Story of 3 Cheetahs
Bill, Duke and Diana! A Life Story
By Iris Hunt
It’s five years ago now that we had a phone call from an excited Lady in Nairobi. She had a story about a cheetah who, a few weeks before, had given birth to no less than 10 cubs.
Mother cheetahs produce on average between two and four babies at a time.
I shared her awe and wonder, thinking back on the time when I first came to Kenya, when sightings of sleekly athletic, beautiful cat were extremely rare. The Game Department, then the principal wildlife authority, was aware of its steady decline and had launched a campaign to save what was left of the species. Cheetahs were designated “Royal Game” which meant that no one could shoot or trap them anywhere in the country. They would enjoy the protection afforded to royalty wherever they were still in residence.
At first the initiative showed little or no results on the ground. But then, after a few years, the cheetah population appeared to recover. It certainly did in Nairobi National Park for instance, where visitors could not only count on coming across the animals, but also – to their delight – would often view the youngsters at close range, jumping up and cavorting around on the hoods and roofs of their vehicles.
But then, years later in the late 80’s and 90’s there was a reversal. It became apparent that cheetah were not doing too well elsewhere in Kenya and eventually their numbers also began to decline in the Nairobi park.
With regard to my Lady caller’s extra large brood, their progress was closely observed, among others, by an American veterinarian, Dr. Jim Cavanaugh. It was he who raised the alarm one day when the mother cheetah and two of the cubs went missing. He kept watch over the remaining eight, but she never returned.
No-one knows for sure why she would have abandoned the babies. She could have been scared off – or maybe she’d known, instinctively, that she could not continue to feed or otherwise care for all ten of her rapidly growing progeny. In any event the eight cubs were abruptly orphaned and soon began to chirrup their hunger and distress. If the departing mother heard them at all, she didn’t respond.
At that point, the Game Department – by then restructured into the Kenya Wildlife Services – was of a collective mind to let nature take its course. But after a few days, with the cubs left without food or water and obviously weakening fast, the Director himself was made aware of the situation. He ordered his game scouts to collect the cubs as long as suitable “homes” could be found. By now the cubs had been abandoned for 8 days.
We hastily agreed to take all or any, and started preparations.
The Director decided for the four strongest to be raised in the Chyulu hills for eventual release there into Maasai land.
The rest were handed over to us in the hopes that our animal Orphanage was most likely to offer them a chance of survival.
We could do that, we thought – hoped as we rushed to Nairobi to take the four waifs into care.
They were a sad sight huddled together they looked like a bundle of bones and moth-eaten fur. Out of that, on thin necks emerged skulls with dull sunken eyes.
All four were more or less in a state of collapse, showing very little interest except an instinctive aggressive spark when approached to closely. It was a pathetic, hapless response, but still worrying in that the effort of “defending” themselves was obviously draining what little energy they had left all the faster. If only we had been called in earlier! We decided not to move them again; unsure they would survive the ordeal.
Instead we made a makeshift “nest” for them in one of the pens the Wildlife Service let us use. By no means ideal but at least they were dry, away from frightening noises and people.
Kim, our daughter and I sat with them. We poured little pools of water out under their noses. It took a long time before they stopped hissing and began to lick, still watching us suspiciously. We then tried a little watery baby milk formula.
It was an all day all night performance. They would lick a little fluid and fall asleep from the effort, wake up and repeat the ritual.
By the second night three of the cubs were lapping out of a dish. They tried to stand up, but were still too shaky and weak, collapsing in a heap.
The fourth Cheetah was lethargic and would not show much interest in anything. I decided to inject saline under the skin to avoid total dehydration – and finally he, too, began to improve.
Don and I then returned to Nanyuki to prepare a place in the house where the orphans could be kept safely under close supervision.
Kim stayed behind and continued to minister to the cubs every few hours. By then this had become something of a problem since they were by no means “tame” and tried to claw anything near them – notably the hand that fed them!
I returned as soon as I could to give Kim some relief from her 24-hour vigil. She had done a great job; the cats were now considerably calmer. They were still weak, but clearly improving.
Even so, I was concerned to get them away to a safer environment at our house. For one thing we had no stray cats around the place from which they might contact feline enteritis. This is a virus infection to which cheetahs are very prone and which normally kills them. While their mothers’ milk would have given the cubs some immunity, they would still be extremely vulnerable to the airborne virus down in Nairobi.
By then they were used to napping together in a box, and so were not noticeably stressed when we transferred them as a “package” to the car. But the start of the unfamiliar car engine was another cause for alarm. Eventually the cubs settled down for the long journey to the Ranch.
We finally reached Nanyuki with three very tired cheetahs. The fourth woebegone little “runt of the litter” – had collapsed again and was near death. There was nothing more we could do for him and sadly, he duly expired shortly after we arrived at the house. Carrying out the lifeless little body brought home to us forcefully just how uncertain this particular orphan adoption had been – taking these perilously dehydrated and starved animals into our charge. There was still not much more than skin and bones on the three survivors.
It maybe “morbid sentimentality”, I know, but every time an orphaned animal dies, I feel that something is lost in my own heart or soul. It doesn’t matter how short a time I have had with it.
But I have learned from experience that the sooner I re-focus on unfinished tasks in seeing to the needs of the other young animals, the quicker the sense of loss is dissipated and replaced by a sense of having been strengthened or at least been made more resilient by the experience.
In this instance, the immediate focus was on settling in the surviving cheetahs. We had emptied out the storeroom for this purpose. With the help of bales of straw, we made it into a fine rehab ward and nursery.
But, with their lives still in the balance, I did not want to give them names – not until they would eat solids and could be vaccinated.
Most of my time for the next two weeks was spent with the cubs in the small store room. I was so much removed from the scene in the rest of the house that Don, ever thoughtful (or disenchanted) took pity and glued family pictures to the bare walls so as to keep me in touch, so he said, with “my own kind”.
They were followed by pictures of my dogs and my other wild orphan charges – my menagerie from which I had to quarantine myself for the sake of the little cheetahs. It would have frightened the cubs had they suddenly smelled the unfamiliar scent of dogs, monkeys or even a buffalo on my clothes. The cheetahs apart, the extended family would just have to get along without me for a little while longer.
Although they got used to my presence, the cubs were easily ” spooked.” They tolerated my invasion of their safe zone, but responded with fierce snarls and mock attacks when anybody or anything else got close.
With me they were “warily docile” and eventually began to accept small pieces of soft meat I offered at the end of a chopstick – so long as I respected the distance they wanted me to keep. One after another, they began lick off the meager amounts of minced meat and liver. But it was only a matter of hours, in fact before they were ravenously slurping it all up to the point that I had to worry about over – indulgence , which would result in runny tummies.
During the warmer hours of the day I coaxed them out of the store to the outside to soak in and otherwise luxuriate in the sun. This they loved and it is actually vital to their health and growth. It was a “labor of love”, of course, but I began to wonder if and when my life would return to normal.
Other work was piling up. Other responsibilities were piling down on me. And Don, supportive as always, was asking if it wasn’t time I “came home” as it were. But it was still several weeks off, as it turned out before they were well enough to where I could vaccinate them.
After that I felt fairly confident that they’d survive, and I could finally bestow names on them.
The best looking of the males I named Bill after our good friend Bill Holden, who had also had a genuine special affection for cheetahs.
The biggest male I named Duke after Bill’s close friend John Wayne – “The Duke”, who else. Wayne once told me no one should ever name a cat after him unless it was a fierce carnivore!
For the female I chose the name “Diana,” after the Olympian huntress – the aloof, sublimely beautiful and otherwise “divine” diva of Greek mythology. It really suited the cub’s haughty grace and good looks.
In due course the cubs could stand up and run around, their sinewy muscles perceptively filling out on their legs. During their ordeal of severe malnutrition they had shed almost all of their baby fluff. Sleek shiny fur was now growing all over their bodies and the cats spent much time grooming each other.
They mostly ignored me, which was fine. I did not want them to become “pets” but rather retain their innate instincts, so far as that was possible in the circumstances of their “unnatural” infancy.
Duke was something of an exception, as he would be, – bolder than the others. Curiosity got the better of him and whenever I sat with my face turned away, he would approach, closer and closer. At first he only sniffed. But sometime later, if I didn’t move he’d begin to lick my hands
in a shy attempt at familiarity. It was hard not to respond. But most times I stuck to my resolve not to make pets of the cubs – not even him!
As soon as the time was right to move them, we took them across to their new home in the Animal Orphanage where, although closely supervised, they could freely romp around and play in a fairly large area we had allotted to them. As long as they had each other for company and family support all we had to do was make sure they were fed a good diet, and otherwise stayed healthy.
Cheetahs in captivity often develop rickets. We were able to guard against this by giving our trio plenty of calcium, bone meal, vitamins and cod liver oil. A frequent supplement to their meat diet was lots of “fur and feathers”, as they would have had in the wild, substituting with rodents, chickens and hares.
Cheetah like their meat fresh. Out in the bush, they will eat what they can from the kill at a “sitting” and leave it. Unlike Leopard they never return to the carcass and instinctively, our cubs behaved in exactly the same way. They wouldn’t touch the Orphanage meat unless it was fresh and bloody and we obliged them in this with the cooperation of our butcher in Nanyuki town.
Today they are fine, strong, strapping animals – “a joy to behold” considering how they had first appeared to us a few days after their hazardous start to life.
Duke has grown considerably bigger and bolder than Bill. He still can’t resist sneaking up from behind and giving me a prod with his nose giving us both a bit of a scare recently. It happened when I was photographing Diana in an especially graceful pose. I felt a touch on the back and not thinking, whipped around sharply. It was Duke, of course, who got such a fright that he lashed out in retreat and clawed a piece out of my jacket.
He is fast and courageous, not unlike his namesake in the movies, and he, in particular has impressed on me a wariness in dealing with fully grown great cats in captivity. Much like their kin in the wild, they are still carnivores with their instincts intact not to be underestimated in any respect.
This is what I had wished for them.
Obviously I would much prefer to let them go off by themselves now, into some relatively safe natural habitat. Hunger would trigger the instinct to hunt. But at the best of times, a successful kill is never easy for wild cheetahs. Although the fastest of the great cats, they habitually hunt in daylight using only bush for cover and relying on their co-ordination and speed to bring down small game such as a Thompson’s gazelle if lucky, but more often smaller prey. Disadvantaged by not having learnt the skills of the hunt from their mother, our three would invariably fail miserably. Survival would be a gamble against the secrets of nature lost to them by fate.
But the more critical consideration would be their most relentless enemy out there in the real cheetah world: man.
For the first few years of their life they have had to learn to accept man as their harmless benefactor, what would it take to reverse this trust?
Ideally, we would have liked to reunite “Duke & Co.” with their mother, if she’s still alive, or the two siblings she took with her. But they are nowhere to be found.
The situation at Nairobi National Park is that most carnivores as well as large numbers of plains game they prey on have not returned since their last seasonal move out of the park. Their migratory routes may have been cut off. While the Wildlife Department is looking into the reasons and searching for solutions, time will not be on our cheetahs’ side.
It’s not the end of the story for our three, though. We’re preparing to introduce them to other cheetahs in the hope they will produce their own cubs that can one day be relocated to the wild, perhaps to the Nairobi National park once it’s been secured. The plans are in place.
P.S. Sadly, it appears that the other four cheetah cubs released in Maasailand may not have reached maturity.