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