Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bulls Trample Cheetahs

Fear not. No animals were harmed in the making of this blog post. (Though a few might have been embarrassed.)

A few weeks ago, Kathy and I traveled to Bloemfontein to attend a rugby game. Back in the States, you may think "So what?" But here, rugby is a huge deal. So we wanted to check it out. Kathy found a deal on some tickets to see the Free State Cheetahs play the Bulls (from Pretoria), and off we went.

Interestingly, the crowd was generally quite young (late teens and early twenties, I am guessing) and as interested in the social aspects of being there as the game itself - if not more so. The crowd was nonetheless enthusiastic, though their spirit did not translate onto the field, at least not in the Cheetahs' favor. They truly did get trampled. I believe the final score was Bulls 51, Cheetahs 19. Ouch.

Still, I must confess that I have grown to enjoy watching rugby, even if I do not understand all the rules. It is a fast-paced game, and exciting.

And the mascots are cool, too.

Besides, how can I not like a sport where "scrum" is part of the official terminology?

After the game, we spent the night at Emoya Estate (our second stay there). It is a wonderful lodge with friendly staff, where you can see giraffes on your way to breakfast.

Following breakfast, we went to the Cheetah Experience. It is a big cat rescue and cheetah refuge endeavor right on the edge of Bloemfontein. I love it. This was our third visit, but I think I could go there every day. I mean, look at this profile:

Or this sleeping black leopard:

Or this fellow, just waking from a nap on what was a rather warm and catnap-friendly day:

As part of the tour they offer, visitors even get to pet and play with lion cubs.

Here I am, in fact, doing just that:

And my lovely wife, doing the same:

And one of the volunteers (it is mainly staffed by volunteers), telling us a bit about young lions:

Even as cubs, lions really are just so distinctive.

They have that Lion Look...

Though they also are young cats, and as such do harass their siblings as I would expect any young cat (or young member of just about any animal species) to do.

But they eventually tire themselves out, especially on a hot day, and must revert to napping oh so cutely.

Of course, when they get bigger, they are not quite so cuddly. The woman here is only able to get that close (those large lions are still really only adolescents and will get bigger still) because she helped raise them:

After the lion cubs, we saw these serval cubs:

And then, this leopard cub:

For the record, leopard cubs are super soft. But they can also be rambunctious. A few moments after this photo was taken, this cub almost shredded the back of my shirt - and might have, had it not been for an alert volunteer!

This adult serval's name was Michael. I could feel the bond instantly.

Though dedicated to big cats, mostly, the Cheetah Experience has developed a good reputation for its animal rescue endeavors more broadly. So, not long before our visit, someone had left this meerkat with them:

These caracals were doing their best to sleep through the mid-day heat, but still looked cool:

These adult cheetahs were apparently feeling the heat, too:

Please note that there was no fence between those cheetahs and us!

One of the main projects at the Cheetah Experience, central to its purpose, is its cheetah breeding program. We got to witness firsthand the beginnings of the success of that program:

As noted, it was warm. And as such, the cheetah cubs were not much inclined to move. Who can blame them?

We were still able to let them know how amazing we thought they were:

Moreover, their success really is remarkable. They have sixteen cheetahs now, and - thanks to their breeding program - expect to be at eighteen soon. (Most are not accessible to the public, though, as they are meant to live in an environment that closely resembles their natural wild habitat. The animals with which visitors can interact are those that cannot be returned to the wild.) Compare that number with Kruger National Park. Kruger is over 19,000 square kilometers (more than 7,500 square miles) and estimates its cheetah population at about two hundred. So the Cheetah Experience is rapidly approaching a cheetah population that is one-tenth that of a huge national park! Given the cheetah's vulnerable status, that is reason enough to support the Cheetah Experience. Of course, moments like this provide a little incentive, too:

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