I love animals. This separates me from the .1% of the world that doesn’t. So, if you’re in the 99.9 percent that welcome or outrightly seek animal encounters, allow me to briefly recount an amazing experience that I recently had just inside the Zambian border.
Upon arrival at Gloria’s Bed & Breakfast in Livingstone, Zambia; my wife and I inquired as to an activity recommended by friends who had recently been there: the opportunity to interact and walk with cheetahs. A phone call was made to Mukuni Safaris and a half hour later we were picked up and brought to their facility nestled in the bush just a few kilometers shy of Victoria Falls.
I was originally a bit worried that the dozen or so of Australian pensioners who shared our ride would be included in our session, leaving us little time for what we came there for. Fortunately, they were there for the lion interaction (another worthy activity), so it was just my wife and I along with a trio of guides and a foreign intern. After paying our $120 or so fee (per person) and signing a waiver, we were led to a fenced-in area where a trio of cheetahs – two females and a male – were lazing in the red soil, each with a harness around their chest.
While my first inclination was to rush to pet the kitties (as was my wife’s I’m sure) we had to postpone our enthusiasm until the lead guide thoroughly briefed us on an array of interesting facts about the species – such as when they actually run at their top speed of about 70MPH they are then so exhausted that both they and the prey they just killed are extremely vulnerable as they attempt to catch their breath. We were also given a rundown of acceptable ways to approach the cheetahs (softly, from behind, while speaking in a soothing tone) and where it was or wasn’t appropriate to put our hands (basically so long as you don’t touch the bottom of their feet or inside their ears [who would do this anyway?] it’s all good).
Finally the moment arrived, and my wife was first to kneel down and begin stroking the soft fur of one of the females, who was also named Susie. I took pictures and video while she softly cooed and I have to admit my jealousy was making me impatient to get down there with her. Fortunately one of the other guides offered to take my place behind the cameras and it was my turn to join in on the fun.
Barely containing my excitement I approached the second female sprawled on the ground and gently stroked the top of her head while she purred like a housecat with an amplifier. When I began petting her flanks she turned her head and began returning the favor by licking the hair on my forearm. Then, once I got the OK I removed my hat and allowed this massive, purring beast to playfully lick the top of my head with great enthusiasm. The sensation was that of being exfoliated by a sheet of 80 grit sandpaper but I couldn’t stop laughing. Pain aside, I’ve never had this intimate an encounter with a ‘fierce creature’ and I was loving every scratchy second of it.
Eventually I saw the need to rise if I wanted to keep what little hair I have left on my head. But all we did is shift positions and take a number of portraits, now with the male in our midst, petting the cheetahs all the while. I’d be willing to bet my wife didn’t take her hands of the animals even once in the 20 minutes or so of quality time with these majestic cats.
Now that the introductions had been made, it was time to take the cats for a walk in the surrounding bush. Their instincts clearly clicked in, as they all seemed to focus their easily-distracted attention on the dry brush surrounding us, scanning for potential prey. I asked a guide what I should do in the event that the one I was walking decided to take off, since obviously I wouldn’t be able to catch it – it’s scientific. He said not to worry, they’d just come back on their own, and that was good enough for me. So we strolled a bit more, took our pictures, and even walked the cheetahs while holding them by the tail (something I would never have dared to do with my own cat growing up) until it was time to bring them back to the pen.
When I had first heard about the $120 price tag, I thought, “That’s pretty hefty just to pet an animal. After all, I can see a whole zoo full of animals for much less”. Then as we drew near to the facility I thought, “Well, at least the money goes to rehabilitating the animals and reintroducing cheetahs – who have been in severe decline – back into the wild”. But once we said goodbye to those beautiful cats, and I realized that the next time I see one I probably shouldn’t let it lick my head, I wouldn’t have cared if the owners of the establishment were making fistfuls of cash and wiping their noses with my money. For an experience like that, I’d gladly pay again.
So if you expect to be in the area of Victoria Falls, regardless of if you’re staying on the Zimbabwe or Zambia side, do the cheetah walk excursion with Mukuni Big 5 Safaris. It will be the experience of a lifetime and likely make all your friends and followers insanely jealous. And if I’ve stirred feelings of jealousy in you, my readers, don’t despair. If you really want to lick my head, I’m sure we can work something out. 🙂