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Elvis and the Judge

“The Judge”, named for his dispassionate stare, was only 6 inches tall with a broken wing when he was rescued and placed under the watchful eye of his caretaker, Elvis, a Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust park ranger. Elvis fed the little vulture cat food and not only did the white-backed vulture, thrive, he “imprinted” on Elvis, and now follows him everywhere, sometimes even hopping into the cafeteria. Mostly, Elvis is a showpiece for visitors who rarely get to be so close to such a large (and beautiful) vulture. Yes, beautiful! He is dressed in haute couture, gorgeous layers of white and brown feathers, a fluffy neck ruff, and small pink head feathers. Most vultures lose their head feathers as they mature because they are scraped off when the bird delves into its natural food, carrion. But Judge still has his head feathers because he has been fed only by humans.

The relationship between Elvis and the Judge is devoted, like a parent and child. At one point the Judge hunched over and started looking around his feet on a wooden railing. Elvis whispered a few indistinguishable words as he leaned closer to the bird, as though telling it a secret, and the Judge, popped up to attention, with military posture, head up, chest out.

I asked Elvis what he enjoyed most about his job. He answered with a genuinely joyful smile, “When the animals get released”. But getting released is not in the cards for the Judge. Because his wing is damaged, Elvis and the Judge will be together for the duration of the bird’s lifespan of up to 20 years.

Note: All across Africa, vulture populations are being decimated through urban development and more recently, by poachers who poison them because they can signal a recent illegal kill.

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Susan Rouillier
Bird Photographer and Painter

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