The big cats' best friend
For more than 50 years, Ann van Dyk has championed cheetahs.
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“You can never put a wild-caught cheetah into a captive situation,” she says. “We’ll take them in, but usually we’ll relocate them to a game park. And it’s been a great success; they are breeding.”Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures A Sanctuary for Cheetahs
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Van Dyk walks into a pen belonging to a cheetah named Big Girl. The cat recognizes Van Dyk, and after a few strokes on the head and under the chin, Big Girl settles into Van Dyk’s lap, purring. At this point, Van Dyk tells some visitors that they can come into the pen as well.
“Now, I have great admiration for the leopard,” she says, “but you will never get that look of trust that you get with a cheetah.”
She points at Big Girl’s face, which seems as relaxed and contented as a tabby cat’s – albeit a large one. “A leopard will look at you with a cold eye – ‘I’m going to have you for supper.’ A cheetah looks at you the way a child does.”
If Van Dyk feels a bit maternalistic about her cheetahs, it’s understandable. In a sense she’s been midwife to nearly 800 of them.
Visitors to her center are given equal parts love and caution. “Please don’t feel tempted to pet the cheetahs,” one guide says to a group. “And please don’t bend down to take pictures. Cheetahs don’t generally attack and eat people, but when you bend down, you can possibly look like their prey.”
There is one cheetah at the center that everyone, even children, is encouraged to pet. His name is Byron.
“Byron doesn’t even know what a cage is,” says Marilyn Hull, general manager of the center, who often takes him to schools around South Africa to educate children about the need to conserve cheetahs. “At hotels, he sleeps in the same bed with you.”
Like other cheetah reserves – such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia Cheetah Conservation Botswana and Cheetah Outreach in Stellenbosch, South Africa – the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre has begun a breeding program for Anatolian shepherd dogs, which are given to local sheep farmers to help ward off predators such as cheetahs, so there’s less temptation to shoot the big cats.
Van Dyk knows it will take a monumental effort to prevent cheetahs from becoming extinct, but says it must be done. “Cheetahs have been on the planet for so long that we should not let [them] die out now.”
Like many animal lovers, Van Dyk occasionally despairs of that predator known as Homo sapiens. But anyone who has put so much energy into preserving animals cannot be a pessimist. “I’ve got a great team,” she says, “and when I’m not here anymore, they’ll carry it forward.”