A mother and her son. This is a remarkable story of some of the cheetahs I worked with while I was employed as a Biodiversity Monitoring Officer in Southern Africa.
My main duty was monitoring the cheetahs on the reserve. Some cheetahs were wild. Others were being reintroduced into the wild. It was the most fascinating line of work. Long hours tracking cheetahs in all manner of terrain, getting to know each one as an individual, seeing them succeed, seeing them fail, and seeing them rise again.Some of these cheetahs were captive their whole life! No one believed they could ever make it in the wild. But then they were given the chance. And they proved all the “experts” wrong. Cubs that had been taken from their mothers at birth, raised as pets, and then, through some very simple steps, released into the wild. Experts said it was impossible for them to hunt. No mother had ever taught them. But instincts showed otherwise. One of the first cheetahs I met and released was named Ava. She “couldn’t hunt”.
In less than 24 hours, however, she had made her first kill.
But today I want to share a very special story, of two very remarkable cheetahs that hold an everlasting place in my heart, and taught me very meaningful lessons that I want to share with the world…
Aero was a very special cheetah.
She was a remarkable example of caring love and sacrifice. Aero was in captivity her whole life, she had many liters of cubs during this time, but never was allowed to raise them. She “was not able to”.
She “wouldn’t know how to”.
During these years Aero was fed a diet of chicken. Which is not natural for cheetahs. And does not have all the nutrients they need.
10 years of age, Aero was finally given the chance to be free. She was released into the wild, and began making kills. And she was finally allowed to have cubs, that she could keep.
When I started monitoring Aero, she had three cubs.Two females, and one male. The male’s name was Storm.
As I began my monitoring career, Storm became very sick and was struggling greatly.
I was told that, before I arrived to start working, he had a run in with the fence surrounding the reserve, and had gotten his little paw stuck. However he had been fine, just stressed by the experience.
Only days after starting my job, I came to find him one day, unable to walk. And I thought perhaps he had been climbing the fence again and this time had broken his leg.Storm was calling out, lying next to the fence, and unable to get up at all. He could only roll, as if his leg was not working. I had to do something.
However, I had another issue…The reserve manager and anyone that would know how to help this cub was away on holiday. AND they had no phone service. So I couldn’t even call them. But I did have the number for the vet in the area…who ended up being on holiday as well.
Needless to say it quite a stressful situation.
It came down to simply trying to keep the cub alive through the very cold and sometimes, wet, nights until we could get a vet to come see him.
A lot of cheetah mothers will often abandon their cubs, especially if their cubs are so ill that they lose the ability to walk!
But not Aero.
When her little one became ill, she gave him continuous tender love and care. No matter how he struggled, she never abandoned him.
I remember how Aero acted. Vividly. From the moment I met her, Aero was simply, calm and gentle in nature. She allowed me to come quite close to her young cubs, and never showed me any aggression. She showed me tremendous respect, and of course, I did the same for her. I respected her boundaries, and her cubs’ boundaries.
It is a wild feeling, coming so close to a large, feline predator. Knowing what they can do. Knowing they take down prey larger than I am. But it is an even more incredible feeling, to have such a predator trust you. To come to know so many predators as individual beings, and have them know ME as an individual being.It is what makes these stories so much greater and more meaningful to share.
Storm needed to be fed by hand, but he wanted nothing to do with the delicious food offerings he was being given. His sisters did not mind eating it though. So I was very stressed waiting for the day that either the vet could come out and check him, or to be able to take him to another veterinarian in town. And just simply trying to keep him ALIVE till that day.
A former head ranger of the reserve, Jeandre, was visiting the lodge at the time, and helping out teaching new rangers.He assisted me greatly by coming with me to try and care for Storm, and giving me advice to try and figure out what to do. Jeandre also knew Aero, as he had been there when she first arrived. This was a massive relief for me.
There was also the reserve fence patrol/maintenance team Gavin, Joseph, and Ashley. And though only Gavin spoke some English, they helped me so much also through a lot of the trials.
But the true hero is Aero. Finally getting Storm to a vet, we were given medicine to help him, but still there was no answer to his ailment…nothing was broken. Yet he could not walk. And it what was even crazier, was that it seemed to be changing from limb to limb. One day his front leg ceased to work, the next day it was his back leg. But Aero did not abandon him.
Some morning I came to him, expecting to find him dead or abandoned, because it was a very serious situation with no answers. But there was Aero. She would be lying with him, cleaning him and keeping him warm.
Not only did Storm have to be fed his food by hand, but he now had to be given shots and medicine as well! And he did not like this, as you can imagine.Have ever tried to make a dog or cat take a pill? Try and get a cheetah cub to do it. With mama cheetah trying to keep you away.
Storm was very upset by all of this, and would call for help from Aero.And at first, Aero did what any mother would do, she defended her cub. She kept her other two cubs away, and would then stand over her Storm, in his defense. She would slap the ground, hiss and snarl, and you could never turn your back to her. During this time I discovered a very simple solution to calm a charging cheetah…and it is now used by many cheetah sanctuaries across Africa…but this is another story.
The cub needed food and medicine to continue living. He HAD to have it! So something different needed to be done. If Aero knew it was safe, then Storm would trust her and be more likely to cooperate.
I took her view of the matter into consideration, and started really working with her to show her I meant no harm. Everything needed to be done with calmness and assertiveness. Thus, Aero began to trust me.
And it was not long before she began to bring her other two cubs out when I would come. And then each morning and evening, Aero would lie down or sit next to me, while I worked with Storm. She was so calm sitting next to me. It felt as if we were simply two individuals on the same team, working towards the same goal. There was no aggression. She watched her cub, and did not even question what I was doing. It got to the point, when I was there with Storm, no matter how he argued with me on being cared for, Aero did not respond to his squeals of displeasure, she merely lay there, trusting what was being done. Knowing her cub was not being harmed.
Aero’s presence next to me helped Storm to remain calm, and it gave me an overwhelming love for the incredible family bond they shared. She doted on her son. No matter what, she was not giving up on him.
But Storm almost did not make it. Needless to say I spent many a sleepless night praying and worrying about the cub. Getting up before dawn to check on him, and give him his food and medicine, often afraid I would find him dead. But he was a VERY determined little one. And his mother was always with him when I would arrive, and his sisters were there too. He was very much a mamma’s boy. Aero certainly had him spoiled.
Storm was almost put down when management thought he surely could not ever make it. And certainly would not be able to hunt if he did. There was no answer to what was wrong with him. But one thing that was found, was he had a massive deficiency in almost all nutrients. So we began loading him up with vitamins, calcium, and everything imaginable. And it turns out, due to Aero’s diet in captivity, she had none of the nutrients needed in her milk to give her cubs. And stress brought on issues as well, resulting in the extreme problems Storm was struggling with. Management came to the conclusion that the cub down would probably have to be put down, so that his suffering could be ended, and a full on biopsy could be done to figure out the problem, and maybe learn a solution.
But I definitely could not see this happen, after all that he, and Aero, and I had been through. We were in it to win it!!
I had to trust in Aero’s instincts. If she, who was a cheetah and whose natural instinct is usually to abandon a cub that can’t make it, still stood by her son, then we HAD TO ALSO.
And sure enough, with some convincing to give him more time, we then put all focus on his extreme vitamin deficiency, and with a lot of care, love, prayers, and support, the little cub pulled through. Aero never gave up. She never ceased in the comfort she gave Storm. And Storm never stopped fighting to live.
How can it be, that the Earth’s fastest predator never gave up on her son, and laid calmly next to me as I worked?
Sometime months later, I watched Storm, now grown into a young adult, learning to hunt with Aero, running as well as any cheetah.
And only just recently, Storm, now quite a strong young adult, and one his sisters, made their first kill on their own.
Is this the same cub who “could never run again”, who “should be put down”? I do not doubt, for Aero showed me what was true, this young cheetah will “storm” through life, sure to be a powerful and unstoppable force. He was worth believing in.
Everyone is worth believing in.No one should give up. We may not all have an Aero in our life to believe in us, but we can all be an “Aero” to anyone. We can choose this.
There is so much we can learn from these two cheetahs, but one simple lesson that Aero portrays is this: we must never give up on our loved ones. Aero is a cheetah. But surely if the world’s fastest predator can have the care and determination to stand by her young, no matter his struggle, then we as human beings can give the love and determination to stand by ALL those who need us.
Being so privileged to gain the trust of a cheetah mother, seeing that incredible support she showed her cub, will remain with me all the days of my life.
And I hope all who read this story will be as moved and inspired as I am to have lived it.
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