Audrey has been obsessed with cheetahs for over two years, since learning they’re the fastest land animals on the planet. She has watched every movie (like African Cats), seen every tv show (like Wild Kratts and Wild Kingdom, who even knew that was still on?) and read every book we could find on cheetahs.
The only request she has had since we started planning this trip was to see a cheetah. And as the trip got closer, her obsession grew. She went as a cheetah for Halloween. She had a cheetah themed sixth birthday party.
Seeing a cheetah in the wild these days is a pretty rare thing. But given that she isn’t likely to get the other great wishes she has right now (a treehouse, a sibling, or a unicorn) we put ourselves to the task.
I found the Cheetah Outreach Center, which is a great program working to preserve cheetahs by educating two key groups: school children and ranchers. They have a breeding facility where cheetahs are raised with an eye toward genetic diversity and maintaining DNA in case cheetahs become extinct in the wild. The cheetahs that stay at the center educate school children about cheetahs and increase awareness of the importance of saving South Africa’s native species. Hard to change the minds and ways of the current generations but we can raise future generations of preservationists.
The other thing they do is super cool. They raise and breed Anatolian Shepherds, which are amazing and huge dogs originally from Turkey. We learned about Anatolians when Nikita was young because we kept getting asked if she was one. Anatolians have a nearly unparalleled ability to protect livestock from predators like cheetahs without having to kill the predators, and then the ranchers can rely on the dogs to protect the herd and stop poisoning and shooting cheetahs.
Ranchers can be hard to convince. So the center gives them a young Anatolian that grows up with the herd (they have to bond with them early or it doesn’t work) and the center pays for the food and care of the dog for the first year. After that, (hopefully once the rancher is won over) if the rancher wants to keep the dog they take over the care of it and must promise not to use poison on any wildlife around their ranch (which impacts not just cheetahs, but servals, jackals, bat-eared fox and other local predators).
We went to the cheetah center, and Audrey it her dream fulfilled to pet a seven month old cheetah cub. They sleep about 20 hours a day so are very, very lethargic during visits. Audrey was most surprised that the fur was more course than soft. We also got to pet Massif, the biggest Anatolian in the place. I did not get my wish fulfilled to being an Anatolian puppy home.
I’d put off this post a few days in hopes that the end would be getting to see a cheetah in the wild on our last safari in a game reserve that has a few cheetah on the premises but we (just barely) missed out. But that’s another post.