Every mother goes through this, I suppose. My boy is a strapping teenager who can be sweetly affectionate one moment and doesn’t want to know me the next — I think I ruin his street cred.
Now he’s leaving home, and he’s desperate to be gone. I’m excited but also worried, because I am a unique mother.
My darling Saba is a cheetah. He was born in captivity and raised by hand. And no cheetah cub from a zoo outside Africa has been released into the wild. This is a first. Today, after a tense 13-hour flight from London to South Africa, I watched him take his first tentative steps to freedom, in a wildlife reserve. It was a moment of indescribable excitement and relief.
My husband, Damian Aspinall, and I have devoted our lives to preparing captive-born animals for life in the wild. We’ve succeeded with gorillas, rhinos and gibbons. But no one has managed to do it with cheetahs: we are blazing a trail for others to follow.
Saba was born at our Port Lympne reserve in Kent two-and-a-half years ago. Half of the cubs from his mother’s previous litter had died.
The second litter comprised three cubs: two males and a female. One of the boy cubs gave us cause for alarm, as he became very sick early on. Our ethos is to be as hands-off as possible, but in this case we had no choice — if we did not act, Saba would die.
His brother and sister did not appear to be affected, so we isolated him and began the arduous process of hand-rearing. Baby cheetahs need to feed every two hours around the clock, and that meant Damian and I were sleeping in shifts, spending almost every waking minute either heating milk or bottle-feeding. Plus, we had to get him to take medicines to save his life.
Despite all our attention, his illness got worse. The vets diagnosed that his liver was not functioning properly. To see him in pain was horrible, and to be unable to help was worse. Sometimes he would just lie and shiver, with blood pouring from his nose. He had seizures. At one point he went temporarily blind.
Slowly, we were able to nurse him to health. I was scared a lot of the time, conscious I didn’t really know what I was doing — but there was help from our parks’ staff
All I knew for certain was that Saba would try to let me know what he needed.
He wanted lots of affection so I cuddled him and talked to him. When he slept, he curled up on top of me, both in bed and on the sofa. Cheetahs have a unique purr: housecats usually purr only on the out-breath but cheetahs do it both ways, purring in and out. It’s an extraordinary noise, quite hypnotic and therapeutic. I found it remarkably easy to sleep with a cheetah slumped over me.
Although he needed love, it was important that Saba did not become domesticated, if he was ever to stand a chance in the wild. That meant he couldn’t be housetrained. It didn’t bother him — he was quite happy to treat our entire house as a litter tray. After he moved out, we had to buy new carpets in every room.
We knew he was on the mend when he started eating white meat. Soon he graduated from chicken to red meat, and it was time for him to start living outdoors. Our cautious hopes for his future began to take shape — we dreamed of releasing him into the wild with his brother, Nairo.
That’s the purpose of Howletts wild animal park, near Canterbury, where Saba and Nairo have grown up. It is primarily a refuge for endangered species. We currently have 45 different types of animal. Our goal is to prepare them for life in the wild, and — when they are ready — to release them.
For the first few nights outside the house, Saba lived in a wooden shed. I moved in with him for a couple of days, and it was so comfortable with its heat-lamps and straw bedding that I could have stayed permanently.
But now Saba faced his biggest challenge — learning to hunt. We joined forces with the Ashia cheetah sanctuary near Cape Town, South Africa, and their experts advised us to install a mechanised lure on a circuit, the kind used at dog-racing tracks. We attached cuddly toys or scraps of cloth as ‘prey’ and set it motoring. Saba and Nairo understood what to do, instinctively.
We were worried illness could have damaged Saba’s hunting reflexes but, as plenty of pigeons and squirrels have discovered when they strayed into his enclosure, there’s nothing wrong with his instincts. Nairo is stronger and faster, but the boys work as a hunting tag team.
That’s normal in the wild. Female cheetahs are usually lone hunters, while brothers often team up.
By the time they were about 14 months old, Saba and Nairo were eager for the chance to live wild. Yet Saba was also still affectionate to me and Damian, approaching us for headrubs and purring loudly. He still regarded us as ‘mum and dad’.
It was encouraging to see that he didn’t regard everyone with the same friendliness. He knew he was a cheetah, not a human.
Perhaps he understood what a special and unique animal he really was. Last year, he met Boris Johnson, who was not yet Prime Minister. Saba made quite an impression. Damian and I invited Boris to sit in Saba’s indoor quarters with us and introduce himself. ‘It’s like meeting someone with strong but undeclared views on Brexit,’ joked Boris nervously. ‘I’m not sure whether he’s going to give me a slobbery kiss or take my head off!’ In the end, Saba just nibbled Boris’s woolly hat.
He is also an Instagram star. All big cats are charismatic, and Saba is particularly handsome. His photographs get thousands of ‘likes’. Scrolling through pictures and videos of him on my phone brings a lump to my throat. I’m going to miss him so much.
But it’s crucial to let him go, not just for his own sake but for the survival of the species. Latest figures suggest there are fewer than 7,000 cheetahs left in the wild. They are fragile creatures, often killed by lions and leopards as well as poachers, who murder them for their coats and even their meat.
They are also under threat from the illegal pet trade. Cheetah cubs are highly sought after in the Middle East, as trophy pets for oil millionaires, though most go on to live out their lives in tiny cages at private zoos. That’s a horrific existence.
Gloomier estimates suggest numbers will continue to dwindle, and there might be just 3,500 wild cheetahs within 15 years. With such a small population, there is a real danger of inbreeding. Saba and Nairo will, we hope, be able to make the gene pool broader by fathering cubs, and so strengthen the species.
Adult cheetahs need to hunt and kill every two days to survive, and that applies even to females that have just had litters. Mothers have no choice but to abandon their cubs, sometimes for hours at a time. It isn’t surprising that two out of three cheetah babies die in their first four weeks.
Zoos around the world have set up breeding programmes, though it’s notoriously difficult with these cats. We want to prove with Saba and Nairo that cheetahs born in captivity can, with the right preparation, thrive in the wild.
That will inspire conservationists everywhere to follow our example. I’m thrilled, but I can’t help worrying too. What mother wouldn’t?