Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Stealthiest Hunter in Africa



Lions mainly catch their prey with sheer strength (and sometimes numbers). Cheetahs depend on their speed. But leopards--ah, leopards--are the stealthiest and most cunning big cat in Africa.

If given the chance, I'd much rather face a wild lion than a wild leopard. Marieta says she "believes in lions" because they always tell you how they're feeling and warn you if you should move away (which you probably should--slowly and without turning your back). You might be able to talk your way out of an encounter with a lion--raising your arms to make yourself bigger, talking to the lion and telling him that you're a human (which isn't very tasty) and not an impala (which is).

But leopards--ah, leopards. You'll never know a leopard is stalking you until you feel its teeth slipping into you neck. If you're lucky, you might have time to admire this sleek predator before you die.

Their main problem facing their existence is that they are TOO beautiful and the pelts are TOO thick and velvety. Selfish women want to wear them as coats--unlike the lion and cheetah, who have pelts that are rather coarse (although this doesn't stop hunters from wanting them as rugs or wall hangings).

Leopards live solitary lives, so nearly all the leopards at Harnas are all in separate enclosures. They only come together for mating in the wild. They hunt at night (which is one reason cheetahs hunt during the day) and they often drag their prey up into a tree so they can eat, leave for awhile, and then return to finish the meal. All in all, they're extremely dangerous--in the wild or in captivity.

But then there's Missy Jo. Missy Jo was raised at Harnas, mainly by a woman from Germany named Ulla--who has been a long time friend and visitor at Harnas. (Ulla, if you're reading this, feel free to make comments or corrections at the end of this blog. I want to get the story straight.) From the beginning, Missy Jo was different. She even slept with Ulla in her bungalow when she was little, a good house guest who didn't pee in the bed but used the shower instead.

Now Missy Jo is in an enclosure in the outer areas of Harnas, and the guests on the tour each day get to see her. Although she might still be tame enough to visit, it's risky so she remains solitary, BUT she is the only leopard who comes to the fence, rubs herself against it, "talks" to the visitors, and begs for a scratching.

A few people, though, can pet her through the fence including Frikkie, Ulla, Willi (one of my German friends that I picked up at the airport this week), and me! (Although I have to say that I'm extremely careful as you can see in the picture at the top of this page.)

Willi, his wife Cornelia, and I went on a long walk yesterday--we actually did the tour route but on foot rather than in the truck. When we got to Missy Jo, she came running when we called, sort of growled her greeting and talked to us in this strange cat language (listen to the video carefully and you can hear her). It was heavenly. I could have stayed there all day and felt that thick, velvet fur.

Ulla--tell us more if you're out there! You have so many stories about her.
video

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