Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Tame cheetah and an attack

Last week a report appeared on my basic news home page (BBCnews) about an attack on a British woman named Violet D’Mello. She had been mauled by a cheetah and some difficult-to-watch video footage was also out there. The story was picked up by many media outlets all over the world. It’s gory and so on, but it does have a happyish ending. Despite nasty injuries to her head, particularly to her eyes, Mrs. D’Mello survived and by now will be well on the way to recovery from the physical injuries.

I’m not here to recap the unfortunate story, but I am interested in the whole business of keeping wild animals as “pets.” It is something I have real problems with, for a variety of reasons.

Cheetahs have been “domesticated” for at least three thousand years. Tame cheetahs were used as hunting animals during the seventeenth and eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1292 BC) in Egypt.  The best-known examples date from the time of the Moghul (or Mughal) emperors in India during the 16th and 17th centuries AD. They had large numbers of these beautiful cats that they used for hunting, especially of the Indian blackbuck.

This picture, in the public domain, was painted by the famous Englishman, George Stubbs, best known for this many depictionsof horses. 


Akbar the Great (1556 to 1605) was reputed to have about a thousand cheetahs tamed in this way, although it is not clear if they were all owned at one time.  Adult cheetahs, that had already learned hunting skills from their mothers, were preferred to cubs, which took a lot longer to train. The cheetahs were blindfolded and “carted.” When potential quarry was seen the blindfold was removed and the hunt was on. It all sounds very much like a falconry exercise. This picture of Akbar, which I got from an intersting site on the web here
dates from the 16th century and shows him with a large retinue in attendance.The cheetahs are hunting gazelles and blackbuck.
During my intern year I used to see a tame cheetah at the small animal clinic at the vet school Kenya. It was really tame and would purr away as one examined it.  I’ve told the full story in my book Wrestling With Rhinos (http://www.jerryhaigh.com/book/). 

Joy Adamson and Pippa, photo taken by Andrew Botta

 I also had to deal with a tame cheetah named Pippa that conservationist Joy Adamson “owned” and claimed to be returning to the wild. That is open to question, as she did not want to lose contact with it (something she wrote in her book The Spotted Sphinx) and continued to feed it an inappropriate diet even when it had shown that it could hunt successfully and had mated with a wild cheetah and was raising a littler. That story is also told in WWR.

There do not appear to be any other accounts of a cheetah attacking a human, so I do wonder if an important element of Mrs. D’Mello’s experience was the presence of children. I have watched, with fascination and concern, as all three of Africa’s big cats have shown an unhealthy interest in small children. I wonder if they simply see them as a bite-sized snack in some sort of atavistic return to the time when humans would have been one source of prey on the open plains. 

My first experience with this phenomenon was in George Adamson’s camp at Mughwango, in Kenya’s Meru National Park. One of the several lionesses came over as we sat and drank a coffee with George. Luckily we were inside his somewhat secure chicken-wire enclosure, part of which you can see here on the left in this paicture taken by colleague and friend Roger Windsor. Two lions are asleep on and beneath the platform in the centre. The big cat simply stared us down, concentrating entirely on the three-year-old daughter of our friends. Her eyes had that scary Yumyum look.   

Another of Roger Windsor's photos of George.
It is not widely known that even George’s very tame lions would occasionally maul and in one case kill a human. George was himself attacked on one occasion.

A few years later I was with friends at the Pretoria Zoo in South Africa and their small daughter was sitting on her mother’s shoulders. As we stood by the cheetah pen one of the cats came over, stretched up the wire and took a very close look at the two-year old from about a metre away. It was spooky.


Diane said...

I missed this post as we were away but my comment when I saw it on the news was "I am sure that something, or someone triggered this event, it is not normal". I have handled many wild animals and although cheetahs appear to be the most docile a wild animal as far as I am concerned will always be a wild animal and I treat it as such. It is good to hear that the woman is recovering well. Diane

Jerry Haigh said...

I'm sure you are right. Of course the presence of children in the time of the Moghuls woud not have been reported, perhaps not even permitted.