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A Once in a Lifetime Ethical Cheetah Encounter

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’s Story

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.

photo courtesy of Elephant Camp

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.

Searching for impala

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.

Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust
Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary at Elephant Camp
Raising Sylvester 

 

Christina + Adam

 

 

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39 COMMENTS

  • Carola

    Thanks for sharing Sylvester’s story and for so diligently pointing out that predators are not meant to be cuddly toys or photo ops!
    A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet cheetahs in Namibia (at a cheetah farm not far from Etosha). There were a few that lived in the family’s garden and we watched the feeding of a number of cheetahs in a large enclosure. But it was made very clear that all the cats – in the enclosure and the garden – were wild animals and that we should exercise great care in approaching them.

    Happy continued travels!
    C

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We had a great time learning about his life and how tragic it started. It is very interesting to know that he may not even know that he is a cheetah. I am glad that you had a great experience as well.

  • neha

    The story of Sylvester is really nice and deserves a spreading. However, you will have to be very careful. As, many a times the lines get blurred when interacting with the wild, and as you have also called out several times in your post, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, we end up harming them through our actions. We humans want to spoil the animals and even destroy their lives and habitats for our own little adventures, which really shows the immaturity at our part.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We always have to be careful when interacting with any wild animal. We could do them more harm than good. We sometimes think that all animals should/could be like house pets and everything will be ok. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • Punita Malhotra

    Such an eye-opening post, especially the part about the hard questions related to the safety and living standards of the animals. Thanks to articles like these, people can become more conscious and conscientious, and that..ultimately will bring a big change.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Making people more conscious about their actions with animal encounters was one point we really wanted to make. We do hope people can get more educated, so we can all help change animal encounters.

  • Louise

    Wow – what an amazing and special experience you guys had! I am so happy you were able to make your dream come true, Christina, and find an ethical cheetah encounter 🙂 Thank you for sharing Sylvester’s story.
    And thank you for sharing that Facebook group – definitely going to check out that list of places to check out and ones to avoid!

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We were blessed to be able to meet him and learn from him and his experience. It was definitely a dream come true.

  • umiko

    The story of Sylvester is really touchy. I’m glad that the ranger decided to take him home to the ranch so he got to live until today. Just a few days ago I asked my husband how dog was in the wild before human domesticated them.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We were glad that he decided to take him home as well. It is sad that he will never know the life of a real cheetah though.

  • Viola

    They are gorgeous creatures! This is just amazing! Wow so jealous you got to experience!

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      It was a dream come true! He was absolutely gorgeous!

  • April

    What an amazing experience! I’m sure I’d be in tears if a cheetah came up to me and licked my hand. And what a life Sylvester has had. As an ambassador now, I’m glad that he’s raising awareness, though it is sad to hear that he’ll never be a true cheetah. As travelers, we all have a responsibility to practice ethical behavior – thank you for the beautiful reminder.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      If we can spread the word to everyone to truly be ethical whenever encountering animals it could really change the world. I still cannot believe he just walked right up to me and licked me.

  • Hazel

    An excellent post and the point you make is so valid- humans are selfish when it comes to our wants and we all need to address our minds more carefully to whether our wants harm the animals, cultures or landscapes we are visiting. Thanks for sharing!

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Sometimes we need to get out of our own way and look at it from a different perspective. We definitely think about ourselves first which is sad.

  • Teresa

    I am not sure how to feel about this post. I really applaud that you have done your research and are trying to raise awareness about the importance of choosing an ethical encounter with a wild animal. But at the same, it leaves me feeling that this experience is only a self-serving one. Yes, Sylvester will never be returned to the wild, but I feel that he is still being used to satisfy someone’s dream. If he wants to do it or not doesn’t really matter. We should be asking ourselves… how is this benefiting him?
    Still, I was very happy read your emphasis that you put on choosing ethical wildlife encounters, so well done and thank you. We need more people reiterating this message.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We appreciate your thoughts and comments. He is very domesticated and he genuinely enjoys human interaction. Yes, it is sad because he is a wild animal but this is the life that was given to him due to the circumstances. We can say without a doubt that he is very happy and that he “purrs” when interacting with humans.

  • Sarah

    Oh my gosh you are bringing such a huge smile to my face. We met Sylvester a few years ago! We stayed at the Elephant Camp (I am just as in love with elephants as you are with cheetahs) and hung out with Sylvester a couple times. We didn’t do an arranged walk with him, but ran into him on one of his walks while we were out on a bushwalk. Though we went for the elephants, our experience with Sylvester was one of the greatest we’ve had. You’ve told his story and the work being done on his behalf so thoughtfully.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      That is great that you have met Sylvester as well and know his story. We didn’t actually see any elephants at elephant camp surprisingly but it seemed like a very nice place.

  • Alma

    Great post! I’m all for ethical interaction with wild animals, and I hate them being exploited by tourists, just to get a picture of them. They still remain wild, even though hand reared and that instinct is in them to protect themselves when in danger. So pleased to read that this was done ethically.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Thank you for your nice comments. It was a great ethical interaction and we cannot say enough good things about Elephant Camp and how they take care of Sylvester.

  • Tasha

    I absolutely loved reading this. I’m hoping to visit Zimbabwe next year so have already looked at the Elephant Camp as an option to stay. I did a cheetah walk in South Africa a couple of years ago which I found to be ethical too. It saves animals who can’t be released into the wild from being stuck in one place all day.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Which Cheetah walk did you do. I think we were looking at one in SA as well. They are amazing animals!

  • Chirasree Banerjee

    Glad I came across your blog and especially this post! Loved reading about Sylvester. I viewed your video and I am so touched.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      He has a tragic story but his life has been lived to the fullest thanks to that team. Thank you for your comments

  • Delphine

    That’s such a great experience… I did something like that at the Canberra National Zoo a few years ago. It’s so hard to reconcile the beauty of these animals and the fact that they are locked up!

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Ya we have mixed emotions about zoos now. They are great for learning about animals but at the same time they are bad for them as well.

  • Wow! The pups are so cute! I’m so glad this article is about ethical encounters since so many people do it in the wrong way. This must of been an awesome experience! I would love to something like this in the future!

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      They are so cute when they are little! Thank you for your nice comments. This was an incredible experience.

  • Zoya

    I’m a huge animal lover and have difficulty seeing wild animals in captive, being mistreated or even being pets. In fact, I can’t even go to a zoo, without balling my eyes out! Nevertheless, I think it is very important to educate the public about wildlife conservation and protection, through ethical encounters like these. Sylvester’s story was very moving.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We don’t feel we can go to a zoo anymore after hearing his story and going on Safari as well. Wildlife conservancy is so important

  • Bruce Schinkel

    Great post! Like you, once I started finding out the truth about “so-called animal experiences”, I’ve given them up for ethical encounters. The switch has been much more rewarding that we could ever have hoped, and based on this post, i’m sure you’d agree 🙂

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      We definitely agree! Seeing animals in zoo is heartbreaking. They are good for learning about them but so bad for them at the same time

  • Taiss

    I can understand that this may look like it’s an unethical tourist attraction with an animal. However, after reading the full story I can also understand that he is not able to live on his own in the wild because of how he was raised. At least, he is given a nice home and seems to be treated well. It’s not often us humans can have these experiences and not have them affect the animals negatively. I guess it is better than him being in a zoo.

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Yes, we can strongly confirm Sylvester lives a happy life as a domesticated cheetah. It is very sad that he can return to the wild and even more sad that he does not even realize he is a cheetah! He genuinely happy interacted with humans, he treats his trainers as companions and lives a healthy life being able to still take walks in the national park – much much better than any life a zoo can give him.

  • Lesley

    I can’t believe that the cheetah actually licked your hand! OMG I would have been beyond thrilled! What an amazing experience to have 🙂

    • oursweetadventures
      AUTHOR

      Yes! It was one of the most magical moments of my life. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience 🙂

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