Two things about Christina: when she has her heart and mind made up, she does NOT GIVE UP on achieving what she wants. Christina also LOVES cheetahs, they are her favorite land animal in the whole world. When we decided to go to Africa, one reason was to live out Christina’s dream of volunteering at a cheetah rehabilitation center. Unfortunately, no center would take volunteers for one day – understandable. So we set out to find the next best thing, an ethical cheetah encounter. Not a very easy experience to find, but with Christina’s tenacity, we found Sylvester. We are happy to be able to share why this was an ethical cheetah experience, Sylvester’s story and more. Some people may still frown upon our experience and think we are exploiting Sylvester, but that is not our intent. We only wish to acknowledge and educate those who may not know the harsh truth about animal encounters and of course, share Sylvester’s story.
Ethical Animal Encounter Education
Encountering a predator in its homeland of Africa is an experience a lot of people desire. As humans, we tend to be selfish and when we want something, we tend to achieve it without a single thought about how it can affect someone else – in this case, predators. Tourists want to treat cheetah and lion cubs as a domestic pet, to cuddle with them, take selfies with them and more. We admit, so did we! Sadly, most places are tourist traps and treat the animals poorly. Some even go as far as claiming they give donations to African cat research, but in reality they sell the animals to canned hunting.
Here is the thing, when cubs are pet like domestic animals, they can never be rehabilitated back into the wild. Instead they will live a life of confinement in circuses, zoos, unregulated private collections or worst of all, being sold to the canned hunting industry. These factors will play into affect once they are around the age of six months when they are too big, strong and potentially dangerous, after all they are predators. Lastly, when tourists are allowed to handle and pet cubs, they are creating an environment where the cubs will become habituated to humans with severe consequences when they mature. For example, when they encounter farmers they may be wanting their human touch, but the farmers will shoot the cheetahs in fear of them killing their livestock.
We hope this information gives you a new or better perspective of animal encounters and how they can be unethical. Leading up to our trip to Africa, we were naive and completely unaware of the outcome the predators had from an encounter. When we learned, we made it a point to find an ethical cheetah encounter and we encourage you to do the same.
Sylvester is an orphaned cheetah who lives at the Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary, operated by Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust and is next to Elephant Camp in Zimbabwe. His story is a sad one, but it does have a happy ending.
In 2010 in the Lowveld area of Zimbabwe, there were five cubs and their mother. When the cubs were only 2-3 days old, eyes still closed, a lion came and attacked the mother and her cubs. The lion killed all but one cub and scared away the mother. A group of rangers happened to be in the area tracking rhinos when they came across a lone cub covered in blood. They assessed the attack and decided to wait for the mother to return for her surviving cub. When the rangers returned, they still found the cub in the same spot with his deceased siblings. It was then that one of the rangers named, Sylvester, decided to take in the remaining cub to the land owners, Norman and Penny English, who decided to name the cub after the ranger.
Norman and Penny took in Sylvester as their own and bottle fed him like they would for any other domesticated animal. After four days, Sylvester finally opened his eyes to only see people and other domesticated house animals. He never saw his mother and to this day, they believe that Sylvester has no idea he is a cheetah. The English’s has a cat named, Spook, and Sylvester would grow up with Spook playing with him until Sylvester became too big.
At this time the English’s sought help from Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust to try and rehabilitate Sylvester to go back into the wild. Despite several attempts from the rehabilitation, they never succeeded because Sylvester never learned how to make a kill – a skill that are taught to cubs by their mother. In fact, Sylvester will “catch” baby buffalos or impalas away from their herd and try to “play” with them, but will never kill them. Then the animals from the herd will act on instinct to attack and hurt Sylvester. Sylvester has been hurt so badly that the trainers from Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary has had to stitch his wounds quite often. Essentially, if Sylvester were to be returned to the wild, he would undoubtedly be killed by lions, hyenas, baboons or any herd of animals if abandoned in the bush.
Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust and Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary has created a safe and big enclosure within the Victoria Falls National Park for Sylvester that is monitored throughout the day and night. Exercise is very important for Sylvester, so he will go on two walks every day. However, the trainers treat Sylvester with the same respect as any predator in the wild – he is the boss. If it is extremely hot and Sylvester does not feel like walking, they do not make him walk. They NEVER make him do anything he does not want to do, they go on his time. After seven years of taking care of Sylvester, his trainers/handlers have learned how to read his moods and body language perfectly to ensure us that he is never stressed by his encounters with humans and that he has plenty of ‘cheetah time’ to himself.
With Sylvester being the rare exception of an ethical cheetah encounter because of his story, Wild Horizons and Elephant Camp have made Sylvester a cheetah ambassador to help educate the community and tourists about animals and their natural habitat. For many years, wild predators have come across farms with livestock and killed them. This act would entice the farmers to shoot and kill the predators. There has also been poaching around National Parks. Since Sylvester has become a cheetah, Zimbabwe has seen an increased improvement between the wild animals and the locals/farmers.
Sylvester is meant to live a happy life with the one he has been given while creating an opportunity for tourists and locals to have a better understanding of a healthy relationship between them and the wild animals. Sylvester also helps raise awareness of his species as a cheetah and the challenges they face being on the endangered species list. Sylvester is not meant to be a tourist attraction. In fact, you cannot find information about Sylvester very easily on the internet. His story is shared so people may donate to help Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust care for him.
A Walk with Sylvester
Again, please note that though we are making Sylvester’s story more well known and sharing our unique and ethical cheetah encounter experience, Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust and Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary do not market Sylvester as a “tourist experience”. Only guests at Elephant Camp are given the opportunity to meet and walk with Sylvester. We were very fortunate to be given special privileges to be able to enjoy a private walk with Sylvester without being guests of Elephant Camp. We definitely do not take this experience for granted and since meeting Sylvester, we plan to be more involved in saving the cheetah species and never going to a zoo ever again.
Before our walk started we were explained to allow Sylvester to walk as he pleased, that he was the leader of the pack and to always stay close to the trainers in case a dangerous situation with other animals were to occur. Sylvester came shortly after and he came straight to Christina and licked her hand – our cat, Tiramisu, doesn’t even lick her hand. Sylvester instantly gave Christina the “okay” she can walk with me, turns out Christina is not only a cat whisperer, but a cheetah whisperer too.
We walked alongside Sylvester, or we should say Christina walked alongside Sylvester, while Adam walked behind them to give Christina her moment. The walk with Sylvester was the most surreal and tranquil experience. We walked peacefully with Sylvester, stroking him softly (note their fur is not soft), and enjoying every second of the experience. Christina had several one-way conversations with Sylvester, but from the look in his eyes, he seemed to enjoy her company and stories.
There were times when Sylvester would stop or go completely off the trail and we would follow ensuite even if that meant going through trees and shrubs. We were on Sylvester’s time and we were loving it. Sometimes he would spot an impala and look at them and they would look back scared for their lives, but Sylvester would just shrug them off and carry on with his walk.
When he would stop for beaks, the trainer (who was very kind to take a thousand photos for us), would encourage us to stand or sit behind Sylvester to get our photo taken with him. We want that to be clear that during those times, we ALWAYS treated Sylvester with respect, we never forced him into the photos. We cannot stress enough how ethical this experience was.
It was near the end of the walk when Sylvester was exhausted from his three mile walk. He laid down on the ground and rolled around in the dirt. He was so relaxed and happy that we took the opportunity to take a few more pictures to savor this incredible experience forever.
When we returned to the meeting point with the rest of the trainers, Sylvester went up to each one of them and rubbed his head up against their legs. He would force his head into their hands and they would stroke Sylvester. We knew Sylvester was in heaven because we heard him purr and it was so loud!!! It made Tiramisu’s purrs sound like whispers. It was so heart breaking to say goodbye to Sylvester, he made Christina’s dream come true and opened our eyes even more to the importance of ethical animal encounters and the cheetah species.
Watch our full experience in the video below!
A Few Thoughts
We are not going to sit here and tell you how to travel, but after reading Sylvester’s story and our experience with him, we hope this gives you an insight on ethical animal encounters. DO YOUR RESEARCH! Though they are hard to find, ethical animal counters are out there. Please look into the places where you will encounter an animal that truly belongs in the wild, whether that is elephants, lions, tigers, cheetahs, monkeys and more, they deserve to live a happy and free life like all of us. During our research we came across a Facebook group that supports and provides information of places you should and should not visit or volunteer at. We highly recommend you take a look at the list if you are considering an animal encounter. Click here to access the list and click here to access the Facebook group.
Trust us, we understand that it is very tempting to walk with lions, cheetahs or cuddle with cubs, but ask yourself the hard questions (as we did), about these animals’ origins, living standards and most importantly, their futures. Is it worth the selfie to know in a year that the animal may be shot for hunting or confined in a life they never deserved?
For more information on Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary, Sylvester and how you can donate please use these links as referrals.
Christina + Adam