This afternoon we went to the Emdoneni cheetah preserve for a tour and interactions. They care for injured cats, cats that have been abandoned after they proved to be poor house pets, and support breeding programs to repopulate and diversify the gene pool.
The first cats we saw looked like regular pets… until you noticed the orange fur on the ears, the dark black rings on the tail, the three barred striped on the neck, and most telling of all, the black fur on the back of the leg from ankle to knee. These African wild cats are the precursors of our domestic cats, but remain genetically distinct. Although they can breed with a house cat, the offspring are often infertile.
Next we saw caracals, a bigger cat the resembled a Lynx, with pointed hairs on its ears. These guys are amazing jumpers, able to hop 8 or 9 feet into the air. The guide tossed raw zebra meat high into the pen for us to get a great photograph. There were two different types, one with paler fur to better survive in the dry Kruger area, the others with darker golden fur that blends better into the reddish clay soil of Zulu Natal.
Servals are the tallest shaped cats, with long legs and an erect head. They have markings on the back of their ears that look like eyes. These false eyes confuse Hawks and other predators who might see the back of the servals sitting on a tree branch.
Built for speed, cheetahs have large nostrils, lungs that take up a large portion of their thorax, and efficient hearts that can pump 150bpm. A special gland on the bottom of their foot pads helps circulation; during the quick bursts of speed it somehow pushes the blood back up into the leg instead of letting the running pressure pool it in the foot. Their heavy tail is round near the rump, but flattens to a rudder, helping them turn and remain stable at high speed. Their bones are hollow, like a birds, lightening their weight to allow for more speed. The dark “tears” on their faces act like the black strips football players use to help reduce sun glare. This is a clue that cheetahs are daytime hunters.
The cheetahs had been feed earlier, so we were allowed to go into the enclosure. One at a time, we approached the cheetahs head from the front. We could.pet its neck and rub its back, but not touch its face or belly. The fur felt rough and coarse, especially around the longer neck ruff.
Best of all was playing with a 3 month old baby cheetah. It was just like a giant kitten, chasing around a red cloth, pouncing on a shadow, and batting at a ball.