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On 7 June, 2017, a vast and devastating wildfire started near Knysna, one of South Africa’s most beautiful coastal towns.
Nine people lost their lives, more than a thousand homes were either partially or completely destroyed, the cost to the municipality was €33m and the damage to flora and fauna was deemed incalculable.
The days that followed were filled with stories of heart-breaking trauma, loss and confusion…. and one incredible story of a horse who found his way home.
Code Badger (now dubbed Cody the Brave) had survived on his own for 16 days. Badly burnt, emaciated and suffering from infection, he emerged from a blackened plantation just 100 metres from his farm.
Jan Norman interviewed his owner, Karen Rademeyer...
Cody’s story deserves some background. When Karen and her husband bought their farm, it came with a small herd of semi-feral ponies.
A band of thieves, these tough little survivors were selective grazers of a variety of bush vegetation across their wide open camps.
They hadn’t got to properly know humans by the time Karen set about gaining their trust. Four years later they were more socialised and could be handled for tick treatment or hoof trims but still lived out as a happy group of semi-wild ponies.
Our protagonist however was the outsider and not at all fond of attention. Kept at hoof’s length by the rest of the herd, Code Badger was in fact the most difficult to handle.
Karen’s farm was one of the first to be evacuated when the fire threatened to engulf the area. The heat, the speed and voracity of the flames was almost supernatural.
Horse box after horse box arrived to help load horses and move them to safety. Eventually it was time to take dogs and laptops and flee.
However, the pony herd was still there and being driven into hysteria by the smoke, encroaching flames and the inferno-inflamed winds. They had never been boxed and time was running out, so it was decided to let them loose in the nearby plantation where they could gallop away and survive on their own.
It seemed likely that the national road would provide a natural fire break. The traffic was stopped, and the ponies were ushered across and let loose, only too happy to get away from the smoke and the chaos.
In the cruellest twist of nature and just a short time later, the intense winds switched direction fanning the blaze across the highway and into the plantation.
For four interminable days the area was alight. Karen and her family could only hope that the herd had outrun the fire. And then it was the heart-wrenching beginning of the search, 12 4X4s fanned out to scope the area.
Only to find a decimated emptiness and the occasional horns of antelope that had been incinerated in their flight.
It was clear from the prints that an animal had been moving fast but without the services of professional trackers they soon lost the trail. The public support was overwhelming and drones, gliders, small aircraft and helicopters took to the skies in an effort to locate Cody and his family.
Sixteen days later a singed and seemingly blind pony walked out of the scorched forest onto the national highway just 100m from the farm where he had been born and raised. Karen’s phone rang and bleeped and shut down eventually from the volume of incoming calls. She raced home from where she’d been about to start another aerial search.
As she walked up to Cody he looked up and sniffed the air. Fighting a wave of nausea, Karen gently called, “Cody! My boy!”.
Like an academic peering over his reading glasses, he raised his head to the point where through his mucky and infected eye slits, he could just about see her. His human.
There was something triumphant about his attitude. Karen says "It was as if he was saying ‘I made it, I’ve done it!’”. And he possibly had some vision.
The first vet on the scene had said that Cody did not stand a chance and recommended that he be euthanised even before Karen came home.
At first it looked as if he had lost both his eyes and it seemed that all the swelling, infection and burnt tongue had left him unable to eat or drink.
Arriving on the scene Karen was engulfed by weeping supporters and condolences upon Cody’s coming fate.
A second opinion from a vet with a closer insight into the grit of this pony herd and Karen’s commitment and compassion said, “Let’s give him a chance”.
Cody had come this far and his ordeal in coming home meant that he had to be given a shot at life. Once the pain medications kicked into action, he began to graze with gusto. Karen says, “This boy was hungry!”.
He was so happy and walked around nuzzling everyone with an affection that would never have been demonstrated by the old Cody. As Karen says, “a new Cody” had come home.
Tragically the bodies of Cheeky and Bella were found just a few days later. “I was just so grateful that Cody had returned before we found their remains as it gave me something positive to focus on," says Karen.
Codys’ sisters, Mila and Déja Vu are still missing today. Sporadic sets of tracks, their resilience and the vast area that they could have reached all add to the hope that continues for their safe discovery.
Nine months later, Cody’s recovery has been a long slow rollercoaster ride filled with challenges, frustration and inspiration.
His tail had caught fire in his escape from the blaze and seared areas of skin around his upper inner thighs. His eyelids were destroyed but his nictitating membranes are able to compensate.
His sensitive eyes and recovering coat mean that his sunshine time must be limited.
In one of the many stories of incredible kindness, Cody was sent two customised fly masks from America, complete with rigid eye pieces and UV protection. He was at first reluctant to have the mask put on, now he will bite you if you take it off!
With treatments lasting up to six hours a day initially and varying depending on his changing needs, he is well on his way to health; complete with a shiny Thelwell-like behind and the cheekiness to match.
And on cloudy days, Cody gallops across his fields with unbridled joyous abandon.
His astounding story of survival coupled with his tough road to recovery have made him an icon of hope. And he is soon to be the ambassador of a new project, the EDEN Empathy Initiative, that will teach and help pre-teen children in disadvantaged communities.
As Karen says, Cody is the perfect symbol: “A shining example to anyone suffering from trauma - and how one can overcome the odds when you allow people to help you, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it might be in the beginning.”
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Text by Jan Norman