Monday, March 8, 2010
One animal I haven't talked about yet is very close to my heart, Fighter, the semi-wild cheetah youngster. When I got here two months ago, I was told that she had been the only survivor of a group including a mother cheetah and her three cubs. Thus, the name--she's a survivor. She stays in the enclosure closest to the lapa, the one you have to walk through to get to the very tame cheetahs Pride, Cleo, Duma, and Goeters.
But because she's kind of wild and hisses rather than purrs at pretty much everyone, most people choose just to walk through the enclosure, keeping far away from her.
But I took her on as a project. She was only 8 months at that time, still had her extra tufts of hair on her neck and back. It took two weeks for her to stop hissing at me--and occasionally swiping her claws at me. I would go in virtually every day and sit as close to her as possible. When she'd settle down and look uninterested in me, I'd move a little closer. More hissing. I'd wait. When she's settle down again, I'd move a few inches closer. Repeat again and again.
After two weeks I was sitting by her, petting her gently, and talking to her. And although she tolerated me and my stroking, she basically refused to purr. Three times, though, she forgot herself and began a soft purring, but then she seemed to realize she was letting me get too close to her, and she'd stop.
Finally, just 10 days ago, she started trusting me enough to purr--and she's been doing so every day now with me. She doesn't run to me when I enter the enclosure, but when she sees me, she lies down and arranges herself to I can pet her and groom her with my doggie brush. And then the gentle purr.
It was a triumph.
I've found that nothing comes closer to meditation for me than sitting silently with a cheetah. I've tried traditional meditation, but can't seem to do it. I end up making mental grocery lists or trying to remember all the words to "American Pie."
But with a cheetah, the simple motion of stroking their lithe bodies, scratching around the face gently, and focusing on the purr brings me to a place where I completely forget myself. It becomes just the cheetah, the African breeze, and a sense of peace. Fighter finally became part of that for me.
Then this week, I found out that Fighter is going to be moved to one of the outer enclosures with some other semi-wild cheetahs. My twice-a-day visits to her will end, and she will become what she's supposed to be: a strong and independent creature.
Any of you who really know me can figure out how this hit me. I mean, I'm the woman who talks to every squirrel she meets, names the deer in my backyard woods, and takes doggie treats to other people's houses instead of a bottle of wine.
I was devastated. At first I tried every argument I could to convince Schalk and Marieta and Frikkie that Fighter should stay where she is. But a new friend from Norway, Sissel, gently reminded me that this should be about Fighter's best interest, not mine.
I made a mental list of positives for Fighter: (1) She'll be freer. (2) She'll have lots more room to stretch her legs and run. (3) The whole point of Harnas is to release animals if we can.
This is my head talking, but the heart is another matter. In bed the other night, I had a small meltdown. I hadn't realized how much I had bonded with this sweet cheetah until I thought about losing her. I thought she was a project; instead, she was my friend. I cried and Pickles licked away my tears. It wasn't one of my stronger or braver moments here in Africa.
Do you remember watching animal shows in which an animal is saved, rehabilitated, and then set free? Remember the tears in the eyes of the people who send that eagle or lion or dolphin back to the wilderness? They always seemed like such happy and noble tears. But now I know they're not. Instead of feeling noble, I just feel like someone is tearing out a little piece of my heart.
I'm going to Windhoek today, spending the night, and then picking up some German friends--Cornelia and Willi-- from the airport in the morning and bringing them back to Harnas. When I return tomorrow afternoon, Fighter will probably be in her new space, too big to find her easily and becoming more wild by the day. So I went in her enclosure this morning as usual and said my good-byes. I told her she'd have space and some friends (five other cheetahs) and enjoy life as she should. She'll be happier, I said. She purred.
Now I just have to convince myself.