As promised, I wanted to introduce you to the beautiful inhabitants of the Dell and talk a bit about their personalities. I will start with the cheetahs because they were our main inspiration for going and because there were so many!
Nala is unofficially the favourite cheetah. She is called the ambassador cheetah since everyone who comes to the centre spends pretty much all of their time with her. She was incredibly sweet and shockingly tolerant, so we all spent a lot of time with her during our afternoons. If you see a picture of one of us petting a cheetah it is most likely Nala. She lives in a paddock with her brother Nikita, but they don’t have to worry about any inbreeding because Nikita is totally sterile.
Next up, as just mentioned, is Nikita, Nala’s brother. He was a sweet guy who used to like being around people but slowly became less and less tolerant. We could hang out in the enclosure with them but we couldn’t go up to Nikita like we could with Nala. He was hopelessly in love with one of the other cheetahs (Shakira) who didn’t want anything to do with him. He could be goofy and we was also notorious for spraying anyone not paying close enough attention.
A beautiful lady and incredibly fast cheetah who, due to an unfortunate virus of sorts, ended up with a large and painful looking open would on her neck. Because of this we never had the pleasure of watching her run, but we were assured she was the second fastest cheetah in the world (on record). She definitely demanded respect but she wasn’t outwardly aggressive like some of the other cheetahs. We were told that when the re-introduction component of the centre started up, it would be Shakira who would be put in Phase two and her babies that would hopefully be released into the wild. They paired her up with another cheetah for breeding while we were there but unfortunately that male (Cole) passed away before that happened. (Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of Cole, he was quite sick when we were there).
This was one of the most intimidating cats I have ever met. We were told to bring a stick in with us when we entered her paddock…just in case. She was unpleasant at the best of times and was most content when we weren’t around. We kept our distance when we went in to feed / clean but apart from that, most of the shots I was able to get were through the fence and generally involved her hissing at the camera.
I always though of her as the grandma, since she was the mother of Tessa, Shakira, Mufasa and possibly Nala and Nikita, i can’t recall now. You could definitely see a correlation between her personality and that of Tessa, both miserable around people and both able to pierce you with a death glare. I have never been so scared as I was every time we had to enter the enclosure that Penny and Mufasa shared. When we arrived it was just after Christmas and so the groundskeepers hadn’t been around to cut the grass. This meant that there were plenty of ‘blind spots’ where the cheetahs could conceal themselves before attacking, which was a very real possibility according to our hosts. The big stick definitely came in with us whenever we went in there. Penny was also unique in the sense that she preferred her meat cut in chunks, not ground up like the rest. She would take her sweet time eating and then slurp up all the blood.
Lived with Penny, which always made me picture him as this 40 year old virgin who lived in his mom’s basement. Making matters even more hilarious, he would occasionally try and make a move on her, but she certainly put him in his place each time. What a perv. But actually, he was another one that we were told to keep our distance from, and we did. His size alone was enough to intimidate even the bravest souls, but he never really stuck me as being as likely to attack as the other, more feminine members of his family.
I definitely saved Jade for last because she was my favourite. Jade is Tessa’s daughter, but she lived in the ‘backyard’ of the owners of the centre. She is the baby of this troupe, being only around 18 months old, and she had two siblings who had unfortunately passed away. She is pretty easy to identify with those giant orange eyes, but she also has wonky looking front legs that make her look a bit awkward when she walks. She would have good days and bad, we would have to test the water each time we went into her enclosure to see what mood she was in. Sometimes she would be fine with us sitting beside her and petting her but most of the time she just wanted to sit in the shade and avoid detection. She used to spend a lot of time in the owners’ house but she didn’t when we were there. As a result, the owner tended to spoil her and treat her almost like her pet (although the whole facility struck me as a big hobby farm for someone with too much money and a love for cheetahs).
Often mistaken for cheetahs, are the African Servals. These are cats with enormous ears and very long limbs that are not that uncommon as pets. In fact, Tigger was also a ‘house cat’ to the owner and thus we could take him for walks on a harness and leash from time to time. He had dazzling blue eyes (which are rare) and seemed to enjoy being around people. He didn’t always cooperate on walks (one time when Dan was walking him, he dashed up a tree and the disapproving owner came out and took the leash from Dan). I liked him quite a lot and wish we could’ve spent more time with him.
Bells was definitely the ‘grumpy’ serval. Granted his enclosure was incredibly tiny and he had to watch Tigger getting all of the love and attention all the time, it’s no wonder he was always in a foul mood. We did find one bonding activity between us though. If we ripped grass blades and stuck it through the fence, he would grumble only slightly and happily devour the spears. Then he would continue to hiss until he got more. I felt bad for him, he really didn’t belong there.
This was one of the most handsome cats I have ever seen, and so far, the only caracal I have had the pleasure of laying eyes on. A caracal is not surprisingly also known as a desert lynx, and he of course immediately caught our eyes with those distinct ear tufts. Unfortunately, as with many of the other cats, he had a nasty habit of hissing and at times, rushing in to attack anyone who dared enter his enclosure. I don’t think I ever entered his enclosure when he was in it, which I was totally fine with. What I had found most amusing was that another group of volunteers (whom we met in our last two weeks there) had generously donated money to build him a beautiful new enclosure which we helped to prepare for him by pulling weeds and clearing the area. We were shocked that anyone could love such a miserable animal that much. He definitely grew on me as time went on, but it was probably just a contagious affection for him.
These were the beautiful creatures we were in charge of caring for and we were sad to hear that they were not really involved with any important function while we were there. We had these grandiose ideas that there would be all these cubs that were going to be released into the wild and that they would be breeding to go off to captive facilities and build up prime genetic stock. But while we were there, not much was happening and it didn’t seem like anything promising would be happening any time soon. It was also disappointing to know that our cheetah time would be spent with only one cheetah (Nala) and even then, she usually only lasted for about two or three people petting her before she got overwhelmed and left our side. Jade was not dependable, and the owner never really cared to come out and help (granted the owners were in the middle of planning a move). Tigger only came out with us twice (over the course of a month) and apart from that, we just stared at the others through fences. It’s not that I was desperate to cuddle them all, it’s the fact that they COULD be trained to be better with people. Considering this facility saw busloads of visitors come through for tours on a regular basis, and they were ‘guaranteed’ a cheetah session where they could pet a cheetah and get photos, you would think socializing the cats would be a bigger priority. But as i mentioned, it really did feel like we were just caring for a wealthy lady’s pet cheetahs as opposed to making substantial contributions to an important conservation project.