didn’t then, nor do they now take volunteers because the elephants get way too attached to people. Once I realized that, I just hoped that one day I would have the ability to go to Africa and look her up.
Three years before going to school I volunteered with the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, a wonderful group; and subsequently continued to serve on their board. I really wanted to work with elephants therefore I did some research and then called The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and offered to help. “If you send me something… I know I can raise some money for you.” After a bit of discussion, they did and I raised some money and then asked them to send me more and I raised some more money. In doing so I met their board President, Steve Smith. During our phone conversation I expressed my interest in taking on a board position. They didn’t have an opening at that time, but one did eventually come available, so I interviewed and got the position.
So it was meant to be. It’s amazing for me to think of that ten years ago when I looked at the organization it was a distant hope that one day I might go visit. When I go back this year in May I’m actually going to be staying at the nursery, every morning I’m going to be waking up and not far from me is going to be these babies, it’s hard to believe…it’s like a dream come true.
Describe your role as Vice President of the US Friends of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
We are a small board, five right now and looking for two more members, we want to keep it small but each person needs to put forth their best. As the board Vice President, I do several things but am mostly in charge of fundraising. I’m organizing the second fundraiser in Seattle right now, we had one last year at Art Wolfe’s house, he has a home in Seattle, it is breathtaking and in a beautiful setting. This year we are doing a fundraiser at his art studio which is also gorgeous and a fundraiser in New York. It is busy.
I write articles in our newsletter. I wrote an article on poaching entitled Only Elephants Wear Ivory. Being that is a small board it is a team effort, everyone is encouraged to be a part of fundraising, write articles, we divide up the work. Then I help others around the US who are interested in fundraising and give them ideas of what might work for them. Recently, we were on 60 Minutes and we received calls from people wanting to get involved. If somebody wants to do a fundraiser but they are going to use their home, I give them ideas to consider and let them know how we can help. We do offer materials such as foster packets, various literature and might be able to provide t-shirts.
Dame Daphne Sheldrick seems to be the heart of the Trust. As a role model who is committed to animal welfare, what do you recognize as her innate gifts?
Daphne has been someone I followed for years; it was so great when I met her. We would eventually meet when we were both flying in a plane over Tsavo I needed to say “I’ve known you forever”. Those were the same feelings I had expressed to her daughter Angela “I have been following your Mum’s work forever.”
She is hard to describe, when I say she is my hero I am not overstating it, she is just absolutely the most incredible woman. She is so compassionate and tireless when it comes to being a champion for elephant causes and for all animals. She is very intelligent, she knows so much; not just about elephants, but about the fauna in Africa, she can name every plant, she has a vast wealth of knowledge and an incredible life. She started the Trust and it has since grown into this huge worldwide organization. It is amazing what she has done for elephants. She has educated people on that subject and helped them to recognize how intelligent, emotional and different elephants are.
Daphne always keeps on the forefront of the immediate issues that are facing the elephants. A lot of people don’t realize that poaching is still prevalent in Africa, so to think that elephants are no longer at risk… no, they are even more at risk; it is just done in another way.
Tell us a little about yourself. Who is the woman behind your VP role?
I am interested in animals; it’s always been a passion. I’m also fortunate to have a great job as a lawyer, I represent three companies and I’m a partner in one of those companies. I bring my passion to the Sheldrick organization and I feel my time is better spent with the elephants, it feeds me more; but I also like the job I have as a lawyer.
I was in private practice which I didn’t care for as much. Part of what I do, is help run the companies and the other part is providing legal advice, it is a nice fit for me. Working for a company versus private practice allows me the time to devote to the elephants that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. It frees up my time and my energy, this job can be equally demanding as private practise but it doesn’t take all my energy, at the end of the day I have a lot left over. I can put that energy towards the trust, and love it.
Do you get many opportunities to visit the reserve?
I can travel to Kenya as many times as I want to, but we have a board requirement to meet once a year. This almost always is in Kenya but this year it is going to be in London. It is especially important for me to go, due to fundraising; people want to know what I’ve done and want to hear about my experience. You don’t want to rely on something that is a stale experience.
What do you see as the challenges, triumphs and ultimate goals?
One of the challenges that we definitely have, is a problem in most third world countries not just Kenya; economically depressed areas don’t have the luxury that we do to focus on the environment and animal issues. They are just fighting to keep themselves alive and it takes everything they can to focus on that. It is a luxury to focus on the environment, because if you can’t put food on your table, you are not too focused on the elephants.
So, we would like to put together something so that people living in Kenya have an economic incentive to care for their environment. We have a few programs here in the States where companies get points for building green. If we do something like that over there it would be great. Also, curbing poaching, though it is unrealistic to think in the near future we can wipe out poaching. We are trying hard; we have five anti-poaching teams.
When we no longer need a Trust we will know that we’ve been successful, though the trust will always be needed to some extent with the babies that come in. Upon their arrival we are faced with their health challenges and having the money to address those challenges. We have a mobile vet unit and we make sure they are fully equipped for an elephant that has been snared or a baby that comes in with major complications.
Recently, we have been seeing an increase in the babies coming into the Trust, it is heartbreaking. Normally we care for approximately twenty-five baby elephants but as of the end of February we had one hundred twenty eight. There are elephants and babies out there that never get to us and a lot of the babies that do get to us have been without milk for so long that sometimes there is nothing that can be done. But, for the babies that do make it, the challenge is having the money to take care of them.
(Photograph reprinted with the permission of Wendie Wendt & the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust)