Mother of Cheetahs
This article originally appeared in the February, 2015 edition of The Big Issue South Africa
A young woman gets a unique opportunity to raise three cheetah cubs. It’s a dream job for her – and an important intervention for a species that’s under siege.
by Jen Jackson
Leah Brousse’s day begins when the triplets wake up. Lula, Clyde and Benji have outgrown the house – as big cats are liable to do – so they now live in the back garden. Brousse’s babies may be unconventional, but this 24-year-old mother of cheetahs wouldn’t give it up for the world.
“Having them is the most amazing experience in my life,” she says. “It’s a blessing and they make me smile every day.”
As head of Western Cape Cheetah Conservation at Inverdoorn Game Reserve, Brousse has been raising the eight-month-old cubs since they were only two weeks old. The cubs had to be separated from their mother after a serious attack from an unknown predator.
“Originally there were four cubs,” explains Brousse. “One day, I went to check on them and saw that one was missing – it was later found dead – and that Lula had a huge wound. We then decided to separate the cubs from their mum for their own safety.”
Luckily, the three survivors were tough. “If we had found Lula 30 minutes later, I think she would have been dead,” recalls Brousse. “I picked her up and told her that everything was going to be okay. She just looked at me and started purring. From then on I knew that she was a fighter and would pull through.”
Like any siblings, each cub has developed its own unique personality. Lula is the fierce one. Always the first to explore, she was also the first cub to catch a buck. “To be exact, a duiker,” says Brousse, “the duiker kept on charging her but Lula didn’t back up. She didn’t harm the little antelope, but it was an amazing experience.” Clyde is the big, curious boy. The teddy bear of the group, Clyde is most confident around people. “He is always happy and never bothered.”
Benji is perhaps the most attached to his human mom, which Brousse credits to a life-threatening bout of meningitis when he was 6 weeks old. “During that time, he needed a lot of attention and I think that’s why he has created such a special relationship,” says Brousse, “Benji is the most loving and a real mama’s boy. He is always the first to follow me and come in for a big cuddle. He is also the only cheetah that I know that knows how to kiss and hug.”
Born in France, Brousse always dreamt of working with cheetahs. As a little girl, photos of cheetahs lined her bedroom walls instead of Disney characters or teen heartthrobs. As she grew up, Africa started to seem extremely far away from Europe and her vision of working with cheetahs felt like more and more of what it was: a childhood dream.
Determined to make it a reality, the young woman decided to travel the world after she graduated – and her first stop was South Africa, where she volunteered with cheetahs in the Eastern Cape. After two weeks, she was offered a job. And a year later, she was working in the cheetah conservation programme at Inverdoorn, which she now runs.
“Cheetahs fascinate me in so many ways,” she says. “I especially love the way they hunt, and their tails and tear marks amaze me. Their character is just beautiful.”
Inverdoorn runs several conservation programmes, working with elephants, rhinos and the cheetahs. The game reserve dedicates 10 000 hectares to conservation of its 28 resident species. Its Western Cape Cheetah Conservation programme has three conservation missions.
The first is to release cheetahs back into the wild. Two cheetahs – a male and a female – have already been successfully released into the main reserve, having never hunted in the wild for the first eight years of their lives.
Cheetahs chase down their prey, so teaching the cubs to harness their incredible speed is step one. “The cheetahs that have been raised in captivity still have the instinct to hunt,” explains Brousse. Once they can run, the tricky part for the cubs becomes navigating difficult situations, like the horns of a buck.
The 19 cheetahs being rehabilitated by Inverdoorn are put through their lure-chasing paces every day, honing their skills while entertaining the reserve’s visitors, who get to watch the world’s fastest land animal pound the dust from an elevated platform nearby. Having been through the rehabilitation process, both of the cheetahs who were released into the reserve had made their own kill within three days.
The programme’s second mission is to breed cheetahs. Sounds simple enough, but there’s just one problem: cheetahs are notoriously difficult to breed due to high stress levels and picky mating habits, but the programme managed its first two litters in 2014 – including Leah’s bouncy backyard brood.
The third and final mission is to education the public. At Inverdoorn, people can interact with rescued cheetahs – especially Velvet, a lanky, young female whose tail was slammed in a bathroom door and broken when she was a captive cub.
Unfortunately, as Brousse explains, not all breeding facilities are equal. “In the beginning a breeding facility always sounds great because you think ‘hey they are breeding cheetahs, they are trying to save the species.’ Unfortunately not all places are like that.” Breeding facilities can be a lucrative business, but according to Brousse, many will steal cubs from their mothers in the wild and claim to have bred them. “A lot of places are in it for the money and will tell you that they had 90 cubs this year while 80 are stolen from their mums in Namibia.”
Velvet came from one of these so-called breeding facilities when she was one month old. Initially visiting the facility in the hopes of buying full grown cheetahs to add diversity to their breeding program, Inverdoorn found 4 cubs in horrible condition in the bathroom, ill and full of ticks and fleas. A lot of money can be made selling cheetahs as exotic pets in places like Dubai and these cubs were slated to be sold to a sheikh.
Inverdoorn staffers put up a fight and thankfully, after the smallest cub died, were able to convince the owner to sell them the cheetahs rather than have them die during transport. Two of the remaining three cubs, Shady and Joti, are already in phase two of being released into the reserve.
“Velvet will unfortunately never be able to be released,” says Brousse, “The tail is very important for a cheetah to run and hunt. They hold their balance with it, turn to the sides, and hit the breaks. A lot of times in the wild cheetahs will injure themselves [when] they run into bushes or holes. Velvet knows that she can’t quickly avoid those situations [so] she runs very slowly for a cheetah... But we try and give her the best life she can possibly have in captivity.” Velvet gets taken out once or twice a day to run and hunt. “Velvet never gets anything but it’s still fun for her.”
Every day at the reserve is different for Brousse. She begins by waking up Lula, Clyde, and Benji. “If they are playful and I enter the room in morning, I usually get jumped on from all sides. Then all of them run outside as soon as I open the door,” says Brousse. next, she heads over to the cheetah breeding facility. There, she feeds and observes the animals, including six two-month-old cubs – the reserve’s second litter – who are still under the care of their mother. Next, Brousse tracks the two released cheetahs – they are fitted with radio collars, so she can find out what they’ve been up to, and if they have made a kill.
“After I come back from tracking, anything can happen,” says Brousse, “Cleaning has to be done, new enclosures must be built, meat has to be prepared for the cheetahs and then, obviously, all the cheetahs want attention. Every day, we take the cheetahs out for long walks.”
It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
One constant for Brousse is putting Lula, Clyde, and Benji to bed at the end of the day. “If they are tired it’s all very easy and I just lie down with them and cuddle,” explains Brousse, “If they are playful in the evening I struggle to bring them to bed since they don’t really want to. They are like little kids.”
Cheetahs are sprinters, and hunt by reaching speed up to 120 kilometers an hour. Cheetahs can reach 100 km/h in only 3 seconds. But they can only maintain these incredible bursts of speed for a few hundred yards and they require lots of open space to chase their prey down. Not all of the cats at Inverdoorn can be released, due to injury, but increasing the wild population is a pressing matter.
Due to loss of land, cheetahs in the wild come into contact with large predators like lions more and more often. And if they can’t make a hasty escape, this kind of encounter doesn’t end well. “One of the most important things is to create more open land for cheetahs. If we can do that we can really make a difference,” says Brousse.
Approximately 90% of cheetah cubs never reach adulthood in the wild, so a litter of four – like Lula, Clyde and Benji’s – could very well be wiped out in its entirety, leaving nothing for the next generation. Without breeding programmes like Inverdoorn’s, the world’s fastest land animal would be thundering towards an imminent extinction. And all we would be able to do is watch.