When I decided I wanted to go to Africa, all I wanted to see was lions. I looked specifically for projects that were centered around lions. I thought I'd found 'the perfect place' several times. There was a project in Zimbabwe. Awesome! Very African. Very lion. However, becoming part of project 'fascist dictator' was not something I nor the Australian government were keen on. Then there was a lion breeding project in South Africa which was having "managerial issues", which I later found out meant that this particular project were raising cubs and selling them into the canned hunting industry. Anyway, back to my naïve and narrow minded ideals about Africa. Lions. Africa was all about lions and everything else was just decoration. After about five minutes of having landed, I was quickly learning the difference between the real living and breathing Africa and the Africa represented in travel brochures (or by D grade celebrities on highly contrived 'reality' tv shows). Once I reached Harnas, I realized there was more wonderment than just lions and I just so happened to be lucky enough to meet the future (furry, four-legged) love of my life. She was a cheetah with a wonky mouth (after losing an upper canine early in life) and was ever so aptly or ironically named (I'm not sure which. Maybe a bit of both), Pride.
Working as part of the research team, Pride essentially became my work colleague and ultimately my best friend. Apart from the one time she pissed off for 2 weeks over Christmas due to a broken VHF collar making it impossible to find her and her cubs (I naturally assumed she was dead and the cubs had been eaten by hyenas. There's that completely unhinged emotion I was talking about), she was extremely proficient at making me look like I knew exactly what I was doing even though she was the clear star of the show. The earmark of a true professional. I was also fiercely protective of her and occasionally found myself in trouble as a result of this loyalty. When working with large, wild and mostly unpredictable animals, emotion and all the highly strung bells and whistles that comes with it becomes a big part of life. Usually it will just ambush you whilst you're trying your hardest to be a well balanced human being. Before I travelled overseas, I probably could've counted the number of emotional meltdowns I'd had on one hand. In the few years I worked in the Research Department, I lost count. You develop bonds with animals that when you try to explain to people, you see that shift in their demeanor that goes from, "Oh, wow. That sounds amazing!" to "Umm...yeah, ok. Whack job."
Pride is the first success story of Harnas' release program into their protected reserve, The Lifeline. In 2012, Pride gave birth to two cubs and the success story came full circle. A hand raised cheetah, hunting on her own giving birth to two cubs, to be raised solely by her. I didn't sleep that first night, worried if these tiny cubs would survive. And Pride. Would she even know what to do with them?! She was fine though. She was meticulous and my heart exploded with joy and pride every time I saw her and her new family. In the first few weeks, another researcher and myself took turns in monitoring the new family.
Pride may have been the first time mother but we no doubt felt much more bewildered and unsure. I remember one afternoon I tracked her down through several hundred meters of thick, low lying thorn bushes (like a good mother, she kept her cubs sheltered. Not so good for the thin-skinned and clumsy homosapien) and found her purring and the cubs sleeping less than a meter away. She looked up at me as if to say "oh good, you're here", pulled herself up from underneath the thickets, gave the 8 day old cubs a quick once over and kept walking. I whispered gruffly after her, "where do you think YOU are going?!" then realised I was trying to reprimand a species that had absolutely no concept of what I was trying to communicate (not the first nor last time either). So I sat there in complete silence as she weaved through the thickets and eventually disappeared from view whilst her cubs laid sleeping, interwoven between each others tiny little limbs completely unaware of the inadequacies of the being their mother had left them with. I probably only sat there for a few minutes but it felt like hours. Watching their little chests rise and fall with each breath. "Shit. Is that one breathing? Oh yeah, there it goes. F#*k. It's stirring. Please go back to sleep. Ok. Good." I carefully backed out of the lair and made my way back to the Land Rover. I found Pride hunting a few kilometres away, she'd caught a steenbok (small antelope) and was happily chowing down before she'd make her way back to her cubs, just in time for sunset
Over the next year, I experienced the most euphoric highs and depressing lows watching Pride and her new family. Some nights I would cry for hours in my room, torturing myself and wondering if I could've done anything differently. At the other end of the spectrum, I'd be energized on only a few hours sleep because I'd been too excited to sleep, chomping at the bit to see what the new day would bring for Pride and her family. The highs always outweighed the lows and that's what kept you going. The animals were what I loved about my job (even when I hated it).