Katrine Anker-Nilsson meets South Africa’s most experienced mammal trainer, with a great love for animal behaviour management.
Gabby Harris was fortunate to be raised by a man who simply knew that animals and nature are central to our lives. “My father was a vet,” she says. “My perch was in the bush on his little black suitcase that housed all his veterinary medication, and my view was his comfortable way around animals.
“My mother grew up in a forest in Mpumalanga. She was raised on horseback,” adds Gabby. Growing up near the Kruger Park, hand-rearing kittens, birds and other wild orphans was the order of the household. “My childhood was idyllic – my best friends were always animals.” It makes sense, then, that Gabby always knew she was going to work with animals. “It truly feels like I have been a passenger on a prearranged, coordinated ride.”
After completing her BA at the University of KZN, Gabby began working at Sea World – the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR), in 1990. As a result of growing up looking after rescued critters, she developed skills at hand-rearing penguins in distress, and loved getting to know the rest of the Sea World family. “My folks had developed an inherent love for animals in the way they had raised me. And psychology was a part of my degree – it led to a great love for animal behaviour management.”
15 years later, Gabby got her first horse. “He led me to another mentor, who taught me about horse gentling. I took all the time off from work I could and followed him around the country. We assisted SAPS to train their horses in a more ethical and safe manner. Learning about horses helped me with all other species.”
Other doors opened for a variety of reasons. “I began consulting internationally on wild and domestic animal care. I have been afforded the opportunity to visit incredible places around the world to share my insights – from the Czech Republic to Egypt, Singapore and Hawaii,” says Gabby. “In these exotic spaces I have met amazing people who have taught me so much. Mostly how much I don’t know.”
Along the way Gabby wrote about her experiences, and has had two books published. “The subject matter is largely how we can moderate our own ego to assist us to be better for the animals in our care.”
At SAAMBR, Gabby champions the cause of animal welfare. “We can only exercise good animal welfare if we are clear, objective and loving, and if we put our opinions and egos away. When we know how to engage with animals, we literally begin to see the world differently.”
Gabby is also known in our community for having a special way and connection with dogs. “My second book is a workbook that can be done independently. But I also offer workshops, and do domestic animal consults. These can be problem solving as well as coaching.
“My feelings are that most people project their own fears onto their animals. We all want to be in control — this is when we feel safe. But control is an illusion, the only thing we can control is our reaction. The rest is just our imagination in the way of the potential for amazing relating,” says Gabby.
“My approach is to try and provide people with a safe space to share their fears, and once they have done this, to help them focus on what works rather than what does not work.”
How can we interact better with our dogs?
• Let them be your teacher, rather than think that you know it all.
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