Thursday, January 21, 2010

cheetahs and more cheetahs

It's been a couple of days of cheetahs, cheetahs, cheetahs. First, we had a sick one that had to be transported to the vet in Windhoek (our vet gets back tomorrow, thank goodness). It had some kind of intestinal problem that is being fixed, and he'll be fine. He comes home Saturday. Then a farmer found and trapped a cheetah on his farm and brought it here. It's being treated for worms and will also be fine eventually and released with some of our cheetahs.

Next, in the wild cheetah enclosure--a HUGE space that holds 28 cheetahs who were caught by farmers and so are very wild--there were 3 missing. We feed them every day, and we count them as they take their slab of meat. For several days we were short three of them, so Frikkie (the volunteer director) decided we must find them in case there's something wrong with them. Many of them are very old, though, for cheetahs, so the probability of death by old age was high.

Just a couple of words on cheetahs: they are incredible beautiful creatures, but they're also very delicate and endangered. Genetically they are all so similar that they've developed a lot of problems. Some quick stats: Only about 10% of cheetahs in the wild make it to adulthood. The ones who do only live 3-5 years. But in captivity, they can live twenty years or even more. The problem is that they don't usually reproduce in captivity (although some at Harnas have). So every cheetah counts.

I asked Frikkie if I could help with the search since I knew that the more people the better. So we spread out along one fence--about 20 of us--and walked through the bush about ten meters apart, checking for sick or wounded cats. We each took only a small stick and an attitude of authority. With twenty-something healthy wild cats, we were always running into them. Fortunately, cheetahs can be dominated pretty easily. You just have to look them in the eye and speak harshly to them and point the stick. They'll hiss and act like they're going to attack, but if you don't back down, they'll run away.

It took about two hours to cover the enclosure and we found three carcasses. It seems they all died, probably of old age. We also saw lots of interesting insects (not my favorite) and a couple of snakes. Every plant in Africa, it seems, has thorns, so our legs and arms were all pricked and bleeding as if we had been attacked by pins. But it was work that felt good--does that make sense? Real. Physical. Goal-oriented. It reminded me of what it means to be a volunteer here, as I was back in Feb of 2007. Hard and dirty work. But it's satisfying.

Then this morning I asked Frikkie if there was anything I could do to help. He smiled at me and said, "Yes I have a big job for you. I want you to take the five tame cheetahs for a walk. If no one takes them, they sit around all day under trees, and cheetahs need exercise."

"Ah. What a difficult job. Walking with beautiful, tame, and loving cheetahs." I accepted the "job" and walked about 1/2 mile to their enclosure. I called to them and they all came running (they probably thought I had meat). But even when they knew it was just me with no food, they followed me. We walked for about an hour through the bush. I kept calling "Come cheetahs! Come , come, come!' And amazingly enough, they followed me!

Every once in a while I'd stop and wait for them to catch up to me and we'd have a little love-fest. They'd purr while I'd pet them. It was heavenly. They are the most astounding creatures. I took a short video of them as they came to explore my camera. They're curious just like little house cats. Listen for their purrs.


  1. Barb, I am enjoying your blog so much! I love it! Just a stick and an attitude of authority! This is wonderful and I can't wait till the book comes out.

  2. oh how delightful to WALK with "the big 5": Afram, Lueki, Jeanie, Shingela and Nikita - we have been at least 12 times at Harnas and Frikkie never ever asked us, what a shame!
    Instead we were requested to brush them or to look for tigs and limpets or so - next time we know that there is a better job to do!!! Cornelia+Willi

  3. SO.COOL.
    Courtney said it best.

  4. Barb: I just found this site. Amazing. What an experience....Walser