My Pride and Joy (part two) by Erin Rainey
The first few months of the cubs' life was like something out of a National Geographic documentary. The way they grew from helpless balls of fur to confident 8 week old cubs with full and flowing mantles akin their backs sharing gleefully in their first hunt with mum. Merci (the female) and Beaucoup (the male) were about 3 months old and I'd picked up a signal along the western side of the reserve. This was quite a thick and dense area full of thorny trees that would shred your skin like tissue paper but Pride flourished in these areas. It has been well documented for many years that cheetahs are open plain hunters, utilizing their high speed to run down their prey and it's probably the very image that comes to most people's minds when they think cheetahs but Pride was most successful as an ambush hunter, preferring to stalk her prey from short distances. Scientists now believe the only reason we accept cheetahs as open plain hunters is because we only see them in open plains, if you can't see them hunting in the tickets you can't document it. The benefit of tracking a cat that did not fear humans, is that we were able to track her kills regardless of the terrain (#themoreyouknow).
We stopped the car and could see Pride and the cubs feasting on a young Impala. I never ceased to be impressed and proud when I found her on a kill but my glee soon turned to 'that sinking feeling' when I noticed one of the cubs, Merci, seemed a bit off and awkward. The cubs always tolerated my presence but if I got too close they'd hiss and spit and quickly retreat into the bush, calling for Pride to come find them. Merci was also the feistier of the two. A real wild, little bitch and I loved it. I liked to think she was just like her mother, had Pride been raised 'wild'. I am very much a 'cat person', much to the confusion of my partner. He can't understand how I could I love a species that is so aloof, independent and fickle. I love that cats are not afraid to tell you what they think. I love their stubborn independence all whilst keeping a strict air of elegance. I'm pretty sure I have species envy. As I approached her, she started growling and lowered her head, refusing to shift her gaze away from me. I was almost at arms reach before she reluctantly leaped away and the problem was immediately obvious, her right foreleg dragged underneath her as she hobbled away. The injury had to be fresh, there was no way she would've been able to keep up with Pride and her brother otherwise and I could only speculate that she'd somehow become entangled under Pride's paws as she took off after the impala they were feasting on.
It was late in the afternoon and I knew I didn't have much daylight left. Of course, these things always happen when there's some sort of extenuating circumstance exacerbating your already panicked state. I was very vocal and strict about the cubs living as wild of a life (away from human influence) as possible. Now I was faced with capturing a small wild cat that despised my very existence. I had spent many months cultivating that attitude and up until that very moment was very proud of my investment. I also didn't know how Pride would react to me taking away one of her cubs, so I adopted blind faith and hoped she didn't protest my intervention. I also had several volunteers with me so had to act like I knew exactly what I was doing and avoid any further unnecessary stress to the cheetahs. This no doubt was going to be the talk of the volunteer village, so this was as much about image as it was doing what was best for the animals.
"We just need to wait here awhile," I confidently stated to the volunteers as I returned to the vehicle. "Let them (me) settle for a bit." In a controlled situation (ha!) I would have had a vet with me to dart her, she'd go peacefully to sleep and we'd transport her back to the farm in a crate to seek veterinary care immediately. I knew I had about an hour of daylight and the only equipment to capture her with me were my own two hands and I knew she would resist my attempts to help her 'tooth and nail' (literally). We got all three of the cats into the back of the truck. Pride wasn't particularly fussed by the protests of her offspring and I kept all of my extremities. A win all round. We then transported them to Damhouse, the research base camp which had a small fenced area where we could monitor her. By the time we got there it was dark. So with the help of few French vet students and under the guidance of a dim headlamp, we were able to pin Merci down with blankets and bandage her leg. There was not much else we could do that night.
It took several days to get Merci into Gobabis (the nearest town and closest vet) and the X-rays (which were taken across the road at the dentist's surgery. Gobabis is a small town in a third world country, we were probably lucky that there was an X-ray machine at all.) showed the leg was broken in two places and needed surgery. It took another day before she was transferred to Windhoek (capital city) where a specialist would operate on the leg. When I got the call that the surgery couldn't proceed due to necrosis in her toes, a rage that would put Naomi Campbell to shame enveloped me and disconnected that filter between my brain and my mouth. I thought my head was going to explode. The delay in getting Merci to the Vet had meant her leg had been bandaged for so long, it had cut blood supply to her toes. To undergo the surgery, a viable blood flow is somewhat of a necessity. The issue now was that she might have to have her foot amputated and a surgery to correct the broken bones was no longer viable. If she lost her foot, it would mean she'd be a captive cat for the rest of her life. We now just had to hope the bones re-aligned and healed on their own. Thankfully, she didn't lose her foot and Merci came back to the farm and had to be in confinement for 6 weeks to give the bones the best chance of healing correctly. Thankfully, the broken bones healed wonderfully and the final X-rays showed they'd healed just as well as if she had had the surgery.
Although Merci's injury and subsequent setback caused countless restless nights and stress filled days, it may have actually saved her life. Whilst recovering on the farm, winter hit Namibia almost overnight and Pride's other cub, Beaucoup died from pneumonia. I wanted to give up. There was a question of Merci's future and now Beaucoup had passed. In a little over three months, I had plummeted from overwhelming elation to a dumbfounded devastation. Pride suffered, too. She called and called for her missing cub, refusing to hunt or leave the area where he died. She started chasing the research vehicle when we would leave. It was like she'd regressed. For over a week, she didn't move and was 'needy'. She was always quite an aloof cat. Happy to see you but would usually tire of your presence after a few minutes and return to whatever activity you had interrupted. Now she was waiting for the truck, chasing us down and chasing after us when we would leave. I was so frustrated with her, I stopped the car one day and got out. "What do you want?!!" She kept circling the car, looking to get in. "Fine. You want to get in?! Go on! Get in." I always tried to limit the amount of human interference and had been successful at breaking many of her 'bad habits' she'd adopted during her prior life as a captive cat, so it was definitely against my ideals to put her in the truck but the 'tough love' approach didn't seemed to be working, so I let her make the calls. I took her back to DamHouse as this is where I was staying for the week. Normally, she hated being there. Pacing to be let out but not this time. I left the front gate wide open, hoping she would leave but she craved and was actively seeking out human contact. A glorified house cat. For the next few days, we would leave in the morning to do other tasks around the reserve and upon our return, she would be waiting for us. Then one day when we returned for lunch, she wasn't there. She'd ventured several kilometers away and had made a kill. There's a lot of debate about the emotions animals feel and we have to be careful not to assume they feel the same way as we do but despite my 'science brain', I couldn't help but believe that for those 2 weeks, Pride had been grieving the loss of her cub.
A week or two later, the thought was put forth that given how long Merci had been separated from her mother, that a) she would now be 'too tame' and b) Pride wouldn't recognize her. 'Experiments' were conducted to 'test' her level of 'tameness'. Each attempt was a glorious fail but what about Pride? The other researcher and myself had the idea to record Merci's cries and take them out to Pride. Merci cried all day in confinement, only stopping to assert her extreme distaste towards her two-legged captors. The second Pride heard Merci she ran around in a flurry, calling in an anxious panic, searching for her cub. It was beyond heart breaking to see her search for her cub (especially given the recent passing of Beaucoup) but it was still good news. Just to make sure there'd be no debate, we recorded Pride's calls and played it to Merci. Merci tried and almost succeeded in scaling a 6 foot wall, thinking her mother was on the other side. That was settled. There was no doubt and Merci was going back to her mother.