How we met: 'He's so brave. I once saw him climb into a tree to save a black mamba'

Lizzie Cernik

Jenny Botting was working as a receptionist in 2012 while she applied for PhD programmes in animal cognition. “I realised I needed more field research, so I applied to be a volunteer at a monkey research station in the middle of the South African bush.” She left Aberdeen in January 2013, but it was three months before she met Arend Van Blerk, who was volunteering at the same station. “When I arrived, Jenny was away on a holiday,” he says. “She came back on a Saturday night and the volunteers all had a party together. There were about 15 of us living there.” She remembers that he was “handsome and smiled a lot”.

Over the course of the next week, the pair worked hard during the day, following the monkeys around the bush in KwaZulu-Natal and recording their behaviour for the research project. In the evenings, Jenny stayed up late to speak to him. “I was so tired from getting up at 4am for work, but I pretended I wasn’t so I could spend time with Arend,” she says. He felt the same way. “I thought she was really attractive but we also shared a lot of interests. She was silly in a cute way and I really enjoyed talking to her.”

The pair had their first kiss at the volunteers’ Saturday night party a week after they met. They spent the next few months together before Jenny moved back to Scotland to start her PhD at the University of St Andrews. “It was the first time we were going to be apart and it all felt so uncertain,” says Arend. They kept their relationship going long distance and the following April, Jenny got the chance to return to South Africa for field research. “As part of my PhD, I went back every April for the next few years. It meant I could spend more than half the year with Arend doing research there,” she says. During the winters, they spoke on the phone whenever they could.

In September 2016, Jenny was offered a two-year research post in the US at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC. “It was really hard because it meant we had to be apart for longer,” she says. “But it was my dream job.” The couple were used to long-distance love by this point, and travelled together when they got the chance. “The first time I travelled long-haul was to see Jenny in the UK in 2016. One of the things I love about our relationship is that she has opened my eyes to seeing the world,” says Arend. During her time in the States, he went to visit the zoo she was working at. “I got to introduce him to my orangutans and gorillas,” she says. “We are both so passionate about animals and working with them.”

Jenny moved back to South Africa in June 2018 to live with Arend, their cat and three dogs. “We love scuba diving, hiking and taking regular game drives together,” she says. They got engaged in February this year. “I actually proposed on Valentine’s Day in the Cape of Good Hope. We don’t usually celebrate it and I’d actually forgotten it was that day,” laughs Arend. Straight after the proposal they ran into a group of baboons. “It made it extra special, although it might reinforce the fact that our lives seem to revolve around animals,” jokes Jenny. After that she came back to see her family and friends in Windsor. “The pandemic hit while I was here and the South African borders were closed so we are living apart again.” Despite the current challenges, the pair hope to marry “as soon as possible”.

Jenny says she loves Arend’s sense of humour and his kindness towards people and animals. “He’s so brave. I once saw him climb into a tree to save a black mamba. I love how he cares for all animals equally, whether it’s a tiny bug or an elephant.” Arend appreciates his partner’s passion and bravery. “If she sees something bad happening, she’ll always address it,” he says. He also loves their differences. “We’ve grown up in different environments and it’s great to get another perspective. Whatever happens, she can always make me feel better.”