WINGS IN NEED had its origin in mid-1985 when Emsie Mohr found a helpless wild bird and realised, after about 20 phone calls, that there was nowhere where she could take it to be properly attended to. With some advice from a vet at the Pretoria National Zoological Gardens she managed to save the bird and when someone else contacted him with a similar request soon after, he referred the caller to Emsie. More birds came in and she started learning from some dedicated vets in Pretoria as well as from books and articles. What had started off as a trickle became a stream and eventually an avalanche. Since those early days, WINGS IN NEED has been open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. Emsie has literally spent all her time [without any compensation and at the cost of a relatively comfortable life] during the past 27 years caring for sick, injured, poisoned, shot and orphaned wild birds, from tiny Cape White-eyes to Black Eagles.
Emsie had been involved in animal welfare work since 1973, initially serving on the executive committee of the Stellenbosch Animal Welfare Society. During those years there was a huge problem with stray cats in and on the farms around Stellenbosch, as well as the problem of the AWS not having proper and sufficient facilities for housing the cats. Working together with Mary Cameron, the honorary secretary for the Society, literally hundreds of hours were spent on addressing these problems and even housing some of these animals in her home until homes for them could be found. The Mohrs had had a taste of the thankless, unglamorous, time-consuming and heartbreaking world of animal welfare.
Moving to Pretoria, where her husband Philip, who had been a lecturer in Economics at the University of Stellenbosch, started a new job in the then Office of the Prime Minister, writing speeches on the economic issues of the day for various dignitaries, Emsie was looking forward to, one might say, a bit more of a selfish, normal lifestyle. She had been deeply interested in the theological aspects of Man’s relationship with nature and, wishing to do her master’s degree in Psychology on the interaction between humans and animals, she started helping Dorothy Bernstein with her work at the Pretoria SPCA. Every Tuesday morning one or more groups of disabled children would be brought by their teachers to the premises of the SPCA – autistic, epileptic, mentally retarded, blind, deaf or hard of hearing, Carefully worked out lessons based on caring for and respecting animals would be given, and the children would then be allowed to touch and interact with the animals. These classes proved to be highly beneficial to the children. One teacher, for instance, witnessed a breakthrough when an autistic child was helped to overcome his fear of touching things: after a lot of coaxing he managed to touch a kitten. During these years she started a correspondence with the Dutch theologian Hans Bouma and also visited him in Utrecht: she had at last found the perfect soul mate. Bouma, already an honoured and established defender of animals via his more than a hundred books and booklets ranging from poetry books to scathing attacks on the cruelty to animals in the bio-industry, would eventually inspire her to write articles that appeared in church magazines like “Die Voorligter”. Ironically, at this time, the children of an elder and a deacon living up the road from her were having a good time shooting birds, and when she begged the parents to do something about it, she was ridiculed. “Children”, she was told by the elder’s wife, “shoot!”
This incident only fuelled her desire to delve deeper into the possible reasons why seemingly religious people could be so indifferent towards the fate of animals. Had the elder’s wife been raised in the atmosphere of a less anthropocentric theology, would she not have later praised, rather than scolded Emsie? Six months later, reflecting Bouma's viewpoints and adding many of her own in a document entitled "The Man-Nature Relationship and the Educator", she took on 20 of the country's top theologians and leaders in the field of education, asking them for their criticism. Not only was the document received most favourably, but soon she was invited by the VCHO (a body dedicated to Christian education) to serve on their panel of speakers. Talks were given at schools, old age homes, churches. And, best of all, articles written by some of the very theologians she had set out to "convert" soon started to appear. One theologian invited her to write an article in a newspaper (it appeared in Beeld on page 21 on 8 June 1983) on which he reacted most favourably. But by the time that she was busy with animal therapy on disabled children, she realised that, while it was urgently necessary to preach respect and responsibility towards nature, it was even more important to put it all into practice. It was not easy to sacrifice personal plans and comfort, but after finding - in 1985 - no reliable care service for injured wild birds, she started helping - with the professional help of her vet - those birds that she had picked up herself. Initially, the birds were mainly referred to her by the SPCA, but as the centre became more well-known many people started contacting her directly or were referred to her by friends and acquaintances.
By the early 1990s the birds had virtually taken over the whole household and in 1994 her husband, Philip, used his savings and borrowed money against his mortgage bond to build and equip a proper hospital for wild birds. This was no ordinary little building: an architect who had been most impressed with the kind of help he found there on a Christmas Day at lunchtime had offered his help in designing the hospital. One of the special features was the custom made aluminium windows that slide away from the fixed outer sieve windows in order to allow natural sunlight, which is necessary for healing, to enter the hospital. By this time, thousands of patients, including many referred by other centres (that didn’t want to take them in), were being received annually, phone calls were coming in from all over the country and five workers had to be employed to cope with the workload. The dedicated help of a number of avian vets, especially Dr Jacobs of Val de Grace Animal Clinic, combined with the efforts of a woman driven by much more than the urgent need for such a centre, have, through the years, undoubtedly added to the willingness of people to go to great lengths to bring birds in distress to the centre, often from far afield. In recent years, for example, birds were received from Beaufort West to the south, Orkney and Vryburg to the west, Pietersburg to the north and Komatipoort to the east. A call for help has even been received, via a relative living in Pretoria, from Abu Dhabi! Apart from providing a 365-day, 24-hour service (in the absolute sense of the word), the way in which visitors have been treated and the success rate achieved over the years resulted in more than 70 avian vets in and around Pretoria (including all the avian specialists), as well as organisations like SPCA's, referring callers directly to Wings in Need.
No outsider can really appreciate what it requires, physically, psychologically and financially, to keep a centre like Wings in Need going for 24 hours a day year in and year out. Moreover, in wildlife rehabilitation, as in many other spheres of life, things are not always what they seem. For example, a number of high-profile participants appeared to be driven by financial and/or egotistical motives, rather than by a genuine concern for animals or rehabilitation and tend to go to great lengths to discredit any person or organisation perceived to be a threat to their status or sources of finance. Some even went so far as to create or use fictitious but very officially-sounding "Councils" to further their aims. Cases in point are the National Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and the Gauteng Wildlife Rehabilitation council (see "The Mystery of the Rehabilitation Councils"). When these participants and their "Councils" targeted Wings in Need as well, Philip decided that such backstabbing, slandering and politicking represented the final straw and decided, towards the end of 1999, to close Wings in Need. The closure was announced in all the local newspapers and the staff were paid retrenchment packages. However, he immediately had to re-hire most of them, since there was apparently no alternative to the service provided by Wings in Need. When the high-profile centres had to perform - when there was no longer a Wings in Need to which most cases could be referred - they simply couldn't.
Today 27 years later, having inspired many and taught a few others, Emsie has been able to scale down, while still taking in emergencies, she is now dedicating her time and energy to answering calls from far and wide personally, rendering help to callers urgently needing on the spot advice.