After we dropped our bags at the lodge, one of the first things we did is visit the cheetah. At the time of our visit, the Savannah had 14 cheetah living in about eight gigantic enclosures. There were four older adults, Penny, Mufasa, Savimbi, and most appropriately, Savannah. And there was an 18 year-old matriarch, Vicky. The "baby" cheetahs were 11 month-old Tess, Ruby, Rommel, Charlie, Matt, Phil. Ah, Phil. It does not sound like a cheetah name to me but with this many cheetahs, it's no minor task to come up with unique names. The most prominent cheetahs were the three 18 month-old outreach cats, Nikita (M), Nala (F), and Jemima (F). These three would become our daily companions.
Since it was the end of
the day, the cheetah had already been ushered into their overnight
enclosure, so Pieter took us directly there with some other tourists.
When we stepped into the enclosure, the cheetah approached us
for some scratching. After petting them for a short while, I sat
on the ground and the big male, Nikita, sauntered over to me.
Not really knowing what he was about to do, I slow blinked him
and he flopped down on my lap! Pieter expressed surprise at that
behavior as he had never observed it before. (I am told Nikita
flopped on Judy Berens lap a couple weeks prior.)
Visiting the cheetah became a regular pastime of ours. Sometimes we would interact with them, sometimes we would just sit among them as they napped. This close interaction allowed us to discover much about cheetah that you can't from books, TV, or even a zoo.
Some things we learned:
· Cheetah lick you and each other to show affection. As expected their tongues are rougher than those of domestics. If they lick your arm, it's barely tolerable. After about ten licks they will catch a bit of your skin with their tongue and scratch you. I suspect if you let them do this long enough, they would get down to your bones. It is best to let them lick your palms. When you scratch them, they like it best when you simulate another cheetah licking by using a similar speed and stroke.
· Cheetah's tails are flat so they can be whipped from side to side. You could learn that in a book. But that the book would not tell you is the first one-third of their tail is round, then most of their tail is flat-actually oval-and the tip of the tail is round again.
· Most people know that cheetah's claws are not retractable. At the Savannah, you'd learn that though the claws might not be retractable, they can be extended further. Also their claws are sort of dull like the rear claws of a domestic cat but not blunt like a dog's. We could examine and manipulate the cheetah's paws when they placed their paws on us. They did not tolerate having their paws touched at other times.
· Cheetah are extremely lazy. I brought a video camera but it was a challenge to see the cheetah in action. Even when they want to change sides while sleeping, they won't get up to reposition themselves. They just roll over.
· Cheetah aren't very vocal but they will chirp at perceived prey. The youngsters chirped at each other while at play and to get our attention for scratches.
· It doesn't take much to get a cheetah to purr. Just a kind word or a scratch will do it.
· Cheetah like to play with balls but they tire easily. After just a few minutes of running, they flop on their sides panting. After cheetahs kill in the wild, they do the same thing.
Why the breeding success at the Savannah? I don't have many details, as the recipe for the cheetah breeding success understandably is something the Savannah Cheetah Foundation keeps to themselves. I think a significant key is Pieter's background. He was born on a farm. He grew up on a farm. He worked on a farm. And he was farming when Bobby Hartslief hired him to manage the Savannah. You see, Pieter has animal husbandry in his blood. After being around it all his life, he just knows how to breed and successfully raise any animal. This expertise somehow transfers to the cheetah.
Another important component is Pieter's wife, Estelle. She gives the baby cheetah almost 24 hour interaction. In fact Pieter and Estelle have built a special apartment connected with the cheetah compound so they can give young cheetah intense care and socialization.
Estelle also oversees the lodge staff. The staff consists of three ladies from the nearby town of Parys. The staff performs all the chores one would expect in a hotel. The meals were delicious and varied, though one recurring item at the breakfasts were a toast somewhat reminiscent of a grilled cheese sandwich smashed flat. Mmmm.
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