cheetah

Images from Varying States of Work in the South African Bush, or Yes, I Really Do Live in South Africa

I know; this is big. Two posts in one week. The world must be ending. So since I couldn’t include a picture with my last post, I thought I’d compile some silly pictures of me doing what I do best in the middle of the wilds of South Africa – which is look like an idiot. Between showering outside fully clothed because it was the only clean water available, and shoveling cheetah poo when the cats were focused on their morning meal, I certainly haven’t lacked in the ‘glamourous’ side of life out here. This post is specifically for the people convinced I don’t actually live in South Africa, and that what I really do is imagine these situations, cull images from the Internet that fit my tall tales and post it all as my own adventure, hoping no one ever notices. Well, though I prefer to keep pictures of myself to a minimum when there are much better things to look at here, I thought maybe it was time I revealed a little bit more of me to you. Which doesn’t sound right. Anyway, here is a gallery of me in various locations and doing various tasks. These are all family-friendly photos, I promise. There was also a video of me feeding goslings (no, not Ryan, sadly), but the file was too big and reducing it is currently well beyond my technological capacity and Internet bandwidth. Maybe someday you’ll get to see me doing my best Mother Goose impression. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Categories: Africa, American, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Education, Elephant, Expat, Lion, Rhino, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The reality behind a lodge and reserve that calls itself a conservation and rehabilitation center

I took a job as a cheetah caretaker in what I was told was a cheetah rehabilitation center.  I was supposed to be helping them set up a breeding program with the intent to introduce new cheetah to the wild in an effort to increase their ever- dwindling numbers outside of captivity.  I was also supposed to monitor the collared cheetah, which were supposed to be released into the reserve.  I did none of that.  I walked cheetahs on a leash, foisted them upon guests as they ate their breakfast and lunch on the lodge’s lawn, and essentially put on a cheetah show.  This was not what I came to do.

I loved the cats.  There were five ‘tame’ ones kept in what the lodge refers to as ‘captivity’.  There were ten other cheetah, two of which were also kept in small enclosures, but they were at least away from the lodge.  The ‘captive’ cheetah were kept so close to the lodge and its guests, they could practically dive in the lodge’s swimming pool from their enclosure.  They were also living in non-ideal conditions.  Among other problems, the lodge facilities for everyone but the guests (and sometimes even for the guests as well) often don’t have water, so the cats’ enclosures don’t get hosed down as they should.  Ever.  In fact, cheetah poo is barely cleaned up at all because of the lack of water or sanitization equipment.  We were even asked to dilute down any cleaning products to make them go as far as possible because the owners apparently felt they were spending too much money to buy the stuff.  We were barely using the disinfectants and such at ALL, given that we didn’t have the right conditions to use them properly (eg., a way to scrub with them and then hose it all down – hard to do all that without water), so I can’t quite make out HOW, exactly, we were abusing the disinfectant.

In terms of HOW the cheetah were living, even the worst zoos in the world would be disgusted.  Two adult pairs of brother and sister lived together; each pair had its own enclosure.  Siblings of opposite gender should be separated by the time they are two years old.  These pairs were 3 and 6 years old.  Well past their separation due date.  And the males were starting to try and mate with their sisters.  Last I checked, this was not only bad for a population of animals with bad enough genetic diversity as to render every cheetah on earth virtually a twin of every other one, but bad for the concept of conservation and rehabilitation in general.  If they succeed in mating, the lodge will have succeeded in breeding a genetic disaster, possibly with two heads and five paws.  Maybe that’s the goal? After all, a genetically mutated cat might bring in more money for the owners, and money, I’ve found, is the ONLY thing this place was about.  Bring on the circus act.  I mean, it’s clear that’s what they’re going for here anyway.

Two of the cheetahs were purchased from a breeder who had supposedly been keeping them in bathtubs and toilets.  I can’t really tell you the real story, since I got about twelve different versions, including one from the proclaimed other cheetah ‘expert’ – who had been here when the cats arrived – and a totally different one from the owner, who bought the cats.  NOTE: If you were really interested in conservation, buying animals from that type of unethical breeder is the LAST thing you do.  You don’t GIVE MONEY to people who breed animals illegally and/or unethically.  In fact, you don’t BUY animals at all.  It is the antithesis on conservation.  Please keep that in mind when you buy animals from pet shops, and do serious research on your breeders as well.

Two of the cheetahs were born on the reserve and then taken into captivity under the premise that the owner wanted to perform surgery on the male, who was born with a leg deformity.  However, they didn’t bring the mother, and they never released the male and his sister back to her either.  They kept the siblings in their tiny enclosure.  THIS is conservation and rehabilitation?

Another cheetah died because she ate an employee’s Croc.  Another was kept in a tiny, windowless closet for two months because there was no place to keep her while she recovered from a broken leg (suspiciously, no one seems to know how she broke it).  The lodge has no appropriate place for injured animals.  Yet they call themselves a rehabilitation center.  And they have no vet on site.  And the vet they DO use (as apparently the local wildlife vets are subpar in their book) lives in Hoedspruit, which is a several hour FLIGHT away.

The caretakers before me had no experience working with cheetah.  The person who set up the program had no experience working with cheetah, nor did she have any expertise with rehabilitation and conservation.  There was no program in place.  I actually put one together while I was there, though I’m pretty positive they never actually enacted it, since they never listened to me about anything with the cats anyway.  They said it was okay to feed them mangy, mangled rabbits they bought and did not care for in the slightest.  It was the head ranger and I who decided to set up a rabbit breeding facility so that we could breed healthy rabbits for the cats.  That fell apart after he and I resigned.  Nobody cared.

When there were no rabbits, the cats were fed bad organs from a butcher, which often had to be thawed and then refrozen because there wasn’t a working refrigerator available to keep the meat in.  There was only a deep freeze available.  There was a time when I was told to cut up a horse that had died a few days prior and had already started to decompose.  The organs had been left in the sun for a good day before they even got to me.  It was rancid and already crawling with maggots.  But I was assured the meat was fine and ‘fresh.’  Seriously.

Cheetahs are not like a lot of other predators – they aren’t big on carrion.  I don’t blame them.  The meat they were often fed was either freezer burned or past its expiration date.  There would be days when the cats only got just animal hearts or just animal livers, which is horribly unhealthy for them.   The cats were constantly suffering from diarrhea.  Often I would find vomit in their enclosures as well.  Like the poo, couldn’t clean that up without water.  It just sat and baked in the sun, eventually becoming part of the ‘furniture’.

The ‘wild’ cheetahs also live in a form of captivity.  Each day, they were lured to a part of their enclosure equipped with a protected viewing stand for lodge guests ‘on safari’.  The cats were taunted with a tasseled object tied to the end of a string.  A guide pushes a button and the lure gets yanked down what is essentially a cheetah runway, enticing the animals to run after it and put on a show for the guests.  Oooh!  See the cheetah run!  See it get thrown an old, desiccated and sickly chicken for its efforts.  Guests were told that this ‘run’ is supposed to induce the females to go into estrus so they can then breed.  While cheetahs do in fact need to hunt and (the females at least) need to drive up their temperatures for mating (the males, however, shouldn’t run, as it burns up their sperm), only two of the cheetah run (always the same two), and they were all essentially too old to breed now anyway.  Several of the cheetahs were ten years old, well past their sell-by date for ideal breeding purposes.  As far as I know, this is all simply a gimmick to get people to pay to come here.  While two of the cheetahs had tracking collars, no one is tracking them, and there were no plans for the lodge to release them in the larger reserve.  In fact, until I showed up, no one employed by the lodge even knew HOW to use the equipment to track the animals.  The collars had been on for so long already, the batteries in them were most likely flat, meaning the entire collar had to be replaced.  The reality was, though no one would admit it, the collars were all for show. Those cats weren’t going anywhere.

The ‘wild’ cheetahs did not live within the main reserve.  They lived in a small enclosure WITHIN the main reserve, their own separate area that, while larger than the pens back at the lodge, was wayyyy too small to house 7 cheetah.  And like their ‘captive’ counterparts, the group consisted of a mix of males and females.

A few facts about cheetahs – the females are mainly solitary, except when they have cubs, or are looking for a mate.  They actively seek out the males for mating, and choose which one they want.  Not the other way around.  In fact, if you introduce a female cheetah to a male cheetah and she doesn’t like him, she may beat him up.

Males, on the other hand, will often stick with the brothers from birth, living in a form of coalition.  Sometimes another solitary male will join their group, but regardless, usually before they reach their second birthday, cheetah siblings of opposite genders have gone their separate ways.

Now, these ‘wild’ cheetah, because of their abnormal social dynamic with males and females being kept together too long, developed a super coalition and have actually attacked people.  Cheetahs don’t normally do that.  Cheetahs were usually afraid of their own shadow.  They were the low man on the totem pole of cats, lacking the strength to defend their kills and cubs from other, larger predators like lions and hyenas (and even wild dogs have been known to kill cubs).  As such, rather than defend, they were more apt to flee.  And as far as humans go, they would rather bolt than take the chance for injury or worse, death.  So the fact that these cheetahs attack people says something is not right in Kansas.  Or shall I say the Karoo?

Two of the captive cheetah also had a habit of attacking their handlers, with one cheetah in particular being a bad seed.  He even looks like a shady character, which is ironic, since that’s his name.  I had the pleasure of having his tooth through my pinky finger once.  I felt sorry for him, as well as the other cats, and the rest of the animals on this reserve.  Because of poor regulation within the conservation industry and within the sale of exotic animals, this lodge can continue to lie to guests and pretend they were practicing conservation, when in fact all they were doing is lining the pockets of the owners at the expense of the employees and their exotic ‘pets’.  I resigned after a month.  Oh, and by the way, the lodge still refuses to pay my medical bills from problems with my hand that are a direct result of the bite.  High-class establishment, right?

Places like this should not exist, and it bothers me to no end that there are so many writers out there who, instead of doing do diligence and getting the facts on a place, prefer to be lazy, pampered and essentially bribed and blinded rather than uncovering the reality.  By writing good reviews about a place without doing the homework to find out if the place really is what it says it is, a writer is then complicit in the disgusting things that go on in such a place.  Non-fiction writers have a responsibility to provide the truth.  Writers who praise this place for its ‘work’ are neglecting their responsibility.  And they are contributing to the problem.  The guests are no better.

I plan to report them to the Labour Department.  Another employee reported them to the SPCA.  Hopefully someone will actually make the effort and close the place down, though given how rife this country is with bribery and corruption, I sadly don’t have high hopes.

The lodge just bought two baby rhino that they say they are going to release into the reserve, but I just saw a picture of a guest playing with them.  Um, really?  Here’s a species that is being wiped out by man.  Why, then, if you are truly a conservation center, would you HABITUATE THESE ANIMALS TO PEOPLE?!?  What, so when a poacher shows up, he can walk right up to the rhino and lead it off the reserve with a carrot?  Clearly this is yet another example of animals that will be kept in captivity perpetually under the guise of ‘conservation’ and ‘rehabilitation’, but while actually being used to make money for the owners at the expense of the wildlife.  Sickening, seriously sickening.

By the way, this place advertises itself as Big 5 and has been doing so for months, if not years.  The Big 5 includes the following: elephant, black rhino (NOT white), leopard, lion, and buffalo.  This reserve has NO black rhino (thankfully), they didn’t have elephant AT ALL until a few months ago (and those elephant showed up WELL AFTER they were advertising the reserve as Big 5), the lions they DO have are in a small, separate reserve and are so overfed, they look like hippos that were shoved into lion skin, and no one I’ve spoken to has EVER seen a leopard on the property.  And I asked people who’d been working there for YEARS.  Big 5, my ass.

It took every ounce of restraint I possessed to keep from leaving the cheetah enclosure doors open the day I left.

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, Education, Habituation, Karoo, legislation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Cats (Cheetah in Particular) Find Interesting

Two male cheetahs sitting watchful and alert

Two male cheetah sitting pretty as they scan the neighborhood for prey and pretty lady cheetah

I sat (and I mean sat) in the freezing cold wind with a cheetah for three hours the other day.  During that time, we spent at least a half hour each devoted to staring at the following – springbok, donkeys, cars, and random people WAYYYYYY in the distance.  None of these creatures/items were within striking distance of the cat, nor did she make a move to get any closer to them. But apparently that doesn’t matter. It was like the cat had DSTV and was just switching channels between kitty NASCAR, the Discovery Channel, Farmer’s Weekly, and E!  She didn’t move in three hours. Just turned her head slightly in four directions to take in her four different shows. I was less than amused, and kept myself entertained by drawing pictures in the hard dirt. Then I practiced throwing stones.  No, not at the cat.

When she did eventually move her feline butt, she walked up to me, nuzzled me under the chin and waited for me to give her some belly and behind-the-ear rubs before finally sauntering back to her enclosure. That was my afternoon. I sat throwing rocks, sketching masterpieces in dirt that by tomorrow will have blown away, and occasionally watching her TV shows with her.

The cheetah isn’t much of a conversationalist, to say the least. And their interest level seems pretty much contained to moving objects of any kind, particularly if tied to a colourful string. Watching them follow me blindly as they swat at a plastic bottle filled with rocks and tied to a string sort of diminishes their exotic allure a bit. All in all, not very much different from your common house cat.  Just a bit bigger and spottier, honestly.

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, rehabilitation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Cool facts about cheetah and why I haven’t been writing about them

Ok, I know I’m remiss in keeping up on the posts here. I have plenty of excuses, including things like living in a place where I have to get internet vouchers to actually log on, and often there aren’t any available. Or even better, not having electricity. I really thought when I changed jobs that I would no longer have to deal with the lack of electricity problem. However, it seems to follow me like a fruit fly follows a moldy peach. If water had anything to do with internet access, I could use that as an excuse as well, since in the month since I’ve been at the new gig, I haven’t had water for half of it, and when I have, half that time it hasn’t been hot, or even remotely warm. But that doesn’t affect my internet, except to make me smelly when I’m typing.

Other than that, the only thing that has made keeping the blog updated difficult is the fact that a cheetah had its tooth through my finger, crushing my knuckle and severing a nerve.  I had no idea how valuable a pinky finger was until this point. Plus the injury affected the whole hand for a good week, owing to the massive amount of swelling, and the dew claw holes and infections on my forearm. Cheetah bites are dirty, but cheetah dew claws are even worse, a true cesspool of bacteria and evil monsters of infection. Luckily, my arm has survived, and my hand is healing, albeit slowly.

Sadly, the hand that got bitten was my right hand, and I’m right-handed.  Heavily right-handed. That made doing just about anything a challenge. But it’s amazing what your secondary hand is capable of when necessary. I have to give props to left hand for stepping in and not only doing right hand’s work but doing the work of TWO hands since righty was incapacitated for quite a while.

Anyway, enough excuses. On to some cool facts.

I had no idea that cheetah are the oldest of the big cats, and in fact originated in North America. As such, the North American pronghorn antelope, the cheetah‘s main prey, evolved to be the fastest antelope in the world. Then an ice age swept through about 12,000 years ago and wiped the cheetah out in North America and Europe, bottlenecking the species into Africa and Asia. It seems the pronghorn hasn’t realized the cheetah isn’t still chasing it, as it apparently hasn’t slowed its roll.

Cheetahs are also separated from the other big cats for a variety of reasons, one of which is their inability to roar like lions, tigers, and leopards. Cheetah chirp like little birds, one of many elements making them appear a little less formidable than their feline friends.  However, even though they often sound like little chew toys when they communicate, they’ve evolved a serious jaw for gripping, so if they do bite, they make it count. I learned about that personally when the cheetah that attached itself to my hand refused to let go. I could swear I even heard the jaw lock in place.

Having your hand in another animal’s mouth when said animal’s intent is not to play is a sobering experience, truly. Even though I could, in theory, toss a cheetah on its back (they don’t get much bigger than 65 kg, and that’s a BIG cheetah; our captive cheetah are more like 45kg, or 90 lbs), when I have one hand clamped between its teeth, I have to make quick decisions on which is the best plan of action for getting the hand out in one piece and with minimal damage. If I kicked the cat, it could run away, hand still locked in its jaws. If I poked the cat in the eye, it could still run with my hand firmly gripped between its teeth. I did the best thing I could think of, given the situation. I used my other hand to grip the cat’s throat and jaw, pushing inward to attempt to force him to open its mouth.  But freedom for my hand came from not from my efforts, but from an outside source, and thankfully that source had the ability to keep his wits about him and think fast.

My fiance, looking on horrified at the scene unfolding before him, was luckily with me, but on the outside of the enclosure. He grabbed a spray bottle filled with water and vinegar (which we keep for situations just like this) and was able to spray the culprit in the face, immediately prompting the cat to wince, open its mouth, and run off to the other side of the enclosure, sulking. Like most species of cats, cheetahs aren’t big fans of water, unless it’s to drink.

I wish I had taken a photo of my hand when it came out of the cheetah’s mouth. The base of my now disturbingly purplish blue pinky was about half the size it normally is, with a huge hole in it that went straight through from the inner bottom corner to the outside of the middle knuckle. It was surreal.  And for the first time in my life, serious shock hit and I actually swooned and almost passed out. While my fiance raced around to find a first aid kit (of which there were none to be found – law suit, anyone??), I literally sat on the floor of the cheetah kitchen, running my hand under cool water and washing as much of the saliva and other nasties out of my many new holes. My knees buckled. It was probably the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had. And I don’t wish it on anyone.

Just a word of advice for anyone who is bitten by an animal – instinct tells you to pull back.  Don’t ever do that.  You will shred whatever body part is being bitten, if not actually detach yourself from it.  I let the cat call the shots, forcing myself to not pull my hand back and instead, moving with him in whatever direction he moved.  Because of that, I only had punctures on my hand instead of shredded skin or, worse, no fingers at all.

Here’s a look at two of our kitties at play…note the claws on the front cat. Because cheetah claws are not fully retractable like other cats (though their dew claws do retract fully), their nails take a beating through wear and tear, though I doubt any cheetah ever cares about things like pedicures or dirty nails.

Cheetahs at play and photographer in the way

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, Education, rehabilitation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

South African Adventure #100 – The Rise of the Cheetah Chick

cheetah up close

cheetah in watercolor

Soooo it looks like I’ll be hanging up my camp boots and strapping on my rehabilitation scrubs – I’m trading the savannah for the fynbos and the karoo, saying ‘sayonara’ to students and ‘sawubona’ to the fuzzy, spotty Ferraris of the veld. Starting this weekend, I will be heading to a private reserve further south to work in cheetah conservation. Not kidding, part of my daily routine will be walking cheetah. On a leash. I’d love to take them for a run, but really, who am I kidding? I’d have to tie them to the back of the Land Cruiser and let them cruise alongside the car for them to even break stride. They’d laugh at me in some bizarre, hissy, cheetah way if I even hinted at a jog.

So farewell to no electricity and hello solid walls, an actual plug and my own kitchen. Um, my own stove top and mini-fridge, as the case may be. While the fiance is keeping the baboons from raiding local dustbins, I’ll be chopping up game meat for 14 very large puddy tats. And that’s the way I like it, uh-huh uh-huh.  The new job will mean working with them all day long, doing such ridiculous things as taking them out for daily exercise, feeding and brushing and entertaining those that can’t be released back into the wild, monitoring their behavior, reintroducing them to other cheetah, and hopefully eventually helping to set up a breeding program to assist in repopulating the world with these incredible felines.

I don’t think I’d be off the mark if I predicted that the following blog installations will probably include quite a few messy moments from what is soon to become a human scratching post. Wish me luck!!!

Notes:

‘Sawubona’ (pronounced ‘sau bow na’) means ‘hello’ here
‘Veld’ (pronounced ‘feld’) is a field
‘fynbos’ (pronounced ‘feign boss’) and ‘karoo’ (pronounced ‘kah roo’) are two biomes (also known as vegetation types or ecological
areas) in South Africa
‘cheetah’, for anyone born and raised under a rock, is the fastest land mammal on
earth. These cats are elegant, beautiful and highly endangered. And they are about to kick my butt.

cheetah brothers in South Africa

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, Education, rehabilitation, South Africa, Training, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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