A Star is Born
The Story of Batian the Cheetah • Part 2
By Iris Hunt
A farmer brings a litter of four 9-day old orphaned Cheetah cubs to Don and I. None have ever been hand raised this young and I struggle to save them. We call the lone male “Batian” as he opens his eyes at sunrise one morning under the peaks of majestic Mount Kenya.
In Africa, time passes quickly, almost unnoticed. Here on the equator days and nights remain the same throughout the year: Twelve hours of light and 12 of darkness. There is little change in the seasons, only dry and wet spells, dusty and green months, windy hot days followed by cooler dewy mornings.
For us at the Mount Kenya Game Ranch, the days taken up chasing adventure with a “cause,” a constant objective to bridge the span between the dream and realization.
Suddenly, Batian, the little Cheetah cub who had first opened his eyes in my lap, was almost grown. Gone were the vigils of night feeding, the constant worry over the safety of the small furry bundle. The time was now past for teaching him to cope in an unfamiliar world. Batian had become a full member of our extended family.
He was at my side every day, whenever possible keeping me company on my rounds to take care of the other animals in the Orphanage, or on a shopping trip, or tend to my office work and the Boutique I had started at the Safari Club.
It never occurred to me what an odd sight it must have been for people to see a young European girl in Africa rushing about with a beautiful fully-grown Cheetah in tow.
Friends who came to visit were charmed by Batian; most couldn’t get enough of his affectionate purr and, of course, all wanted their picture taken with him. Word had got around and increasingly some of the famous visitors to the Safari Club came to call on us.
Word had got around and Batian was becoming a celebrity and more and more guests at the Safari Club some among the “great & good” of the world took to calling at the house to make his acquaintance.
Batian, for his part, received them all with great dignity, never tiring of posing for cameras thrust at him by the flow of admirers. And there were many, right from the start.
David Lean the famous Film Director saw Batian as a real star a “natural,” he said, with the talent of a pro and none of the tantrums. For Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, President of WWF International, it was “de rigueur” on his many trips to Kenya to come up to the house for breakfast with Batian. Not so much Don and I it was the bewitching Cheetah he really came to see.
It was the same for another Royal, Princess Margaretha of Sweden, who came every year to have her regal face licked by this wild creature she adored. Burt Lancaster, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, David Niven, Larry O’Malley, Robert Redford, Isabella Rosselini, were just a few other notables to come for a visit with Batian. Even the good (some say notsogood) Bishop Makarios of Cyprus called in to stroke the spotted cat and so did Yugoslavia’s mighty President Tito and Madame Broz his charming wife.
The lovely Hollywood star Candice Bergen marveled at his beauty, as did a very youthful Brooke Shields along with a stream of other glamorous young women, all wanting to be photographed with the benignly cooperative Cheetah. Some of them, like Batian, went on to become famous models.
Among others of his VIP visitors were some of the great movers and shakers of the corporate giants, from Estée Lauder for instance, Northwest Airlines, General Electric and so on.
The U.S. Government was here, friendly undemanding visitors from the State & other Washington Departments, taking turn and turn about with United Nations and World Bank executives.
I could go on with the “Who’s Who” It was whoever, really, who had Mount Kenya on their Safari itinerary: Famous surgeons and other professionals, artists, composers, writers even politicians and journalists. All came to “rub shoulders” with a Cheetah. Above and beyond all, however, was our family of friends of the Animal Orphanage from the four corners of the earth.
A lot of visitors then!
But through it all, fame never fazed Batian and it never dimmed his regard for me, his surrogate mother. He was always my biggest fan, never bored with lying around the house, looking at me for hours with his big amber eyes, sighing and purring, for all the world like a lovesick swain.
It wasn’t quite like that, of course. But interestingly, he was definitely drawn to people who looked something like me. At any rate, he preferred blonde females to tall, dark and handsome men, especially if they obscured their eyes with otherwise sexy sunglasses. They literally raised the hackles on his back and turned him downright hostile.
By contrast, Batian was never other than friendly and endlessly patient with the “bottle baby” orphans that not infrequently diverted my attention in the house.
More often than not he would let an infant wild monkey pull his ears, or allow hyena puppies to crawl all over him. He would also lick a little baby antelope, not yet aware that the big cat was its natural enemy.
He even made friends with all our dogs, who might otherwise have been a bit put out by his favored place in the house. Don and I often took them all on long walks together.
Batian was no longer keen on me bathing him. But he loved his daily beauty routine. I would brush him with a horse brush and at some point, he’d roll over to make sure all his bodily parts were attended to. That was also fine by me, since I would sneak on some not-too-pleasant vermin powder to keep ticks and fleas off his under parts on his walks in the bush.
I would wipe down his face with a moist warm sponge just as Cheetahs clean each other with their tongues. I also kept his ears clean with Q-tips while diverting him with a good scratching which he adored.
By now, feeding time was just once a day, in the afternoon. We tried to keep his diet as natural as possible with vitamins and other supplements added to maintain his always strapping health.
One a week usually after a big meal, Batian was made to fast for a day, which would be normal Cheetah style out in the bush. After that he’s be ravenous and we’d feed him a whole chicken with all its feathers on or a whole hare, to simulate what would be his normal wild food.
He loved those hairy feathery feasts, spending hours sorting the meat from the “detritus” and always leaving a neat little heap of what he considered inedible. I spent hours observing and learning from his instinctive habits and behavior.
It all came in handy when we were approached to do some advertising commercials with Batian. At first it was simple, no problem at all. He got on fine with most people and still posed perfectly for the camera.
Then one day, he got his big break after being spotted by a French advertising company that wanted to make him “brand star” of a then famous men’s Eau De Cologne called Savanne.
That was fine with us, able as we were to negotiate a reasonable fee for his services that would not only pay for his own keep for a while, but more importantly also help with the ever increasing wild animal orphans we were caring for with our own resources.
For several years thereafter, the French team would arrive with a director, actors and crews to film some fanciful short story they’d had dreamed up. The usual gist was that the hero “Hunk”, in deepest darkest Africa, would be confronted with this dangerous wild cat and survived the encounter – inevitably by applying the famously attractive scent.
Zut alors! Even a “savage” Cheetah is charmed by… Savanne, naturellement!
Personally, I never did understand the thinking behind these scenarios. But the finished product always looked exciting on film and perhaps that was it.
In any event when the set was built, the director would instruct “Hunk,” the macho actor man and it was up to me to instruct the Cheetah in “savagery,” or whatever was his assigned role-play, which varied from year to year.
The cat himself took a great interest in the proceedings and was happy to cooperate, when he understood what was wanted from him, or I could somehow simulate the required action. Getting him to do his “wild thing” whatever perceived in the screenplay would usually mean me coaxing or fooling him into a “mode” or action that was altogether unfamiliar to him.
The first year it was easy. Batian had to chase Mr. Macho’s Land rover at high speed and jump onto the back No problem! I just let him go hungry and then hid myself in the back of the speeding vehicle banging his food dish. As he caught up with the car, I let him have a glimpse of a feathery chicken in my hand and with that he took a flying leap onto the flat back of the truck.
Brilliant! On film, it was a fearfully dangerous, probably fatal, attack by a ferocious wild feline gone mad. Thankfully Mr. “Hunk” had a bottle of Savanne handy.
The following year, it was also easy: a mere leap off a rocky ledge. But then in the next scenario, he was required to sneak up to a waterhole and lap away at it, whereas Batian, of course, had only ever drunk from a dish.
In time the waterhole was approached cautiously. But then, when he’d got over his suspicion of it, he still wouldn’t lap as directed. He much preferred to play batting the water with his paws, delighting in the splashes.
Even when he must have been thirsty, never did it occur to the cussed cat to take even a tentative tongueful of the perfectly palatable natural water. Clearly his job was on the line and I had to think of something quickly…
I did. Minced liver! I smeared some of the offal he relished over most of all on the water’s edge and waited.
Sure enough, Batian “sneaked up” sniffing the air and getting the scent. He then crouched down and greedily licked the muddy meat.
Perfect. On film he was seen to be lapping the water with just the required gusto. His job was secured for one more year.
For the final commercial, however the agency came with a difficult task for me, that is the animal director.
The story board has the hairy human out on the African savanna, shaving his manly chin in the first light of the morning. As he concentrates on his image in the wing mirror of the truck, he suddenly sees the predatory big cat moving stealthily up “to kill and eat him”.
(Really? A great hunk like him? Far too much meat on the hoof for a Cheetah to knock down with any great enthusiasm)
In any event the hero then turns to face the danger and with one squirt of his powerful Eau De Cologne…. Zut encore! Savanne has done it again! The wild animal leaps up in fright and takes off into the bush.
Really!! – So what to do?
I could think of nothing that would make him leap up in simulated fright nor did I actually much want him to.
Then, as time began to run out, the director suggested he might be terrorized into a suitable leap by someone presumably me! shooting off a gun close to the poor animal.
No way. That was immediately vetoed as far too brutal, and a risk to the Cheetah’s delicate ear drums.
But I still had no solution and the Director didn’t mince words in advising me that it was either the gun or “no job” and “no job bonus” for Batian. Finally frustrated he sent someone off to fetch a shotgun and I was thereupon ready to depart with my Cheetah at speed and well out of range.
In the meantime I wracked my brains what would be a natural cause for him to leap out of his skin as it were. And then it came to me. I’d once seen him stung on the nether region by some nasty insect- and he’d leapt alright. He’d gone wild!
Maybe that gnat’s bite could be simulated. Shouldn’t be too difficult, I mused, thinking over just how…eventually sending for some thin nylon fishing line and a band aid. I then separated a single long hair on Batian’s belly, tied on the line and secured it tightly with the plaster.
I told the director to have the cameras ready to roll. The Cheetah would jump, I assured him, but it would be a one-off. One leap (of simulated fright) and that’s it!
Getting the nod, I coaxed Batian to “sneak up” to the car, looking for me hiding behind it – for him, just another of our regular games of hide and seek. Then as he got close to Macho Man at the front, I jerked hard on the line, which delivered something like a bee sting, albeit on a sensitive belly. But more with shocked surprise than pain, he duly executed a perfect airborne pirouette, let out a fierce snarl, and hared off into the blue beyond.
Great, everyone clapped. They wanted to shoot it again, of course and I had a job talking them out of it. Couldn’t be repeated I insisted, and eventually they agreed, persuaded they’d already got a unique sequence in the can that could never be improved on. I had a hard time convincing the crew that this could not be repeated, and eventually they agreed they had filmed a unique sequence that could never be improved on.
I then went off to “soothe the savage beast,” finding him behind a bush.
Giving himself the odd lick where he perceived he’d been stung. But I quickly sorted that out with a rub of some appropriate soothing lotion I’d thought to bring with me and, as usual, got a lick of appreciation in return.
Consummate actor that he was, Batian returned with me graciously to take his bows from the French director and crew who were full of compliments and actually doubled his bonus. Never, they said had they ever worked with such a “trained wild animal so gracious, so well behaved, so obedient… &and so on.
Little did they know the “how” and “why of it.” Batian had never been properly “wild,” of course, and he’d certainly never been “trained”. Life had always been full of games for him and for me, and to him the annual sport of Savanne was just a big one I’ specially invented for him. Throughout his era of feline fame and stardom, Batian the Cheetah also became our first “Ambassador for Wildlife,” not only for his own kind but also for all wild species in decline – some in danger of extinction over much of East Africa.
Particularly in Kenya, poaching for skins and other animal parts was becoming an increasing menace, and the more celebrities who could draw attention to the urgent need for preservation and conservation the better the chance of survival of wild Cheetah and the other endangered species. World concern on the issue, much of it due to them, would eventually have its effect.
The Oscar winning film actor Bill Holden our long-term friend and partner at the conservancy was Batian’s biggest fan aside from us, that is. Whenever he was with us Bill would invariably spend much time lying on the lounge carpet “talking” to the animal, who always listened with evident respect.
Once he asked me if I wouldn’t want to take a picture of the “star” playing whatever they were playing on the floor. “Why would I want to do that,”? I replied, archly.
“Not me dummy”, he grinned back, ” I mean Batian! He’s the star around here”!
I anyway grabbed his small “happy snap” camera and shot what became a favorite picture of Bill’s agent and his film producers.
As the years passed Batian inevitably began showing signs of advancing age. Like most of us, he came to prefer resting to running and we had to make sure he got his share of exercise.
As is the case with many old domesticated cats, a renal problem developed, but not until Batian had reached the already advanced age for a Cheetah of thirteen. Over the last year of his life, we had to adjust his diet to smaller, easier digestible meals of mostly fish, chicken and milk.
Eventually came the day when I knew that the end of his life was near. I spent all the daylight hours close to him, and when night fell and I stayed on, drawing strength from the closeness to overcome, in part, my feeling of despair and unashamed sentimentality.
Towards dawn, Batian’s eyes were half closed, as they had been that early morning 14 years before, when he was looking out on the world for the first time. He had uttered no sound then, no doubt instinctively weary, but calmly accepting the warm cradling of my arms around his small body.
We had since bonded inseparably. His acceptance of a naturally alien human being
was absolute and unconditional, never other than affectionately loving and totally trusting – if such can be ascribed to any wild creature.
As the first light appeared, a familiar soft but weakening purr was the last sound I heard from Batian. His life gently ebbed away in my arms.
My vision blurred as I saw my own silent tears roll off the silky spotted fur like little glistening pearls, scattering where they fell in shiny crystal fragments. Still emotionally overwrought I eventually looked up and out at the night sky and saw the same glistening imagery in the scattered array of stars over Mount Kenya.
Instinctively I looked for the morning star and watched it fade into the first glow of sunlight rising from behind the great Mountain, its flickering gleam still reflected off the white face of Batian, the highest pinnacle after which the infant Cheetah had been named.
I held him tight and said a silent prayer for a safe passage.
One after another beautiful dawn in Africa, I am up most days to watch the morning star ascend into oblivion and at that time and I can still “hear” that final purr, now with a feeling of gratitude that I was privileged to have known the loyal friendship of one of the greatest animals of them all.
Others who knew and loved him, Bill Holden especially, are also gone, their names inscribed on golden stars imbedded in the pantheon of a Hollywood sidewalk.
Batian’s star is a thing of Nature of Africa seen in the night sky over Mount Kenya. He was himself a “star” in life and his bright image has never faded, a memory that will always be alive in the part of the mind that poets call the heart.
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