Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, back by popular demand. It was originally posted on October 24, 2012. Enjoy!
Every parent knows the bittersweet ache of watching their children grow and leave the nest, but what happens when your baby is not yet two years old and can already run as fast as a car?
No one knows exactly how a one-month-old cheetah cub made her way under the fence of the Ol Pejeta chimpanzee sanctuary in Kenya in October of 2010. It’s no small miracle that sanctuary workers spotted her before the apes could make a meal out of her, yet great concern set in after an extensive search turned up absolutely no trace of the cub’s natural mother. With nowhere else to turn, sanctuary staff loaded the little cheetah onto a jeep and they set off together on a journey into the world of mankind.
“We have added a new member to the family and we are trying to make friends,” explained Sue Roberts of the Sirikoi game lodge in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in her very first blog post about her latest wild orphan. As foster mom to all forms of wildlife including a baby giraffe and an infant porcupine, Sue was well prepared to be patient in bonding with the cub.
The Cub’s New Home – Cheetah Paradise
On the northern slopes of Mount Kenya, set in a shady acacia grove overlooking a natural waterhole, Sirikoi is the perfect place for the human race to unwind and an even more perfect place for a young cheetah to grow up. The lodge runs on solar energy, has its own extensive organic vegetable and fruit garden and a crystal clear mountain spring.
Before she could begin to enjoy all that this new land had to offer, the little cub had to gather the courage to connect with her caretakers.
“When she arrived she was terrified of humans, lots of hissing and spitting, so it was important to get her trust fast,” Sue explains, adding that they have chosen the name Sheeba for the cub. “To do this we had to be on the same level as her, so we took turns for the first three days to lie next to her and do our office work from the floor. We would sleep with her in a tent on a mattress on the floor and she would gently pat our faces in the morning when she wanted us to wake up.We played classical music which calmed her down enormously, Beethoven was best.”
“This paid off after eight days and we took her outside to play,” Sue continued. “She was no longer frightened or trying to run away. She was now full of fun and joy and confidence and came when called.”
Weeks flew by and Sheeba continued to charm her human companions on their long walks and lazy snoozes together. But her sense of adventure frequently led to mischief. One day, Sheeba decided to go for a climb but was ill prepared to make her way back down the tree.
“We were alerted by her loud chirping cries for help and found her stuck up this very large tree,” Sue said. “She does not like to be lifted so resisted being rescued by digging her claws into the bark. A tug of war ensued but she was finally brought down safely.”
Growing by Leaps and Bounds
As Sheeba blossomed into a sleek, lanky build, her interest in exploring widened.
“One morning we found her sitting in the bush breakfast car, hoping for a ride,” Sue said. “Sheba has decided that she loves cars, something we have tried hard to discourage as this could mean disaster for visitors to the conservancy should they come across her in the bush, and she decides to join them!”
But when the humans refused to take her for a drive, Sheeba decided she’d take matters into her own paws and she went for a very long walk.
Sheeba Suddenly Goes Missing
“On Wednesday, her keeper called us to say that she’d disappeared around lunchtime, and two hours later still hadn’t appeared,” Sue recalls of a time when Sue was out of town. “We weren’t unduly worried, as she was becoming more and more independent. But when we went out at 5 pm in vehicles to help look for her, there still was no sign, and by the time darkness fell we had to call off the search.”
“We were hoping she’d caught something and was still feeding, and would reappear at first light,” Sue continued. “She would no doubt be rather wide-eyed after her first night alone in the bush. But she didn’t appear. So then we started wondering if the two males who’ve been around had come by and spirited her away to mate. At over 17 months now, she was bound to be ready for mating. We prepared ourselves for a dishevelled Puddy Puddy to suddenly reappear, with burrs in her fur and a guilty expression. But she didn’t. Nor did she come back on Friday. Nor did she come back on Saturday. We began to imagine the worst.”
And then, suddenly an early morning phone call blew the lid of Sheeba’s caper. “A ranger had found her (or had she found him) wandering along the Marani valley, a long, long way from home. Her keeper Lekoitip was called, and we rushed to the place to reunite him with Sheba. When she heard his voice, and saw him walking down the hill she raced towards him, ecstatic to see him.”
The Time Had Come to Set Her Free
Sheeba was now straddling two worlds and the time was nearing for her to go free. And no matter how much their hearts protested, the team at Sirikoi knew they had to let her go. Lekoitip, a member of the Masai people, was comfortable walking in the bush with wild animals and his excursions with Sheeba helped build her muscles and make her familiar with all the sounds and smells. It gave her a routine that was as close as possible to what she would hold with her natural mother.
“During the day they would nap under a shady tree before returning home,” Sue recalls. “Sheeba would often catch hare on the way back.”
Lekoitip stayed with Sheba at her new home for a couple of months as she settled in completely and with the help of a tracking collar deploying Google Earth technology, the team was able to pinpoint her location at any given time for weeks after her official release.
Once they were compeletely certain of Sheeba’s established territory and full capacity to fend for herself as a wild cheetah, the ‘parents’ knew their primary role was done. Sheeba’s new home is about two hours away from Sirikoi in an area without tourist vehicles as she still has a proclivity for jumping into the backseat of cars, despite their best efforts to discourage her from doing so.
“We really wanted her to live a natural life so yes, it was heartbreaking to leave her but she was with Lekoitip and she felt totally at home in her new place,” explained Sue, adding that Sheeba was at the age when cubs in the wild would normally leave their mothers and go out on their own.
Bonus Photos of Sheeba
Click here to see more charming and incredible photos of Sheeba growing up and released into her new home.