Following attacks on a child and two women by cheetahs at KwaCheetah ‘petting park’ in KwaZulu-Natal, Ezemvelo authorities this week suspended all non-staff access to the facility.
On June 28 Lesley-Ann Marais was bitten on her arm during a cheetah encounter. On August 5 Glen Dixon (72) was thrown to the ground by a ‘tame’ cheetah, breaking her hip. The cat then punctured her skull with its eyeteeth and mangled her ear.
The following day an 11-year-old schoolboy, Aiden Fry, was attacked through a fence and bitten on the shoulder causing deep wounds. His parents’ medical bills could run to R200 000. (See image)
When pressed about the attack on Fry, released a press statement saying that ‘none of the cheetah at the project has displayed behavior of this nature before’ and that ‘children are not allowed in any of the enclosures.’
Confronted with the other attacks, they issued another statement which included the fact that ‘an elderly lady was knocked down by the same cheetah while inside the viewing enclosure’ but it did not explain why her grandson was in the enclosure with her. It also mentioned that previously ‘a lady visitor had are arm scratched and suffered shallow punctures from a nip by a different cheetah.’
A visitor subsequently told us she and her family had been offered a petting encounter with a leopard but had declined as it was clearly agitated. The handler told them afterwards that he’d repeatedly told his bosses that he was very unhappy about the situation, but they kept saying it was fine and that he had to continue taking guests into the enclosure.
KwaCheetah, which claims to rehabilitate cheetahs into the wild and has been in existence for four years, apparently has no rewilding permits or permission to stage predator encounters with the public.
Environmental Wildlife Trust carnivore conservation manager, Kelly Marnewick, said she was not surprised at the attacks. ‘Wild cheetahs have never been reported to attack humans,’ she said, ‘but captive ones can be very dangerous, having lost their fear of humans. They are often bored and associate humans with food.’
The recent film Blood Lions leaves no doubt about the cynical relationship between cub petting, walking with young lions and their eventual demise in ‘canned’ hunts, followed by sale of their bones for Asian ‘tiger bone wine’.
Captive bred cheetahs have a different, less gruesome trajectory, though no less exploitative. Unlike lions, cheetahs are fairly easily tamed in captivity (but never domesticated), making them attractive animals for human interaction. They are currently CITES listed as threatened with extinction (Appendix 1).
In South Africa there are fewer than 1 000 cheetahs, several hundred of them captive in 79 facilities. Containment and breeding is usually done under the banner of conservation and education. The public is told that the cheetahs will be released into the wild or that the breeding is bringing the cheetah back from the brink of extinction.
According to Marnewick, ‘very few facilities appear to be directly involved with any type of conservation work that directly benefits the free-roaming cheetah population through funding or field projects. The rest appear to have value only in terms of “edutainment”. Rehabilitation needs to have cheetahs move through fast and not have tourist or volunteer contact.’