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 Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Femail - BY HRH PRINCESS MICHAEL OF KENT © Her Royal High­ness Princess Michael of Kent, 2017

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

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