Chehaw, where there are Cheetahs


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 our motorcycle at the entrance to the Wild Animal Park

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!

During the Black Rhino feeding time, Sam Houston the Black Rhino

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!

Incredibly beautiful Mariska

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.

Mariska chasing the lure

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.

During National Cheetah Day, December 4th, celebrating Cheetahs

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.

Mariska

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.