The little orphan who got her claws into my heart
It’s a royally enchanting story: the unique bond between a cheetah cub and the rather special girl who adopted her
THE cub was so small, she could not have been more than a few days old. She fitted easily into the palm of my hand, snuggled there with her eyes tight shut, a little black stripe running from the inner corner of her eye down to the side of her minuscule mouth. She had a black nose, a tawny, hairy back, tiny black spots on her darkish coat and – surprisingly – a dark, spotted tummy. Her paws had sharp, transparent little hooks for claws, and a short, thick, pointed tail stuck out at the end of her body.
All my maternal instincts went into overdrive – I was in love and helpless with a yearning to protect her, feed her, do anything I could to ensure she survived.
I was 17 and visiting my father’s farm in Africa for the first time. My parents had parted when I was an infant and my father had moved to Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique. He started farming there and remarried.
I landed in Johannesburg in neighbouring South Africa in early October 1961. Meeting my father – in essence for the first time – was quite daunting.
He was overwhelming in every way: tall and strongly built, with light skin and piercing blue eyes; a fine-looking man with an impressive profile and strong personality.
On that long drive north he told me fabulous stories of his life in Africa and all the pleasures this Garden of Eden would provide for me. I took a deep breath as we crossed into Mozambique: my new home – well, for a while.
The house was a low, flat, thickwalled villa – half hacienda, half mission, painted a honey-cream. It seemed to be sitting firmly on the edge of an escarpment sloping down into a deep valley that shaded from green to mauve, then to deep purple in the far distance.
Lawns surrounded two sides of the house, with huge shrubs of flowering hibiscus planted into them almost at random.
Here and there, deep red bougainvillea climbed aimlessly up trees, and lay on their tops like washing drying in the sun.
I had not long been on Maforga, as the farm was known, before a local chief, whose village was on our land, came to ask my father if he would shoot a big cat which, he claimed, had taken a child from a hut. The animal had a damaged hind leg – caught in a trap – and could no longer hunt.
Would Papi, as I called him, come and shoot the beast? ‘Poor damaged creature,’ muttered my father. ‘Of course it’s hungry if it can’t hunt for its food’ – but he had to agree. Taking me with him, he waited by the edge of the village. When the poor animal appeared, he shot it. It was an emaciated female cheetah.
On examining the carcass, Papi noticed at once that the cheetah was lactating: she must have cubs. Searching for the supposed remains of the child in the animal’s lair, our hunters found a single tiny cub.
My father promptly said he would take it – it would not survive long in the villagers’ hands – and he put it in one of mine.
At the farm, we arranged one of my stepmother Rosemarie’s old cardigans into a shoe box, put this next to my bed and settled the cub in it.
Papi said: ‘Darling girl, I want you to understand two things from the start. First of all, the cub will most probably die.
‘But if she lives, she is not to be a pet. When and if she grows, she must be returned to the wild.’ I well remember how my heart sank, but I knew he was right.
That first night was a sleepless one for me. The tiny creature woke often, mewing for her mother, breaking my heart. I would feed her powdered milk with an eye dropper, cuddle her and, when she settled, put her gently back in her soft bed.
I decided on her name. Cheetahs are known to be fast and, full of my new role as her guardian, I grandly named this little thing that could hardly crawl Vitesse – speed. Naturally, she became known as Tess.
Between the loving and feeding, it did not take long before Tess was as tame and dependent as a domestic kitten.
She followed me, crawling slowly around my bedroom area on wobbly little legs, chirping softly, occasionally plaintively. Whenever I left her alone in my room, I would return to find her sitting upright, legs side by side in front of her, exactly where I had left her. This, I discovered, is what cubs do in the wild: they stay exactly where their mother has left them for their safety in case of predators, and wait patiently for her return. Those early days, then weeks, were among the happiest of my life. This adorable creature was totally reliant on me and I doted on her every need. At six weeks she was completely agile and steady on her feet, so I decided to let her play on the big lawn in front of the house, where the driveway encircled it. Weeks later, I thought it might be an idea to make her a proper outdoor playground to climb around and so I asked Joao the house carpenter to help, Joao was a genius and he began to build a super cheetah playground for Tess. We
‘She lived in a shoe box next to my bed’
placed it in such a way that the finished arrangement of hurdles covered a large part of the curved front lawn. There were 12 different-shaped obstacles in all, including old vehicle tyres with a rope running through them and hung 10cm above the ground. These Tess would climb through, attack and try to bite. It was her castle and she loved it.
Unfortunately, I had completely forgotten that Papi and Rosemarie were bringing a local mayor and his wife out to the farm for lunch that day.
The Mayor’s wife got straight back in the car when she saw Tess running up to Papi and Rosemarie, and the Mayor blanched. I dashed to grasp Tess by the scruff. I assured them that cheetahs do not eat humans, but that did little to reassure them.
Conversation was stilted and little was eaten.
As Tess grew, I began to take her in Rosemarie’s car with me to do errands. I put on her harness and kept her on a lead in our small town, and I enjoyed taking her shopping with me and to the post office, where she was a great favourite.
Visiting a young couple, charming neighbours, she picked up a rather nice small straw hat left on a table one Sunday after church and would not let it go. She sat with it hanging from her mouth, dark blue straw with flowers and cherries drooping down – a ridiculous sight, but so endearing.
Tess was about ten months old when our local vet Eduardo, who had helped me from the beginning, and without whom I am sure the cub would not have survived, suggested that he should join two licensed hunters employed by my father in training Tess to hunt.
Since an animal would have to be maimed for Tess to be able to catch and kill it at this age, and aware that I was rather squeamish, it was decided by my father that I should undertake a trip to Cape Town.
On my return a few weeks later, I was told Tess had learned to spot and stalk small game on the farm, as if she had never been brought up by human hand.
She crouched the moment anything came into sight, did not move a hair, and watched intently.
Then came the time to teach Tess to run. We used a pick-up truck and had a houseboy Francisco squat in the back with a supply of fresh antelope meat tied to lengths of string about five or six yards long. His job was to throw a piece out towards Tess to tempt her with it.
Once she showed interest and made to play with it, I would drive off slowly and she would chase the meat bouncing along behind the vehicle. It was a great game for her, and exciting for us to see how fast she was becoming.
After her daily training run, she would join me on the terrace and I would read to her like a child. Ever polite, when I paused she would often nudge me with her paw.
At almost two years old, I saw her make a kill for the first time, a young oribi antelope that must have strayed from the others in its herd. Suddenly she flattened her body and I crouched down at once. I saw nothing, while Tess crept forward slowly in about 2ft-high grass. Minutes passed before she launched herself forward, too fast for me to blink.
I did not see the antelope until it was struggling with its neck in her jaws.
None of us moved until she killed and released it. Then she began to open up the carcass and feed. When she had eaten enough, Tess came to me purring, visibly pleased with herself. I was so proud.
As Tess neared maturity, we talked more and more about releasing her into Gorongosa National Park. I knew both Papi and Rosemarie worried that I had become too attached to her. But so had they. The character of a homereared cheetah is totally affectionate, gentle, adorable, funny – how could anyone not love her?
She had started to copy the dogs and to raise her paw on to my knee when sitting by me as if to ask for something, and with a plaintive look in her clear amber eyes. Was it freedom she wanted? Although I was dreading the day when I had to send my beloved Tess to her new life in the wild, to survive with all its various challenges and without our protection, I had to admit, looking at her, that at almost 24 months she was fully mature. In the late afternoons she was spending some time alone on the farm, which made me imagine she was already looking for a mate rather than a small buck.
When she returned just before nightfall, she would always greet me with much purring, her head bumping my legs, or catching one of them with a quick swipe from a front paw in play ambush, and then licking my fingers. I had never allowed her to lick my face.
Before we settled down together on the floor of my room as usual, I decided to measure her. She stood almost 2½ft tall from her shoulder to the floor, just a little less than an adult male.
I brushed her daily and gently on her underbelly which was white, as was the fluffy tip of her long, strong tail. To me, she seemed to be in prime condition. How could I say goodbye to this loving companion, my beautiful friend, Vitesse? Would she survive in the wild, and breed? Would I see her again?
For answers to these questions, I’m afraid you will have to read my new book, A Cheetah’s Tale. But I can reassure you that the conclusion is not without its note of bittersweet happiness…
‘What was she asking for… was it freedom?’
JUST PURRFECT Princess Michael with an orphaned cub at Kapama reserve in South Africa. Right: Meeting two other orphans at the reserve – eightyear-old Birman and, below, 18-month-old Xander