Big Cats

Day 618 – 8 November, 2016

**Disturbing images – not for children or those with weak stomachs!**

Whether or not I’ve previously mentioned it in this blog, I have made no secret to people that know me that my favorite animal is the African Cheetah. Able to run up to 60mph, they are the fastest animal on earth, but also listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable in the wild. The cheetahs are what brought me to N/a’an ku se. The most I could have hoped was to admire them from a distance and provide a hand in helping toward their conservation.  

My very first afternoon on our job board, my activity was listed as “Cheetah Time.” Frankly, I didn’t even really care what that meant, but it sounded like exactly what I came for. My group, labeled Kudu, that consisted of Mirijam, Sandra, and Elian, plus another group of four people walked off the farm, through scrub brush and desert, toward a massive natural enclosure. Thin metal fencing with a low power electrical charge enclosed the natural environment of the desert. No concrete barriers, no heavy bars in sight. Without hesitation, Abraham, our leader, unlocked the padlock and ushered us inside. Almost immediately, two majestic cheetahs raised their heads from resting in the shade and approached us purring like a jet engine. They both plopped down right at our feet in the way only a cheetah can collapse its long limbs in one swift movement. Abraham had been less than communicative as to what we were supposed to do now, but following the example of more senior volunteers, we too sat down in the dirt and spent the next two hours rubbing them behind the ears while they slobbered their sand paper tongues up and down our bare arms. It was Wonder and Odyssey, who had been hand-raised since the tender age of 1 day old. Their mother had been diagnosed as diabetic and couldn’t produce the milk needed for their survival, along with their sister, Shiloh. Hand-raised cheetahs grow up with the temperament of a domestic cat, making them very appealing candidates for the illegal pet trade, but sadly any cheetah that has been hand-raised and has become habituated to humans can never be released back into the wild. Kitty was also in the enclosure, but she was more nervous having been rescued at five months old after her mother was struck and killed by a car. Stroking those cheetahs* for nearly two hours, solely because they crave the daily affection, was pure magic and certainly couldn’t be classified as “work.” I was in heaven.

As a general rule, at least one hectare per animal (sometimes more) was allocated to the larger carnivores but even with so much space, they need to be stimulated to activity all the same. With a small motor, we would enter the cheetah enclosure and wind a rope around 4 stakes with a lure attached. The lure was only an old towel so it had probably long lost its value as a toy, but the intention was for the cheetah to chase it. Even though the whole endeavor was contrived and even though the cheetahs didn’t have a ton of interest in chasing a dirty towel, it was good to see them use those legs and get some speed even if in very short bursts.

In addition to so many adult cheetahs (too many for me to count), we also had 7 cubs, all about 6 months old. It is strictly against N/a’an ku se policy and Namibian law to breed captive animals so all of ours had either been fixed, neutered, or implanted with contraceptive devices. Similar to human contraceptive devices, they don’t last forever and need to be replaced on a cyclical basis and sometimes accidents happen. In one case, a wild cheetah was caught on camera traps entering an enclosure with a captive female and 3 months later, boom!….cubs. Obviously not an ideal situation for the cubs who will be hand-raised and remain in captivity for life or for the sanctuary that already has so many animals from more legitimate rescue or rehabilitation situations, but they are innocent cubs after all so no doubt they are a big hit with the volunteers and the opportunity to take these guys on a walk is an absolute highlight.

The cubs are currently all housed together in one enclosure away from the farm so we drove to pick them up in the back of an enclosed buggy. Only six went on the walk, accompanied by six volunteers, a caracal kitten, and a dog, all shoved into the cozy buggy cage for the short drive to the waterhole on the property. Some of the cubs were very relaxed on the drive and some were anxious, darting from one side of the truck to the other to see where we were headed. When we arrived, coaxing the cubs out of the buggy was another chore. The dog was the first one out, followed by caracal, but the cubs just hung back together demonstrating their inherent skittish timid cat nature. The ‘walk’ isn’t so much a walk but a supervised playtime where they can explore their environment outside of the enclosure. Ever so slowly, over the course of the next couple of hours, their confidence grew from hovering in the back of the buggy to climbing trees and wrestling with Misty, the caracal, to all six chasing a full grown wild ostrich off into the bush. Those cubs didn’t have a prayer of catching the ostrich, let alone harming it. If anything, the ostrich could defend itself with a swift kick to the head. But….to see those optimistic young cheetahs scare an adult male ostrich into an alarming run with feathers flapping in the wind…that is something you can only hope to see once in your life. On another walk, a couple weeks later, the cubs noticeably bigger and more mature, they pulled the same stunt stalking and chasing full grown wild giraffes. It was amazing to see their natural instincts take over even though their skills are clumsy at best, but considering their choice of prey, actually quite dangerous to their own well-being.

Feeding the cats (cheetahs, leopards, and a few lions) was a chore kept separate from the affection and enrichment activities. We wouldn’t want any anxious felines to identify human interaction too closely with food. At feeding time, we would drive a buggy around to each of the enclosures usually with a bucket or two of pre-carved horse or donkey parts (unfortunately many were still identifiable like a heart or an entire head). We wouldn’t feed from the buggy itself so that it too would not be associated with food. We would disembark, grab a chunk of meat, and in carefully coordinated order, we would toss it over the fence to a chirping cheetah or a roaring lion. Depending on the residents of the enclosure, there was usually a pecking order. If one animal was more dominant, he or she would get her portion first; otherwise, they would be fed at exactly the same time to minimize conflict behind the fence. Besides the bigs cats, the smaller cats, the caracals, were fed smaller portions from the same supply. You could often see a caracal jumping almost two meters in the air to swipe their fill before it hits the ground! Wild dogs were only fed twice a week where the cats were fed six times a week. Prone to gorging in a single meal, this was not meant out of cruelty, but this pattern is similar to how often they would eat in the wild. The meat usually came from sick or injured animals that couldn’t survive and were to be killed anyway so the carcasses were put to a positive use.

*Throughout Southern Africa, there are countless “sanctuaries” and farms offering similar encounters with cheetahs or other large cats.  Before visiting one of these places, please do your research.  Don’t visit places that have captive breeding programs, abusive to animals in any way, or are run in conjunction with for-profit hunting.  And remember, these are wild animals.  Lions, leopards, and tigers are unpredictable and can turn at any moment.  Cheetahs are more “tame,” but there are very few places with the best interest of the animals in mind.  Do your research!

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