Oakland and South Africa connect. So what does Cheetah Outreach have to do with it?
Vicki Gutgesell was doing a volunteer shift at the Oakland Zoo in California when a notice pinned to the info board caught her attention. On it she read that someone near Cape Town, South Africa, was looking for volunteers to help hand-raise cheetah cubs. The note gave the address for applications and Gutgesell needed no prompting.
She subsequently learned that the cubs she would hand-rear were born at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre — De Wildt near Pretoria in Gauteng province. Established in 1971, De Wildt’s mission is to breed threatened and endangered species, including cheetah; to promote public awareness and scientific research; and where feasible, to reintroduce wildlife species into areas where they once occurred naturally. “They have about 70 cheetah at De Wildt,” Gutgesell learned.
A retired ophthalmologist and a glass artist, Gutgesell travels whenever she can — usually two or three trips a year — mainly to see wildlife, marine life and birdlife (often rare or endangered) in their natural habitats.
Between her travels, she volunteers both at the Oakland Zoo — a leader in responsible conservation, innovative animal care and endangered species preservation — and at Guide Dogs for the Blind (socializing puppies).
“They breed cheetah at De Wildt,” says Gutgesell. “Some of these are sold to zoos and organizations around the world where they are often used as ambassadors, to raise awareness of the plight of the species that is rapidly going extinct and being killed in large numbers by farmers.
“With their habitat destroyed, the cheetahs prey on domestic farm animals — mainly goats, sheep and cows.”
While in South Africa, Gutgesell lived in a guest house that belongs to project organizer Cheetah Outreach near the historic university city of Stellenbosch. (The scenic shot, below right, was taken from the Jan Marais Nature Reserve in Stellenbosch.) While working with cheetah cubs was her prime responsibility, she also learned about the Anatolian Guard Dog pilot project that is currently under way. The focus of the dog project is to provide farmers with a sustainable, cheetah-friendly way to protect their livestock.
“It took 4 million years of evolution for the cheetah to become the exceptional animal it is today and only 100 years for man to place it on the endangered list. Now the fastest land animal in the world is losing its most important race: the race for survival. At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 100,000 cheetahs lived throughout Africa and in parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. Today there are just 7,500 cheetahs left and South Africa is home to fewer than 1,000 of these majestic cats.” — From the Cheetah Outreach site.
Wineries in the Stellenbosch region collaborate with Cheetah Outreach on both the cheetah project and the Anatolian Guard Dog project.
In 1997, Spier wine estate donated land for the establishment of Cheetah Outreach.
Subsequently, Eikendal wine estate donated property where volunteers like Gutgesell live with the cheetah cubs they are hand-raising — in a house appropriately called Cub House.
The prime focus of Cheetah Outreach is to raise awareness about the plight of the cheetah — the world’s fastest land animal — and to campaign for its survival.
The Turkish Anatolian shepherd [dog], bred to protect livestock from bears and wolves, has a history that dates back more than 6,000 years. To date, during the pilot study breeding and introducing the dogs to South African farmers, livestock losses have reduced by more than 95 percent. The project is a collaboration between Cheetah Outreach, De Wildt and the international Cheetah Conservation Fund.
“Because most cheetahs in southern Africa live outside protected areas, on farmland, they realized that the survival of the species depends on reducing conflict between farmers and cheetahs by finding non-lethal methods to protect livestock from predators,” says Gutgesell.
The dogs bond with the farm animals and effectively scare off predators, protecting the goats, sheep, cattle and other livestock.
So: What did Gutgesell do while in South Africa?
She spent a month living on Eikendal estate in Cub House caring for three cubs: Heathcliff, Felix and Garfield. Cub House has a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, a room for the cubs, and a bedroom and loft space for volunteers.
The cubs were six weeks old when Gutgesell arrived.
Her job as cub volunteer was to help prepare their food, and to feed them.
“We ground chicken in a meat grinder in the beginning. When they got bigger — and they grew a lot during the month I was there — we chopped the chicken into bigger pieces. By the end of the month they were eating drumsticks and thighs.
“We weighed out the food each day. Everything is monitored.”
The volunteer’s job is also to socialize the animals. “You try to teach them manners so they won’t bite, scratch and jump up. If they try to bite, you shout ‘No!’ and flick them with your finger.
“Most of the time they’d be romping and playing in the yard, but they liked human company. They’d often come and sit my lap.”
Gutgesell’s job was also to mop the kitchen floor and the cubs’ room every day with bleach, to keep it sanitary. And their fleece blankets would get washed daily, which meant regular loads of laundry.
“When the cubs get to around four months old, they start going over to Spier [wine estate] each day so that visitors can see them and interact with them. They’re used to educate the public. At Spier, visitors can have a photo taken with an adult cheetah or with cubs.
“The project is all about cheetah conservation.”
The purpose of hand-raising selected cubs is to prepare them for zoos and to be species ambassadors. The idea is for them to become habituated to humans; comfortable around humans.
“For example, if a cheetah is going to appear at a fund-raiser, you want a calm, tame cheetah that won’t jump up and bite,” says Gutgesell.
“And if they’re going to a zoo, a hand-raised cheetah will be calmer and less stressed out by the experience.”
The plan is to return Heathcliff to De Vildt as an ambassador. Garfield is apparently coming to the United States. “I haven’t yet heard where Felix will go.”
While in South Africa, Gutgesell worked five days a week and “got to read a lot of novels.” She paid her own airfare. “They gave me free room and an allowance that covered part of the food.”
Her days off, she used as vacation days.
“I found a brochure at the Cub House for a tour company. (Cape Wine and Leisure Tours.)
She spent a full day wine tasting around Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The tour took her to Murati, Fairview (“They have wonderful cheese you can taste while drinking,” says Gutgesell. Editor’s Note: You can buy Fairview’s Goats do Roam wines in California), Haute Cabriere (which specializes in sparkling wines), Tokara (“They have olive trees and both wine and olive oil tastings,” says Gutgesell) and Waterford. (“We had chocolate paired with wine.”)
She went with a different company to see the Great White sharks off Gansbaai. The trip was to Shark Alley. “They throw chum in the water: Fish blood and stuff like that. The water is clear and you suddenly see a shark approaching.” In all, around 11 sharks.
Her conclusion? “The Great Whites are beautiful. Their backs are a bronzy-brown color.
“Of course they were much prettier with me being out of the water.”
Returning from Shark Alley, their boat passed Dyer Island with its Cape fur seals.
She spent a couple of days walking around Stellenbosch: “A beautiful university town with wonderful Cape Dutch architecture.”
Gutgesell is eager to return to the Cape to spend a few weeks in Somerset West or Stellenbosch “because it’s so beautiful around there and I know I’d enjoy it.”
She’d like to go and look up the cubs if there’s ever an opportunity. She’s curious to see if they recognize her — unlikely as she knows this is.
Story: ©: Wanda Hennig; Photos: ©: Vicki Gutgesell