A Star is Born
The Story of Batian the Cheetah
By Iris Hunt
To our partner at the ranch, Bill Holden, and other Hollywood luminaries, Batian was a true, born and bred, African “Star”.
One bright morning in the seventies, Don woke me up with an unusual surprise in a burlap bag.
The dogs knew right away there was something obviously alive in that sack. But on opening it up, I saw they were fussing over nothing more menacing than four wriggling bundles of scruffy fur, tiny scraps all of them, barely recognizable as Cheetahs. The cubs still had their eyes closed and looked more like a hapless litter of puppies still wet behind the ears.
“Where’s the mother” I enquired?
Don told me she had been shot as a stock killer on a neighboring sheep farm the day before.
Much to his consternation, the farmer had found that the dead Cheetah was in milk. Full of remorse, he sent out his entire labor force to look for her babies.
They had been found around dawn that morning. One of the trackers had heard a faint mew as he passed a rocky outcrop. And there they were – a mournful quartet of tiny Cheetahs, huddled together in the early morning cold.
The cubs were then gently “bagged” and brought straight up to Don and I at the ranch. “Tell them I’m sorry,” still somewhat rueful, he’d told his men.
Four newborn Cheetahs! My mind raced. They were going to be a handful; that was for sure. Obviously I couldn’t hope take the place of their natural mother, but at that point the simple objective was just to keep them alive and that much I was determined to do…
But where and how to start? Still in my dressing gown, I emptied out an antique Zanzibar sea chest and lined the bottom with a thick pad of towels wrapped round a hot water bottle. They would be warm and snug in there: An altogether fine – not to say highly decorative, first “den.” The big, strong box bound and filigreed with polished brass, was not only an admired handiwork of times past, more importantly, with it’s heavy lid it’s precious cargo would also be safe from inquisitive potential enemies such as my inquisitive boisterous dogs.
Well housed, the question was then how they might be fed?
That’s always the critical issue, of course, whenever any infant waif is brought in. It can happen at any time, so I’m never without a contingent supply of baby milk formula in the house and some mini-feeding bottles, “purpose-built” for playing with uncomplaining baby dolls rather than inevitably disapproving baby animals. I filled four of them with a very weak solution of the formula and hoped for the best.
I’d had previous experience raising very young Cheetah, notably up in Somalia in the 60s.
Don and I were asked by the Prime Minister of the time, Mohamed Egal, to help him with a project to rescue the species from total extinction in his wild and harshly barren country. Our brief was to capture as many young Cheetahs as we could and bring them to safety.
There were very few left. Most of the population had been slaughtered by poachers supplying the lucrative “skin trade” – and, more particularly, in those days, an evidently insatiable demand from an irresponsible fashion trade, influencing women to dress themselves up as wild cats.
But over time, an increasingly vocal lobby of protesters would slowly get their point across in a campaign that was to become the first ever high impact advertising campaign against the wanton, callous destruction of Africa’s wildlife:
A ravishing model, shown wearing an exotically fashionable cheetah coat was used to demonstrate graphically the imminently famous slogan: “Looks better on a Cheetah.”
Overnight the line was etched on the conscience of society in general demonstrating that there’s no conceivable human replication of the wild beauty and sleek elegance of the wild Cheetah.
Cheetahs were once widespread across the vast wilderness savannahs of Somalia. But the dry, trackless lands could never be effectively policed and once the wholesale slaughter of the animals got started, there was no way the authorities of the impoverished nation could stop it.
It was in facing the inevitable – when the Cheetah population in Somalia was clearly approaching the point of no return – that Prime Minister Egal made his “last ditch” intervention. His summons to us meant being away from Kenya and our own projects at the Ranch for weeks on end. Quite a commitment, but accepted with hardly a moment’s hesitation.
From the start, the rescue of the last Somali Cheetah was a priority for Don, his team and myself – and it would remain that way until the operation was finally wound up. By then our friend, Mohamed Egal, was satisfied that his immediate objective had been achieved.
His longer-term aim – more a distant dream – was that one day Cheetahs would be reintroduced into his country and establish a viable population. At that time, breeding the animals in captivity had yet to be accomplished, but with the advance of science a break-through was expected. Some of the young Cheetahs we had brought in, both male and female, were therefore dispatched to leading Zoological Parks in the US and Europe where there were real prospects of successful breeding.
A number of orphaned cubs had inevitably come my way, mostly confiscated from illegal traders and often in very poor shape. In most cases, I had been able to revive the badly abused infant cheetah and, over a few months, build up their strength to the point that they could be sent overseas to join their compatriots at the prospective breeding stations.
Never, however, had I been given care of babies so young as the newly-acquired litter of four.
They could not have been more than a few days old as their eyes stayed firmly shut. But at least, they appeared to be generally healthy, although I put off naming them for a while since they were still too vulnerable to be given identities until their prospects of survival had visibly improved.
I’d learned to sex very young cats during my time in Somalia, which is in fact not all that easy to do for anyone with an untrained or inexperienced eye. But, with my brood, I determined that three of the cubs were female and the other male, although – notwithstanding the barely perceptible gender difference – they all looked exactly the same.
I began to take both biological and “biographical” notes, but found there was no sure way of telling them apart, especially the girls. For which reason, even before they opened their eyes, off came a tuft of hair at the end of one of the girl’s tails to mark her. Another had a bit of scruff hair cut off her neck, and so on….
So far so good. But the big obstacle to progress still had to be sorted – none of them would take a bottle feed. It would then take me most of the next two days and nights to win the battle of the rubber teats. They wanted the milk, but not delivered via any synthetic nipple!
Until, miraculously on the third day, just as my own patience began to wear thin, one after another they got the message and began sucking greedily.
Having relieved that initial worry, another occurred almost immediately: Diarrhea caused by the unfamiliar diet.
As a change from getting regularly soaked in spilt milk, I was then getting soiled by their copious messes every time I tended them. Luckily the smell of milky waste is not too noxious and with the help of kaolin powder I managed to stabilize the stools.
All was then fine for the time being, with a routine established of four feeds every four hours throughout the night. Fine for them, that is. When the last of the four was served, it was almost time to start over with the first. All I ever got over those early nights was, literally, the odd, fitful cat-nap.
Often either the cubs or I fell asleep half way through the feed. Don had offered to help, but I never had the heart to wake him. And so, for the time being I set up a nocturnal camp in the lounge, pitched near the Zanzibar chest.
What remains especially vivid in my memory are the vigils through the wee small hours, but on the fourth day I was rewarded. Half dozing, eyes bleary, my attention was distracted from the suckling male on my lap to a particularly luminous night sky above the terrace outside.
At an altitude of around 7,000 feet, the air is thin and crystal clear, which somehow creates the illusion of magnifying the stars, or drawing them in towards you. The senses beguiled, slipping into sleep, I could almost reach up and touch the ceiling of brilliant stars.
My gaze was fixed, for I don’t know how long, on the wondrous birth of the Morning Star, twinkling in tiny prisms and increasingly brilliant as it slowly ascended over the vast dark shoulder of Mount Kenya, its brilliant pin-sharp light mesmerizing, unforgettable.
Or so was the reverie I recall that night, which ended with a wakeful start when my attention finally wandered back to the cub. No longer gulping down the milk, his small body was still. Dead or asleep? One or the other, until it suddenly registered that his eyes were open.
For the first time, he was gazing up at me, albeit still through narrow slits. But the tawny, glowing eyes between the lids were fixed steadily on mine, the look altogether calm, benign and apparently contented. Nor was there the slightest twitch of dissent as – also contentedly – I stroked the soft furry crown of his head.
The other three Cheetahs also began slowly to open their eyes over the next few days. But it was the little male that had me transfixed, his own bright, round eyes fully open, watching my every move as if entranced by the wonder of his new-found vision and the “wonderful” alien creature who, seemingly – he might have sensed, who knows? – had endowed him with it.
It was love at first sight – for him and me both!
I named him Batian because he woke up to life in the reflected light of the ancient mountain, whose topmost spike of snow and ice was itself named for the revered Maasai Chief Batian, who had once ruled the ancestral land of his birth.
Slowly the story got out: Iris has four little Cheetahs!
My friends all wanted to come over and see them. But I had to be careful. At that precarious stage, they could be at risk from feline enteritis which will kill domestic cats, if not vaccinated, and most certainly baby Cheetah with no natural immunity to the disease.
The cubs were as yet too young to vaccinate and I was determined to avoid any possible chance of exposing them to the deadly virus. That meant keeping all other felines out of our lives for a while – most rigorously, domestic cats and, perforce, their owners who could conceivably bring the enteritis bug into the house on their clothing.
On reflection, I was probably way too fussy, which may have offended a few of the good friends and neighbors, although any affront they might have felt was short-lived. More importantly, my Cheetahs lived through the vulnerable early weeks until they were big enough to vaccinate
Batian was then attaching himself to me for all his waking hours, following me around everywhere I went. I might have found that a nuisance, but not at all. He was already entirely imprinted on my affections and could do no wrong, not then or ever.
It wasn’t quite the same with the girls. Batian was altogether more robust than his sisters and soon clearly stood out from them, both physically and in terms of personality – more independent, and a little “stand-offish.”
When the females scratched and fought each other, he distanced himself from the unseemly juvenile squabbling, as if above it all. Until, that is, I started them all on the carnivorous diet. It was every bit the messy free-for-all I knew it would be.
I’d watched wild Cheetahs teaching their cubs on several occasions. The mother would make a kill and lead the young to the gazelle after she had disemboweled it. The little ones would instantly dive into the gaping cavity and eventually emerge covered with bloody gore and, very soon after, by a crawling mass of flies.
I decided the best place for their first “meat-fest” was our bathtub. Blood-bath though it might turn out to be, but at least the mess wouldn’t be paddled all over the house and the clean up would be easier in one place.
But, again, I was not altogether prepared for the baptism in blood of four cubs at once. The instant they scented the raw meat, they laid into it. Laid into each other as well, with a fierce battle breaking out although there was plenty of choice “carnage” for them all.
This time, my little Batian gave over playing aloof. He was in there “fighting like a lion,” so to say – and won, of course!
When the last female collapsed with exhaustion, like the star he was about to become, Batian claimed the rest of the spoils – as is right – and ate his fill in sublime comfort. Also, the thought occurred… in the smug, haughty manner of the dominant male of any species.
It took a while before proper manners were observed and we could feed them separately, in a civilized fashion, out of their own individual dishes. Batian remained “in charge,” but resumed his aloof pose and airily kept his distance. The clear indication was that he preferred my company to that of his siblings.
The adoration – if that’s what it was for him – was mutual. I let him tag along with me, leaving the girls to play with each other for much of the time. They were not going to grow up exactly wild, of course, but maybe, I thought, with minimal human contact, they’d have a better chance to make it out there on their own one day.
With young Batian, it was clear he would never take easily to a tough, unpampered life in the bush. He was already far too taken with being adored, played with. and most of all, admired and photographed.
From the outset, the camera loved Batian and he loved the camera. Whenever I pointed a lens at him, the eminently photogenic young Cheetah would arrange himself in a fetching “pose,” sitting still, looking at me with those limpid, amber eyes and purring contentedly.
He was still at the tender age of just two months, when “talent spotted” by a visiting journalist, *John Eames, whose professional-looking camera immediately caught the cub’s attention. John, then editor of the renowned wildlife magazine, Africana, (for The World Wildlife Fund) also has a quirky, whimsical way with the captions, recording on this occasion …”a very fierce-looking Batian about to do his atavistic carnivore thing on the photographer.”
But unconvinced by the menace of the advancing ball of spotted fluff, he bravely stood his ground and took, head on, the picture that put the young Cheetah on his first magazine cover.
Barely born, but we already had a “star,” I thought!
Rightly, as it would transpire over the rest of his long and celebrated life.Click here for Part 2 of this story
*P.S. John Eames, now retired, is of course the same that continues to generously donate his services as editor to this page for the benefit of the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy.