Thalita Calvi | How to be a vet in the African bush
Chimpanzees are incredibly intelligent and share more than 98% of human DNA

Thalita Calvi | How to be a vet in the African bush

It’s 18:00 hours on a Saturday evening, the night is approaching with alarming speed and light is fading fast. Deep in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province, a group of volunteers have discovered a young male and female slumped in the back of a stationary vehicle. Clearly under the influence, the male staggers, reaches towards the torch-light, before sliding to the floor. The female nervously glances around, drags herself over to her friend and tenderly strokes his face.

A scream pierces the chilly African air. Moments later, a second female is carried towards the car. She is heavy and, in this state, requires two volunteers to hold her. Her head sways drunkenly and, mouth drooling, she surrenders as she too slides into the vehicle.

Brazilian-born Thalita Calvi is unphased by the unfolding events. She closes the trunk with a thud and gets to work packing up her dart gun. With a doctor’s precision, she drops her disposable gloves into the bin, grins and thanks the volunteers for their help.

For, this vehicle holds not humans, but baboons. As the vet at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage this is not an unusual way to spend her evenings. Having come to the orphanage in need of care, these baboons are now ready to be released back into the wild. For Thalita, tonight is a culmination of a job well done.

“I have had a car of baboons, I have had boxes containing hundreds of frogs in the trunk, a duiker in the bath, baby rats behind the fridge, chimps in the bed and monkeys in the front room,” she told A Note from Planet Earth.

“You forget how crazy it looks to the outside world. When you are in the moment you do not realise.  I had a past volunteer get in touch and say; ‘I couldn’t forget the day you made a cast for a calf with a child’s hula-hoop’. I didn’t realise that to a normal person that is a completely insane thing to do,” she laughed.

Having completed her studies in the US and worked in countries such as Nepal and Brazil, Thalita joined Chimfunshi four years ago. She quickly realised the only way to survive as a vet, deep in the bush, with limited funds and equipment, was to possess the ability to adapt. That and to expect the unexpected.

“In the bush you are a specialist vet who is very generalist. You have to do a bit of everything… Anything could come in your hands. Of course, you are sometimes more confident with some than others,” she explained.

Chimfunshi is an hour’s drive from the nearest town stores, while the bigger cities Kitwee and Ndola are close to four hour’s drive away. Electricity is temperamental following the recent rainy season and roads are average at best.

“I have learned how to live simpler. I have learned the value of things –  the value of a hot shower or pressing a switch and getting immediate light. I am used to it. It can be challenging the isolation. It is not easy but you can learn… But, wifi I need, because in the bush everything that can go wrong will go wrong,” she said.

“But, there is always someone who can help, who has come-up with a way to deal with a situation. Often the innovative equipment you see in the zoo and wildlife industry has been due to vets having to use their initiative,” she added.

Masks are essential when you are working with primates



The first time I met Thalita, she had fresh white scars on her arms, the result of two over-zealous chimpanzees. But, of the injuries, she was dismissive. It was, she said, part of what you accepted when you took on a job with animals known for both their strength and intelligence.

She is convinced the chimps responsible did not mean to hurt her; “If that was the case, I would have no arm at all,” she said.

When dealing with any animal, but particularly dangerous ones, respect is the key to safety.

“The moment you lose your respect is when things go bad. Sometimes incidents happen, and you need to understand that it is not the animal’s fault,” she added.

An understanding of individual characters helps, and this will only come from regular contact. But, even then, there will be outside factors to consider.

“You have to know that chimps are intelligent. They know what you are going to do by reading your body language and can sometimes pre-empt you before you even know yourself. But, what you can do with one chimp doesn’t mean you can do it with another. With chimpanzees there are things going on that as a human you cannot read and, if the whole group’s dynamics are not perfect, then moods change quickly,” she explained.

Having an understanding of dogs and cats will help when you have a lion in your care

Never give up

A passion for the job and wildlife is essential if you want to become a vet – particularly if you are dealing with exotic animals in third world countries. Your dedication and patience will be tested.

“It is never easy, you have to love it. It is a profession that requires a lot of you and gives you very little back. It takes your life away, you are expected to be there all the time. Or, people do not want you to charge, they will think if you love the animal you should do it for free. It will test you. As a vet professional it is hard stuff, but it is worth it and there is no boring day,” she added.

If you do not immediately get the more “glamorous” jobs with exotics, perseverance is key. And, this solid background will also stand you in good stead when you do break through.

“I am a believer that you have to have good basics. Most of my time in studies I spent working with dogs and cats and horses and built-up the base understanding. Don’t give up, keep your interest – if you don’t get that internship, go do the domestic’s because the moment you have a wild dog or a lion in your hands, it is that internship that will put you through. I tell students that, it may not seem that way, it may seem less valuable, but it sets the base,” Thalita said.

“I do not think it is the perfect job – it is very hard, it is very frustrating, but I do get to do what I dream of,” she concluded.

For more information or volunteer opportunities at Chimfunshi visit:


Kathleen Retourne

Having worked for more than a decade as a financial journalist in the city of London, Kathleen wanted to do something more with her passion for conservation. So, she quit her job, sold her house and underwent a six-month conservation internship in South Africa. She followed this with a month in Zimbabwe were she focused on human wildlife conflict. Having well and truly been bitten by the African bug, in December 2017 she moved to Zambia where she now manages volunteer projects. Since June 2017 she has interviewed many people in the industry for and then A Note from Planet Earth. She wants her interviews and writing to inspire others to join the fight for conservation.

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