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Published: October 4th 2011
‘You see, lady, I don’t have much money, and sometimes I don’t even know, how to pay my bills. But I get up every morning and I decide I am going to be happy. Because, lady, I believe that happiness doesn’t just happen - we choose to be happy.’ These wise words concluded the conversation I had with the taxi driver who took me from Cape Town Airport to Stellenbosch. It had been interesting to listen to him. He is coloured (which is an expression that refers to South Africans of mixed race and does not have the connotations it has in the UK) and as a member of this “in-between” ethnic group not much has changed for him. Being neither black nor white, the coloureds are and always have been at the bottom of South African society, and as such have little chance of gaining prosperity. But it is not only racism that still affects this country (and in this post-apartheid era it is actually often directed against whites), it is also the ever expanding gap between rich and poor. And as we drove past Cape Town’s endless townships with one corrugated iron shack seeming to hold up the next,
I was wondering whether the people existing in these terrible conditions could find the strength to choose happiness...
I was picked up at Stellenbosch by Emily, the leader of the project I was going to be working for. It took only a few minutes to drive to our destination, a secluded location in the middle of a vineyard. As we pulled up outside the little wooden cottage that was going to be my home for the next two months, four little faces peeked out from behind the metal fence and eight round baby eyes watched my every move. And from that very moment I saw them for the first time I was in love. Their names are Uist, Vaila, Wiay and Xhosa. And they are cheetah cubs.
Rewind 9 months: I received an email from a professor at MMU, where I did a part of an animal behaviour degree. Cheetah Outreach was looking for volunteers to help rearing cheetah cubs to become ambassadors. Against all expectations my application was accepted and looking at these beautiful little creatures now I realized how immensely privileged I was.
There are only about 7500 cheetahs left in the wild and their
habitat is decreasing steadily. Most farmers see them as a menace and kill any cheetah found on their land. Ambassador cheetahs are cheetahs bred and raised in captivity, tame enough to be taken to schools etc. for encounters with the public in order to make people aware of the plight of these graceful animals. Sometimes I feel a little pang seeing the cubs in harnesses, ready to walk on leads. It seems wrong somehow. But seemingly we humans only deem something worthy of protection if we can personally see and touch it, and more importantly, if we find it cute (hence I have very little hope for great white sharks, who are also endangered but are sadly missing any kind of cuteness-factor...) So these cubs are not only ambassadors but also little martyrs for their species. And we do anything to make their lives as good as possible.
Cheetah Outreach also breeds Anatolian shepherd dogs and fosters them out to farmers, who have cheetahs on their land. These huge dogs protect livestock and at the same time reduce the necessity to kill any predators, including cheetahs. This enables cheetahs to live on farmland and with that increases their habitat
and hopefully aids their survival. It is an amazing project and I am proud to be part of it. And to be able to love the cubs, to cuddle and stroke them (and actually HAVING to do it, so that they get used to human contact) is an added bonus (and a huge one at that...).
Like with all these volunteer programmes work is hard and there is a lot of cleaning and food preparing involved. We also spend many hours outside in the garden with the cubs to watch them, not just for their own safety but also in order to discipline any unwanted and potentially dangerous behaviour. And then there are the public encounters, where people pay to sit with them for a few minutes, and we tell them about the project. It is mainly aimed at getting the cubs used to all kind of different people but at the same time also helps to spread the word about the project.
Occasionally a film crew joins us for an episode of “Cheetah Diaries”. It’s usually pretty disrupting and a little nerve wracking (and also ever so slightly annoying at times. We might have just lugged a
crate with four cheetah cubs to the pick-up and managed to heave it into the back, when the producer shouts, ‘That was great guys, but can we do that again, this time with the camera on the other side...’).
September in South Africa is cold, and living in a little wooden cottage with big gaps between the planks is, to put it mildly, agonising (I can actually see the garden through the corner of my part of the room and even my 4-season sleeping bag and thick duvet are not enough protection from the icy wind creeping through that gap.) Since the room where the cubs sleep has under-floor heating I spend a lot of time there – partly because it’s the warmest place in the house but mainly because of its little occupants. The other day I was lying there on the warm floor with the cheetah cubs around me and on me. Vaila and Xhosa were leaning against me, Wiay was half lying on my shoulder and Uist’s head was on my arm and his paw in my hand. And as I felt the little twitches of his paw as he was dreaming and listened to the
contented purring around me I suddenly felt very happy. I thought of the words of my taxi driver – and although he may be right and it is often up to us to choose to be happy, there are occasional moments when happiness simply just happens. And this was definitely one of them.
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