I have to admit, my firmly held belief that ´there is no such thing as too much cheese´ has, very occasionally, been found to have its limits – the cheese farm you´ll read about in our next post being the most recent! However I have never found any limits to my other passsionately held view that ´there is no such thing as too many cats´.
So when we found ourselves in the vicinty of the Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre – widely respected for its good work in nursing injured animals back to health then returning them to the wild – and found that they offer an hour-long ´big cat tour´, James was not a brave enough man to argue and we headed off for a visit.
I am making this a seperate interlude blog as I took so many photos it needs its own space. Plus if there are any of you who have not yet come to terms with the fact that cats are where it´s at, you can safely move on to the next post without fear of missing any of our story! This post is all about moggies….
I spent the day like a cat myself – one on a hot tin roof – waiting for our 4:30pm tour. As we drove up and signed in at reception I had a grin on my face that was starting to hurt and James couldn´t keep me from jumping up and down asking everyone where the lions were!
We knew before we booked that the centre is sufficiently professional that they do not allow visitors anywhere near the wildlife being rehabilitated, that would not be a proper ethos for such a respectable sanctuary. However they have a small number of animals who have been rescued from forced domestication, or other abuse, which are habituated to humans and unable to live independently. These animals are looked after in very large enclosures which replicate their wild environment as closely as possible. They are fed daily and taken care of only to the extent that they require.
But the exciting thing for visitors like me is that, on the whole, they like people! They have become used to them for all the wrong reasons but they are where they are and now that the people they have contact with treat them well they associate human beings with being fed and kept safe.
So they actually come up to you rather than running away. Some of the smaller cats allow you into their enclosures for an up-close-and-personal meeting, the larger ones are behind fences….for reasons obvious to anyone who has had a domestic moggy in their family that likes to ´play´ with its human companions – being ´played with´ by a lion or leopard would not go well, even it was just being affectionate!
The first rule of the centre is look but don´t touch. An ´accidental´ fuzz behind the ears would have had me ejected from the sanctuary and that was a long way from my plans to move in! Keeping my hands in my pockets was the hardest thing I have ever done, those ears really need fuzzing!
Our first greeting was not actually from a cat but a very large bird guarding the gateway. A Marabou Stork who is apparently a bit of a tinker!
We also saw two Blue Crane, the national bird of South Africa, who are apparently more viscious than most of the cats. The guides don´t go into their enclosure to feed them without carrying a big stick to fend them off – and that, apparently, is not a joke! Strange….
But then we were off on the tour and our first visit was with the leopard.
Leopard´s are famously shy, solitary and incredibly good at hiding. To see one in the wild is a rare and exhilerating experience.
I have to be honest, I wasn´t expecting this one to come right up to the fence and rub itself along next to us. My heart was in my mouth, my fingers twitched with the strain of not reaching out and stroking him.
But he just kept coming closer….
He had been kept since he was a cub by people who thought they could domesticate him. You can´t even habituate, never mind domesticate, a leopard – some big cats yes, leopard, no. When young they can be playful and affectionate but the moment they reach adolesence they become as wild and unpredictable as any other.
This one was was brought to the Centre by the family when he became a danger to them and their children. Humans 0, Leopard 1! But when he started purring and getting playful it was hard to imagine just how dangerous he is.
I asked our guide what might happen if I poked my fingers through and tried to stroke him – apart from getting myself thrown out! He said I would probably lose a few fingers but the leopard wouldn´t mean it!
Everything I know about leopard assured me he was right, it was just so hard to believe it right there and right then….
After gazing transfixed at my new friend for a little while I finally realised that James and the guide had gone. Reluctantly I said my goodbyes and dutifully followed. I found them visiting with a couple of cheetah.
Cheetah are big cats, no doubt about it, but they are neither part of the Panthera nor the Felis Genus – they are in a sub-family all of their own – and to me it´s not quite the same. Amongst other differences, they don´t purr, they can´t retract their claws and their behaviour is generally more dog-like. They are easily domesticated, far less independent of spirit and they have speed rather than strength.
They don´t set my heart racing, but they are magnificent creatures non-the-less. Especially when they get going!
We carried on and I was thrilled to find we were going to see Serval cats and because they are a lot smaller than leopard and cheetah we were allowed to go inside their enclosure.
You never see Serval in the wild, they are far too elusive and good at melting into the background. There are four at the centre but only two ever show themselves. They had been fed about an hour ago so might have been sleeping in the long grass. We waited, and waited.
Then suddenly, a face appeared.
Apparently he thought it might be dinner time again so had come to check!
And with his friend coming to see us, the second one soon appeared and sat down right in front of us.
I crouched down next to him and he just sat there unconcerned by me or my camera. You should generally make yourself appear as big as you can in front of a cat, your size is what tends to keep you safe, so I turned to check with the guide that I was ok to be making myself so small. ´I trust this one´ he said, ´go ahead´.
So I leaned in and got a beautiful shot, something I never would have imagined I would have as a keepsake of such an elusive cat.
But eventually we had to move on and the next stop was with the African Wild Cat.
Another very elusive creature that you would never expect to see in the wild. This one may be small by ´big cat´ standards but what it lacks in stature it certainly makes up for in ferocity. Our guide said he had managed to touch all the cats in their care apart from this one – even after many years he couldn´t get close!
You only need to look in those eyes to see that this animal takes no prisoners and cares not one bit for any human. Cute and furry he may be but it´s all show!
Wild Cats are becoming increasingly rare. They suffer from the same habitat and biodiversity loss as the other cats but have the added downside of being able to mate with domestic cats and cross-breeds are slowly wiping them out.
Even the cross-breeds are a handful, despite the calming influence of the far more relaxed domestic moggy. The centre have quite a lot of them, donated by well-meaning families who thought a cross-breed semi-wild cat would be a lovely pet!
This particualr Wild Cat didn´t care for its visitors and the only time it moved from it´s watchful pose was to yawn at how tedious we all were….
So we let him be and headed towards the increasingly loud roars that we had been hearing all afternoon. The lions had not yet had their dinner and they were complaining loudly about the wait! Dinner was coming, as we walked towards their enclosure our guide picked up a large bucket containing numerous chickens….
He is a white lion – not albino as you can see from his eyes, just white. He was very eye catching. What was even more eye-catching was the shear size and power of these awesome cats.
At one point the lioness turned on a dime in front of us and charged towards the guide carrying the bucket. We were all safely behind fences – no-one was about to enter an enclosure containing two hungry lions! – but even so it was heart-stopping to watch the speed and see her muscles flex with the incredible strength. We all jumped backwards!
Meanwhile Mr lion was pretending to be all sweetness and light….
Until he realised it wasn´t working and dinner was still not served!
But then the chickens were thrown over the fence (they had quietly passed on earlier in the day, we weren´t subjected to any gruesome kills here) and the lions forgot all about us for a while.
It didn´t take them long to finish the chickens off and we watched them for a little while just doing their thing as lions do….which, apart from eating, isn´t really that much!
By this time the sun was sinking and we were running out of time. The tour was coming to an end and it was with a heavy heart that I said my goodbyes once again.
Our last stop was to visit a Caracal. These are the beautiful mid-sized cats with tufty ears that remind me so much of our original Henry, the beautiful Maine Coon I was lucky enough to share my life with for 14 years – albeit he was somewhat smaller and fluffier! Sadly no photos of this cutie, he wouldn´t stop running around long enough for me to focus on him!
And then it was all over. I asked the guide about volunteering, or moving in, James groaned and said maybe we could just come back and visit another day! I bit my lip and looked down at my feet…..
We walked out to the car park and back to Henry (the Landrover) and had to smile as we had one last surprise waiting for us before we left…..