In which I make a cheetah purr

Today was the day I’d been waiting for for months. There’s a place near Kamanjab where one particular family has set up a cheetah sanctuary and opened it to the public. Nearly all the overland trucks make a stop here, and I’d been waiting impatiently for our turn to come. The family have three tame, full-grown cheetahs as pets, and thirty or so wild ones in two huge fenced areas of bush. They offer a bounty of 2000 Namibian dollars (about CAD$250) for a live cheetah - this stops the farmers from killing them when they raid the livestock.

Now, everybody knows the kind of relationship I have with cats. I love them, they love me, and that means they feel free to show their affection in true feline style, alternating ecstatic purring with wanton bloodshed. I understand and embrace the sentiment and everybody gets along fine. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to be around big cats - over twenty years in fact - but I knew I’d have to modify the approach a little bit.

Cheetahs are the perfect size for a cat, I think. They’re big enough that you don’t need to worry about hurting them, but small enough that you can share space with them without being crushed - unlike a lion or tiger, say. The adult cheetahs are about the size of a big German Shepherd. They’re a lot more muscular up close than you’d think (even taking into consideration the very generous diet of the domestic cheetah).

The three we met were perfectly behaved. They let me pat them as much as I wanted. They like the same things that little cats like - scratches behind the ear and under the chin, and being rubbed on their brows and behind their whiskers. You have to scratch a lot harder to get through their coarse outer fur, but I considered myself well-rewarded by a rumbling deep-chested purr loud enough to make the earth shake.

Sheryl petting a tame cheetah

We only had half an hour with them, but it was a lot of fun. They were very playful, but I didn’t get to play with them - I asked the owner if they played with or without claws, and he said very much with claws. There are limits to the damage I’ll endure in the name of playing with cats, apparently. Who knew? The single exception to the playing-with-claws rule was the dog - a little Jack Russell terrier who the cats had obviously grown up around. He chased his ball and they chased him. It was amazing to watch the instincts and reflexes of a hunting cat up close. Any time the dog started to run they were on him in a heartbeat, going from lying down to flat-out run in a split second. The dog knew he had to stop running if he wanted to stay safe, since he hadn’t a hope of outrunning them. Every time, though, they caught him before he could even stop himself - the time between him noticing them start running and them catching him was too short for his reflexes to stop him. The instinct and the socialization were clearly at war in the cheetahs, though. If the dog didn’t stop running the instant they were on him, the cheetahs got rough. One of them gave him such a thump with her paw that it rolled him over three times and we could hear his little chest echo like a drum. It was a closed paw, at least - no claws. I felt a bit sorry for the little guy - all he wanted to do was chase his ball and three perfect predators wouldn’t let him.

In the early evening we all got to go along and see the wild cheetahs being fed. The place goes through four donkeys a week feeding the thirty or so wild ones. Not all of them show up for the every-second-day feeding, though - often they’re successful hunting for themselves. About half of them turned out this time. I’ve never seen so many cheetahs in one place. It’s a good thing they aren’t territorial, the job is much easier when you can just drive around the grounds collecting a train of cheetahs behind the truck. There were surprisingly few squabbles over the food - I guess they’ve all learned that there’s always enough donkey to go around.

Captive cheetah waiting to be fed

There was one dominant male who came late to the party and snatched someone else’s food - the loser hardly bothered to fight for it and came trotting up to the truck for a replacement afterwards. One other cheetah, for no particular reason that we could see, is hated by all the others. Even before the feeding three of them went after him in a gigantic yowling scuffle which ended with him on his side on the ground, one paw raised, making a crazy chirping noise - obviously the cheetah equivalent of “I surrender”. Even he got his food in the end, though - they all did. The driver was tossing chunks of donkey high into the air and the cats were jumping up for it. He alternated left and right of the truck, and the cheetahs were obviously used to the routine - the ones who hadn’t managed to catch any meat yet ran quickly to the other side to try the next piece. After the adults were all fed the driver went on to the compound where a few young ones had been waiting impatiently. Young cheetahs look absolutely demented - their big eyes and fuzzy faces make them seem adorably savage and wild-eyed. They ate their donkey quite neatly and politely, though. I was a bit too close to the action, unfortunately - my camera lens and I got splattered with donkey blood when the chunk of meat landed in front of me while I as kneeling down to take a picture.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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