Updated: Jun 19, 2021
"In your life's defining moments there are two choices - you either step forward in faith and power or you step backward into fear."
When I was eighteen, I wanted to fly helicopters and train as a police dog handler. The problem was that back then women were not really seen in either roles in Europe. So three years later, I packed my things, got onto a plane and flew to the US (after a stint in South Korea, waiting for my visa) to become a helicopter pilot. Dogs always played a big role in my life BUT the handling part happened a lot of years, trials and tribulations as well as a lot of laughter, sweat and tears later. August 2015 Clare and I met the wonderful German shepherd Sammy (she retired earlier this year) and her handler. That was the first time I witnessed the amazing bond between a handler and his dog. We filmed these two and their work on a reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It was getting cold and uncomfortable in the veld, but we followed Sammy around whenever and wherever we could. We walked with white rhino, saw elephants in the mist and played in the hills while the sun was setting in fifty shades of red. March 2016 In Kenya, I was getting the first glimpses of different working dog breeds untilizsed in the world of anti poaching - and I was loving it. My favorites were the blood hounds with their humongous noses and no respect for personal space, their slobbering kisses and excited howls, followed by the "tiger" dogs- mixes between Dutch shepherd and Malinois, that cold not contain their happiness when put to task. I felt the yearning of being part of something so exhilarating return right after I had played "poacher", running through the great planes surrounding Mount Kenya, trying to find a bush to hide behind. Of course I was found a few minutes later although I had zigzagged crazily and I was licked to death by a massive and very friendly hound. Then in June of the same year, I was invited to the South African training center for military and counter poaching working dogs- at that time Kruger National Park sourced their pooches from there. I fell in love with one of their pups, a very playful and happy Malinois we ended up naming Hyena - he had the teeth and black spots to back it. Today he is successfully catching poachers in Botswana. After that, I was flying to Mali to walk in the footsteps of the legendary desert elephants with Chengeta Wildlife. That was right before Rory decided to start using detection dogs so I was part of some very lively discussions on why utilizing dogs could be a game changer. After meeting my then soon to be husband and many adventures in-between- from filming the Kruger bloodhounds and their trainers, to getting chased by dogs through the bush and ending up raising funds for them- we decided to add a Malinois to our little family- her name is Belle, she accompanied us almost everywhere; she was tiny but still growled at rhinos, walked patrol with us and was being my very busy assistant when I was photographing or filming, usually barking, yipping or photobombing. Today she is living with my ex parents in law, close to Kruger and might be moving to the Cape this year. The divorce I went through a a couple of years later, was so draining and nerve wrecking (I guess most of these things are) that I really did not feel like fighting over our dog as she was happy where she was and had been growing up with the boerbol the parents had bought just a few months before we gave Belle a home. I felt it would be cruel to rip her out of the familiar. This is how I lost the first dog I ever owned and raised. In March 2019 I was allowed to photograph the Black Mambas, an all female anti poaching community project- a couple of the ladies were working with patrol dogs to protect baby rhinos in the Hoedspruit Endangered Species center. I got to meet the dogs and one of their grey clients- Esme a very curious individual. She would see us and immediately head towards the bakkie, ears up and squeaking. When she saw my camera, she decided to crowd me gently and nose me, my camera and my hair. A moment of smiles and light hearts, I will cherish forever. I did not know then (but had a premonition), that a few months later my world would be turned upside down and inside out. 2020 Out of the blue, shortly before I flew to Malawi, I was offered to train as a dog handler if I would photograph the entire course for the company. This happened at the end of the probably worst and most painful year in my life. After all the heartbreak, travels and hiding away, this was a welcome change. I made my way back to South Africa, spent a week in Capetown with friends and then flew to Northwest province, ready for a new beginning. Little did I know that I would end up with a puppy and a dream coming true. That little puppy was not only my salvation but also grew into a handsome, overprotective bodyguard, excited to work every minute of the day (when not busy chewing balls or lying on his back on the bed, paws up, teeth out, snoring) The turbulences of the past few years and all these moments, my defining moments, taught me a thing or two- everything does happen for a reason, even though we might not understand it at the time. Never give up, keep on going, and find the silver linings. We always have a choice. We can let life drag us down or we can let our hopes and dreams shape our future. Because life is held together by choices, one after the other, in all shapes and sizes. Right or wrong does not matter. Life will keep unfolding one way or another and passing us by altogether if we sit still. It won't wait around for us to make a decision. Every path we take will lead us to another choice- and some choices can change everything. Today I am working with the African Park's K9 unit in one of their parks in Congo and I am excited to see where my journey will lead me to- me and my little boy named Skaduwee (afrikaans for Shadow). (photos: bog photography, clare james photography, kimberly wood)