Many parents, when faced with an emptying nest as their children leave behind their childhoods and head off to school, find activities to keep them busy. They may immerse themselves in volunteer work, turn their hobbies into home businesses, and, in some cases, start new careers.
Wendy Blakely was no different. A single mom, she worked 45 hours a week at a civil rights law firm and started and ran a dance studio while raising her. So when he left to attend college at UC Davis in the early 1990s, she had a little bit of extra time.
Turns out, an African safari was being planned by one of the school’s staff members. Blakely, never one to let moss grow under her feet, checked the itinerary, then signed herself up, and was soon on a 33-hour long flight to Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zaire and the Congo.
The trip was life-changing.
More than a ‘romantic adventure’
“Africa was sort of portrayed to the world, when I was young, as a romantic adventure. Between the culture, the music, and the animals, it just captured me,” she said. But although she’d seen pictures and read books, Blakely was caught unawares by the scale of what she saw: animals racing across the plains, and the beauty and diversity of her surroundings.
“I maybe managed to sleep four hours a night,” Blakely said. “I’d never been in a foreign country until I went to Africa.”
Blakely came home to see her life through new eyes. Two years later, she found herself called back to Africa for another safari. While camping, one of the rangers got a call from outside their area that a pack of painted dogs was travelling by.
Painted dogs are not, in fact, dogs. Four legged carnivores, with the word “dog” in their name (courtesy of early settlers who thought they looked like dogs), sure, but on sight, the differences are clear. Tall, with big round ears (like pandas or bats) and beautiful mottled earth-tone coloring, they’re social and intelligent pack animals. Once prevalent, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, painted dogs are now listed as endangered, due to due to growing human populations that infringe on their territory and resultant disputes over land and livestock. Now there is an estimated 3,000-5,000 remaining, and seeing them in the wild can be challenging.
Blakely saw the pack go by, and found her cause.
Saving a species
“I knew I had to find a way to do something,” she said. “It was cataclysmic.”
Shortly thereafter, Blakely teamed up with another member of her safari that year, and together they worked on a project geared towards conservation of the painted dogs population. A Bay Area mom, she had little in the way of experience with conservation efforts, but found that her skills transferred nicely.
Labeling, organizing, prioritizing, all skills she’d used at her law firm and dance studio, proved useful.
“I had no academic background in conservation or wildlife or sciences at all,” she said. “But finding a way I could make a contribution for conservation, using what I had to offer, is wonderful.”
The project grew, and today, the organization she’s worked with since 1997, PaintedDogs.org, has an on-site facility in Zimbabwe, boasting a rehabilitation facility for the dogs that have been injured, anti-poaching units, and a children’s daycamp through which more than 1,000 local sixth-grade children pass, free of charge, to learn about their local wildlife, see the painted dogs, and create artwork.
Although she lived in Zimbabwe to work with the organization for eight years, today Blakely now resides in Clayton, where the wildlife she sees trends towards domestic dogs and coyotes.
Helping at home
She’s still involved, however. Having helped get the organization off the ground, she was asked to set up community workshops for Zimbabwean locals to make crafts. The items, geared towards the African painted dogs, are sold to gift shops, such as the one at the Oakland Zoo, with the proceeds shared between the artisans and the painted dogs conservancy.
Meanwhile, Blakely returns to Africa each year. There, she has a room of her own in the art center, and each weekend she takes a drive in the park, where she occasionally sees the results of her organization’s work in the slowly growing packs.
Last year, she took a group on safari, and is planning to do the same this year as well.
“I have friends all over the world now,” she said. “My work is quite well known. It’s just been really rewarding.”