Do you know what I did last summer?

I packed my bags and flew to South Africa to work in a cheetah sanctuary for a month. I made a few discoveries along the way. Firstly, long haul flights are very lonely and stressful on you own especially when you don’t sleep and arrive in a foreign country with a language that, in truth, only resembles English. I had 3 hours to wait between arrival and pickup, which is a long time in what I kept being warned, was a very dangerous airport. Indeed coming off the plane and seeing a desk marked “Firearm and Weapon Check in” did little to disprove this warning.

Nevertheless I sat in arrivals and met a lovely English girl called Emma who was out to do a volunteer project and so we passed the time and she filled me in on South Africa and all of her career aspirations and past experiences before being picked up and leaving me alone again.

I went to my pickup point and met up with 2 other volunteers and the project co-coordinator, Estelle, who drove us back to the centre. I visited in June which was Winter in South Africa . Everything was burnt by the sun making the entire country a dusty brown colour and the constant sunlight meant it was very warm. Grateful that I had packed lots of suncream (I once got sunburned watching fireworks) we drove on. The first thing we saw upon arrival was a large enclosure with two cheetah cubs. No matter who you are or how tired you are you can’t help but go “D’awww” and smile at a cheetah cub. It’s just a reaction.

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D’aww!

There were already volunteers there when we arrived and they greeted us warmly and introduced themselves. I am not good with names and so instantly forgot all of them.

Some 20 hours of travelling I had finally gotten to the Cheetah Centre. “Dump your stuff and come back out and we’ll introduce you to Shaka” was the first request along with a wave in the direction of a cheetah who was eyeing us with considerable suspicion. We came out to find a harness clad Shaka sitting on a table in the enclosure with the volunteers round about and so we joined in, all of us a little shocked that we were this close to a cheetah some 5 minutes after arriving.

Shaka was being trained to be an ambassado,r which means he is on show to the public and people can stroke him and interact with him. However, he was only 11 months old and still a cub. This meant he was not overly keen to sit on a table and be stroked and so we had to train him. One by one we were asked to approach slowly and stroke him whilst Hardus, the animal keeper,  kept him occupied with pieces of meat. After a few people and, several leaps from the table by Shaka, it was my turn. I was a little apprehensive and every sudden movement by Shaka was somewhat alarming. I managed to stroke him for a while which was interesting. Cheetah fur is quite rough and thick I discovered. Not unpleasant but not soft like a cat or dog.

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A quick tour of the centre and introductions to the animals followed. 2 cubs, 6 adult cheetah, 3 servals, 1 caracal and 2 zebra. Again whose names I mostly forgot by the time I was writing my diary that night. All in all in an eventful day and this was before that work really started.

4 Comments on “Do you know what I did last summer?

  1. Interested to know how you feel about wild animals being tamed and habituated to people interaction? Would you support “petting” experiences as opposed to releasing them back into the wild? Just curious…

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    • I’m not keen on taking them from the wild initially. The ones I worked with were born in captivity and there is a long term reintroduction plan. I remember being told that a “tame” animal is the most dangerous of all as they are never truly tamed. Even the “tame” cheetahs would have bitten you without any thought.

      It’s tricky as people need to interact with the animals as there was an educational side to what we were doing and that required them to be used to people. As a general rule I wouldn’t ever want to take a wild animal and tame it in captivity, nor keep it solely for public amusement. I would rather see it in the wild.

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      • Thanks for the comments. There is a lot of debate going on regarding ethical practices when it comes to petting ‘wild’ animals for ‘educational’ purposes. There have been incidences of cheetah attacking tourists such as at Kragga Kama park. Personally I feel we’re not paying respect to natural boundaries when it comes to invading a carnivore’s personal space. Sanctuaries have their place in rehabilitating injured our orphaned cubs, but to me ‘petting’ and interacting with wild creatures goes beyond the pale. We’re seeing concern now that the documentary “Blood Lions” blows the lid off what is happening in the ‘lion business’ and the appalling exploitation of the animals as well as tourists. Makes one think though at where we are going with man’s portrayal of the status ‘wild’.

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