My Pride and joy (part 3) by Erin Rainey
It was early on a Monday morning when I got the final go ahead to take Merci back to Pride. So myself and a few volunteers headed out into the Lifeline to collect Pride and bring her back to the enclosure at the DamHouse. Although I was confident about this family reunion I wanted the security of an enclosure just in case. We returned back to the farm and herded a less than impressed Merci into a box trap and loaded her onto the back of the Land Rover.
Pride was pacing at the gate when we arrived but I rather expect it was a protest against being at the DamHouse rather than the excitement of seeing her cub again. I threw a large piece of meat over the fence to get her away from the gate and allow us to bring Merci in. As soon as Merci saw Pride she started thrashing and pacing in her cage. Myself and the other researcher placed down the cage and raised the cage door. Merci flew out, straight to her mother.
After several minutes of enthusiastically grooming her cub, Pride collapsed in the sand, bathing in the mid morning Namibian sunlight. She seemed relaxed and content, not bothered by the excitement and anticipation that had been built around her. Merci seemed a little more cautious, as if she was wondering if this was all too good to be true. She tentatively sauntered over to where Pride was laying in the sun. Pride's eyes were closed and she sighed, as if in relief. Merci approached her mother cautiously and sat behind her, as if to suggest if I wanted to take her back, I'd have to go through her mother. Merci leaned over the top of a dozing Pride and licked her ear. Then she launched herself onto Pride, wrestling and biting her mother in playful excitement. Pride opened one eye, dissatisfied her peace had been interrupted but allowed the cub to carry on. Merci rolled over the top of Pride's head, still biting and chewing on her ears and neck but failed to elicit any reaction from her mother. The cub tired after a couple of minutes and flopped down in front of Pride. Pride started to groom her cub once again and the two started purring in a loud unison. After 6 weeks of screaming, crying and uncertainty, I could finally start to feel my purpose again. There was no need to keep them confined to the DamHouse and as soon as we opened the gate, Pride strutted out with Merci following closely behind. Pride killed a sub adult springbok that very afternoon and it was extremely satisfying to see that tiny, blood splattered face reaping the rewards of her mothers success.
Between the loading and unloading of cheetahs, a small cub had been brought to the farm. His mother had been shot by a farmer and from an alleged brood of 6 cubs, he was the only one that was 'rescued'. With all the excitement reuniting Pride and Merci, I hadn't given him a second thought. We eventually named him Dinga, which means 'the wanderer/he without a home' and although a little on the scrawny side, he looked to be around the same age as Merci. Over the next few days, this new cub started to form the centre of my thoughts. He didn't enjoy his new home. As a wild cub that had lost his mother and then found himself on a property with humans taking care of him, it's no surprise. He was living near the staff housing and he cried often. A volunteer had sent me a video a couple months prior about a cheetah adopting a cub at a zoo in The States. Very cute but I'd not thought anymore of it until I met this new cub. I wondered how it would work in a 'wilder' environment. I started looking for any research that might support my ambitious theory. There wasn't much but it had happened. At the most basic level, wild animals are designed for survival. They want their genes carried through to the next generation. It's very common that lionesses will take on the responsibility of other cubs if something happens to their mother. However, all the females in a pride tend to be related, so there is a genetic advantage for taking on the extra responsibility. Cheetahs are relatively solitary so there would seem to be no advantage for a female to have to provide for another cub that is not related to her. There were two conditions that had to met if the adoption were a chance to work, the female must already have at least one cub and the cubs must be of similar age.
There were various levels of support for my proposal but I was extremely passionate about this idea. Within 2 weeks I had gained the support I needed to trial my proposal. If it didn't work, Dinga would come back to the farm and continue to be raised in captivity. I was ok with this. I just wanted to give him a second chance and was super confident in Pride. So once again, we had to bring Pride and now Merci back to DamHouse. Pride was very tolerant even if she detested it immensely. Merci was not so cooperative. She'd just spent 6 weeks in confinement, being harassed by humans. She disliked me before she broke her leg. She hated me now and it would take more than a bit of chicken strung up in a box trap to trick her. It took 3 hours for me to out smart her and get her and Pride back to DamHouse. I had a bachelor degree in Animal Science from one of the best universities in Australia and it took me 3 hours to outsmart a 5 month old cheetah cub. It was a very humbling experience.
Pride's reunion with Merci was perfect. I couldn't have scripted it better. Pride's introduction to Dinga couldn't have gone worse. It seemed to start out well but went to shit quickly. We brought Dinga into DamHouse and Pride came running over to him, the two chirruping emphatically. A good sign. He was excited to see here and she appeared to accept the cub. Too easy. So we opened the cage and Dinga ran out to join his new family. I was ecstatic. I was worried about Pride accepting the cub, I didn't even consider Merci's feelings on the matter. She took an immediate disliking to her new brother, swiping and growling at him. He tried to follow Pride but Merci would not have it. She would beat down on him and he would try to seek refuge in Pride but Pride had already seemed to identify that this new cub was be source of Merci's anxiety and punished him for it. This poor cub now had Merci and Pride rejecting him. He was evenly matched with Merci but Pride was not taking any mercy on him. Shit. I had to grab the cub before Pride seriously injured him. Without even thinking I ran over and grabbed the cub. He immediately flipped on his back and used he back legs to defend himself. He clawed my forearms but I had hold of him and wasn't going to let go. He went back into his cage. Now what? Maybe if we just leave him for a few hours, everyone can just chill out and we can try again. Nope. Pride started charging the cage and hissing aggressively at Dinga. Nothing changed over the next day. I felt defeated.
As a last ditch attempt, I called Marnus. He no longer worked on Harnas but had founded the Research Department. I explained the story to him and he suggested putting the cubs together. Separate them from Pride. "She'll kill him!" I detested, referring to Merci. "They'll be right. They've just got to sort it out like brother and sister. They'll fight but then they'll be right." He assured. I had no other option, so pushed forward with the new plan. We constructed another smaller enclosure and got the two cubs in. What surprised me was Pride's disinterest. She'd spent the last 24 hours charging and hissing as this cub but now couldn't care less that Merci and this imposter were now inmates. As expected, Merci asserted her authority over the newcomer but this time he stood up for himself. They growled, swiped and fought until one would submit then it'd be "time out" until someone moved and it'd be on again. This cycle continued for several minutes and then they just stopped, collapsed on top of each other, panting heavily. As I left, they were very happily curled up next to each other, sleeping peacefully. In five minutes they'd managed to valid and then completely invalidate all of my fears, neurosis and panic.
When I returned at daybreak the following morning, I arrived to see that Merci had managed to climb the 7 foot fence and was now running on the outside of the DamHouse. Insert highly offensive expletives. My heart was in my stomach. Thank God Pride was still on the inside as that was the only think stopping the cub from making a run for it. She was pacing, tying to reach her mother. I put Pride inside the house and swung open the large gate and moved away. Once Merci felt that there was adequate space between the two of us she sheepishly ran inside. I let Pride out and now no one would be any wiser of the almost disaster that occurred. With my heart still pounding out of my chest and my legs trembling, I managed to distract Merci with a bit of sheep leg. Pride hates sheep so I knew she'd have no interest in it. Merci selfishly grabbed the leg and took off to the other side of the enclosure. Whilst she was busy devouring the leg I called Pride over to where Dinga was patiently but so eagerly waiting. Pride wasn't hissing or spitting. Good sign. If this didn't work, Dinga would be going back to the farm. I sighed and held my breath as a coaxed Pride into the tiny enclosure Dinga was being held in. Dinga was so excited I could see him shaking. Pride sauntered in and laid down, completely ignoring the cub. He couldn't help himself and launched at her. She growled and swiped him. He stopped, recoiled, shook himself off and approached her again, this time in a much calmer, slower and thought out manner. He placed himself between her front paws, slowly lowering himself down, his eyes still fixated on her. Pride continued to gaze out towards the horizon then casually lowered her head and started to groom the cub. Dinga closed his eyes and started purring loudly. At this stage, Merci, who had finished gorging herself on her prized sheep leg realised mum wasn't by her side and started frantically calling for her. She wouldn't approach Pride as I was standing close by, so I unlocked the small pen and started to step away. Merci rushed over to her mother, barely stopping to express her unwavering opinion of me. Realising the pen was open, Pride jumped up and headed to the other side of the enclosure with her two cubs following closely behind. I could've sworn Dinga had an extra spring in his step as he bounded along. Merci couldn't help herself though and took another swipe at Dinga but he had worked hard to get to this point and ain't nobody going to rain on his parade. He quickly retaliated and she immediately relinquished. The two cubs sat staring at each other for a couple of seconds and then launched into a lighthearted play fight. And that was it. We released the new family into the release site that evening and they lived as a very successful family unit.
I left Harnas when the cubs were just shy of their first birthday and enjoyed hearing the updates as they grew and developed their skills. Pride was a fantastic mother, teaching her cubs how to hunt and survive in the Lifeline. Not long after their second birthday I received an email that Merci and Dinga (who were now living and hunting quite independently of Pride) had escaped from the Lifeline. They'd found a large hole under the fence line that had no doubt been excavated by one of the hundreds of warthogs the passed through the reserve. They'd found themselves on a neighbors property and he shot them dead. He claimed one scenario but the evidence couldn't have painted a more different and vivid story of what really happened. But it didn't matter. Merci and Dinga were dead. Everything that I and everyone else in that Research Department had worked on for the past two years was gone.
I can't thank Erin enough for this post, even though it breaks my heart, it takes me right back to the most special time of my life. I cannot imagine how hard it was for Erin to write this. I was lucky enough to have been present at Harnas just after Dinga arrived, and I left on the very day he was introduced to Pride and Merci. I spent a lot of time with him before he was introduced to them, and he was such a sad little soul, so I was beyond elated when I heard the introduction had gone well (read my post from 2012 here). I still feel such sadness when I think of him and his adoptive sister Merci. To go from such an inspirational, uplifting story, to utter heartbreak is so unfair. Merci and Dinga's story highlights the problems facing countries such as Namibia - most of the animals at Harnas and at our partner charity N/a'an ku se, are there because of human-wildlife conflict. If you'd like to help us keep these amazing felines as safe as we can, click here.