When I think of Chehaw, I think of Cheetahs!
I was born and raised in Namibia, a country that still has some of the largest populations of free roaming Cheetahs. Out of all the wildlife, all the big cats we have in southern Africa, the Cheetah has always been my first love, ever since I was a child. Seeing them in the wild will absolutely take your breath away!
When I moved to the US, only then did I realize how fortunate I was to grow up with an incredible variety of wildlife species. Not being able to see them anymore left an emptiness in my heart that was hard to fill.
On November 22nd, 2014, Charlie and I drove down to a place called Chehaw, in Albany Georgia. What made this place so special? They had Cheetahs!
We left in the early morning hours to make it in time for when the park opened at 9:30 am. It takes us approximately three to three and half hours to get there, depending on traffic heading around Atlanta. This little gem in the southwest of Georgia also houses another African mammal that I love and know very well, the critically endangered Black Rhino.
We arrived early in the morning and neither one of us knew what to expect. I was nervous and giddy at the same time! The first animal I saw was a Black Rhino called Sam Houston, it was love at first sight. I come from a country that is home to Black and White Rhinos, but never have I been this close to one! Never have I been able to feed one. It reminded me so much of my horses, how they just slobber all over your hand, how they listen to your voice, watch your body language, how gentle they can be, so incredibly intelligent!
One of the Keepers mentioned that it was time for the Cheetah talk. As we walked toward the Cheetah enclosure my heart was pounding in my chest, I had no idea what to expect. The asphalt foot path made a turn to the left. At first all I saw was bamboo, but then there she was! Sitting, just watching us, she absolutely took my breath away! I am very familiar with Cheetahs, but still, when you come to a country where Cheetahs are not native, it is almost magical! Charlie’s reaction was priceless! I remember the big “wow, just amazing”! I could feel the tears well up, I finally found “my cheetahs”, my home away from home!
We then met Samantha, the “Cheetah Keeper” at the time and now Assistant Curator. Sam told us about the girls, where they came from, how long they have been there and how they differ from each other. Trust me, identifying between the different Cheetahs is NOT easy, unless you work with them on a daily basis.
There were three sisters, Mariska, Roswell and Ellie. The trio came to Chehaw from the White Oak Conservation Center in Florida in 2006. We took 100’s of photos that day, several of Mariska chasing the lure, several of the other two sisters lazing around and loving on each other.
The lure is a great way to exercise the cats, as well as keep that hunting instinct alive.
Chehaw's lure course is unique in the way that it changes direction compared to running in a straight line. It's not a long course but it clearly shows how the Cheetah uses their tail like a rudder to change direction, the way they dig in with those non retractable claws as if they were wearing cleats. I remember how Mariska would wow the crowd that stood on the observation deck with us, it was amazing.
It was a first experience that I will never forget. I was very excited to hear that Chehaw
supported the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia, founded by Dr Laurie Marker. It truly made me feel like home, even though I am so far away from my home where the Cheetahs still roam free.
On March 10th, 2015, Mariska passed away just short of her 10th birthday. The average life span of a Cheetah in captivity can range from 10-12 years although some Cheetahs can live as long as 20 years. In the wild, few survive more than 8 years though they can live up to 10 – 12 years, if they are lucky.
We would travel down to Chehaw as often as we could to visit “our Cheetahs girls” and “my” beautiful Sammy the Black Rhino. During this time we got to know Ellie and Roswell a little better, how to identify who is Ellie and who is Roswell. It takes some practice but if you pay attention to the markings and their behaviors you can do it. No Cheetah’s markings are like any other, each one has their own unique markings.
Ellie would always seem like the more sociable one, whereas Roswell kept to herself. She loved her mound and would often lie there, observing like Cheetahs often do. A higher vantage point helps Cheetahs see further and identify threats and spot prey quicker. Cheetahs have incredible eye sight, so they love those termite mounds.
Chehaw’s Cheetah girls have the best care. I have never realized just how complex and intricate diets of captive wildlife can be, it is incredible. Every Zoo Keeper talks with such fondness of their Cheetahs, to my African heart it was a great reassurance. I am not used to seeing them in captivity like this. I have come to realize what great ambassadors these beautiful Cheetahs are for their species.
How often can you look at the world’s fastest land animal, a cat so unlike any other, right there, in front of your eyes! So close that you can hear their deep relaxing purrs. Most big cats can’t purr like the Cheetah. They do not have non retractable claws like the Cheetah, they are so incredibly unique and they are here, in Georgia! I often tell Charlie, “I do not think people here truly understand how fortunate they are to see them close up like this, it’s absolutely incredible, 100’s of miles away from their native home!”
Today, June 5th, beautiful Roswell crossed the bridge to join her sister Mariska. There is a hurt in my heart that is hard to describe, it cuts deep like a knife. I was not her Keeper, but I loved her with a heart that knows Cheetahs, and my heart feels broken. She was one of “my girls” too.
So much more heartbreaking for her amazing Keepers who took such great care of her. Samantha had a very special bond with her, she knew how to read Roswell, she knew when she wasn’t feeling well, when she was stubborn, when she wanted to be left alone. Through body language and subtle cues she understood Roswell’s needs. As hard as it was, she also understood when it was time to let go. It was okay, Roswell came and said good bye!
Ellie is the last remaining sister of the trio. She will most certainly miss Roswell very much and it will take a bit of time for her to get used to not having her around. Her Keepers will keep a watchful eye over her, spoil her and make sure that she has whatever she needs. Yes, Cheetahs mourn too, in their own quiet way. Ellie can be a bit feisty at times, right now she is the remaining ambassador for her species, what a special lady!
I have told so many people here about Chehaw that share in my conservation interests of endangered African Wildlife. So many think that the 2-3 hour drive one way down to Albany is too much to do in one day. I understand, (I guess, lol), it is a different country, Cheetahs are not native here. But for this African heart I will drive as far as I need to just see my beautiful Cheetahs!
Chehaw and the staff has opened their arms to us, they have always made us feel welcome. They tolerate my extreme passion and love for our African wildlife and snakes, for all the endangered species that need a voice. They have allowed us to photograph all their amazing creatures and through our photos we hope to be a voice for this little gem in the southwest of Georgia.
To me Chehaw will always be the place where there are Cheetahs. My biggest dream is that Cheetahs will always be a part of this amazing place, and maybe one day, I can call this place my home too, my home away from home!
This is a tribute to the Cheetahs of Chehaw and their amazing Keepers, especially Samantha who have opened her heart to us to share her Cheetah girls!
Chehaw Park Authority
105 Chehaw Park Road
Albany, GA 31701
Monday - Sunday
8:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Wild Animal Park Hours
Monday - Sunday
9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Customer Service: 229.430.5275
All images (c) Edi Arangies