“Obelix… Obelix…”, the bearded man called, in a sweet voice that did not seem to fit his weathered look. We were just below the highest point of the Greek island of Aegina (at a mere 531m), on a level field covered with rocks, shrubs and large green cages adorned with nesting couples of wild Storks.
This was the Hellenic Wildlife Hospital, the region’s oldest rehabilitation center for wildlife. There, we met Yannis, and his incredible stories. A rare character combining vast knowledge, with a wild dose of rugged passion. No doubt a requirement for anyone living with such unusual patients and companions.
“Meet the President”, he added. We approached a pen to discover an enormous wild boar resting lazily. Obelix eyed us curiously, raised his 300 kilos and stuck his head through an opening in the wire enclosure.
Apparently, this was an invitation to be petted. I wasn’t convinced, intimidated by his tusks. They seemed shorter than usual, which Yannis matter-of-factly explained was because Obelix had tried to dig his way through a concrete wall…
This wise giant had an all-too-common story. Someone had kept him as a pet when he was a baby, and brought him to the hospital as he suddenly became “too big”. Habituated to humans, he could no longer be set out into nature. So Yannis adopted him. When there were no visitors, he was allowed to wander the grounds freely, diligently returning to his pen when called.
Obelix is not the only creature that had the luck of landing in this sanctuary. Up to 4500 wild animals are brought here every year. Most of them need treatment. In other European countries, those that cannot be released back into nature after healing – because of permanent damage to their wings, for example – are usually euthanized.
But in Greece, as our host explained, matters are left in the hands of the hospital operators. And here, not even a mouse would be killed intentionally. The unreleasable animals, as they are called, mainly birds like vultures, pelicans, eagles and flamingos, become permanent residents of this unusual shelter.
Whilst they may not be able to fend for their needs on their own, they can still breed, imprint their chicks, and thus help in the reintroduction of their offspring into the wild.
“There was one we called Kalashnikov”, Yannis continued as we strolled along the aviaries. A vulture, brought to the hospital several years ago. She had evidently been used as target practice, by someone with a machine gun. Half-a dozen bullets were nestled in her body, just inches from her vital organs. She survived, and was later released.
We looped back to the beginning, fascinated by Yannis’ dedication. Moved by these birds scrambling around, invalids of sorts, who had been given another chance… And we found ourselves peering again into the inquisitive eyes of Obelix.
But the story wouldn’t be complete without Asterix…
Next to Obelix, a red fox was curled in a ball, raising his head briefly to look at us. Just like his Gallic friend, he had been too habituated to humans. His release and unfortunate fearlessness would signify certain death.
As I watched this unlikely pair, I could not help but think of this little wild haven as a Gallic enclave fighting Roman invasion. And just like in Asterix and Obelix, here too, there was a wise Druid with magic potions. A man inhabited by nature, speaking the language of the Oak tree.
A man who had come to heal. To protect the wild from the Romans, which in this case… are all of us.
And I received this beautiful journey, with its extraordinary characters, as an invitation for us to reach back to our Druid heritage. To plunge again into our deep and immediate connection with the natural world. Listen to the secrets whispered by the oak tree. And speak, once again, the language of the wild.
Photo Credit: Peter Maerky
Nicole Schwab is author of The Heart of the Labyrinth, a young woman’s poetic journey deep into the Andes, and deep into her mind, in search of our lost connection with Mother Earth and the sacred feminine.