Visitor Story

My Hands-On Conservation Experience with CCF

  • by John Lehr March 1, 2024
My Hands-On Conservation Experience with CCF

As I traversed the CCF campus to breakfast at the Hot Spot to start each day as a Working Guest, I was accompanied for a part of the walk by one or more cheetahs. As I walked, one would pace alongside just on the other side of the fence. Often, cheetahs would trade off so I would have more company. Nothing unusual about that at CCF, but certainly a commute unlike any other for me.

Of course, my entire 2-week stint at CCF in November was unlike anything else I had ever experienced. Each evening I would learn which team I was assigned to for the next day. Each day would run from about 8 am to 5 pm with scheduled breaks. Every day was eventful, satisfying, and rewarding.

CCF is the heart and soul of the effort to save the cheetah. Although it is the fastest land animal, the cheetah cannot outrun extinction without help. The dedicated teams at CCF are critical to this effort. My short stay gave me eye-opening insights into the incredible dedication, focus, and energy it takes to sustain the effort, a further education into cheetahs and guard dogs, and much personal satisfaction and inspiration that is hard to describe.

Every day throughout the year, the CCF teams operate seamlessly to feed, care for, exercise, and enrich the lives of the 26 cheetahs and the livestock guard dogs currently in their care, operate the Model Farm, and host visitors. These commitments are not optional! These animals do not take holidays.

As part of the Cheetah Team, I helped Lea, Modesta, Justin, and Elifas with food preparation and feedings, providing water, and cleaning up the enclosures. Depending on the day, I could also be riding in the back of a vehicle serving up meat to fast-approaching cheetahs, or feeding one with an extended tweezer-like device as she learns to ignore the pinches in her rear end. This learning will later ease the administering of medicine, or the tasking of blood samples as may be needed. Lea, Modesta, Justin, and Elifas were most encouraging and shared with me experiences I was not expecting, for which I am very grateful.

These 26 cheetahs came into CCF’s care as rescues. All but two were under 6 months old when they arrived. Accordingly, they are not eligible for release into the wild as they age because they did not have enough time with their mothers to learn the requisite survival skills. These cheetahs are not going anywhere. Ever. So they require daily attention. The two older rescues are eligible for release at the appropriate time, typically once they are 3-4 years old. Until then, they are under CCF’s watchful care.

But caring for the rescued cheetahs is only a part of the puzzle to save the cheetah. Dogs saving cats play an important role, and the Livestock Guarding Dog Program is at the epicenter of this effort. The CCF Guarding Dog Team raises Anatolian Shepherds for use by local farmers to protect their goats and sheep. Calum and Eveline bring wonderful enthusiasm and pride to this effort, which makes the daily tasks of food prep, feeding, cleaning, and exercising quite engaging. And who would have ever thought that I would find in Calum a fellow fan of the National Hockey League? We continue to have a friendly dialogue and a pint wager over our favorite teams.

As an aside, I mention “cleaning” as a daily activity for the cheetahs and the dogs. Make no mistake, this is good old-fashioned poop scooping, as one does for a house pet. In the case of the dogs, this meant about 40 dogs twice a day. All in a day’s work to support CCF’s efforts. No problem!

There is more to being a Working Guest than dealing with animals. CCF has a garden where, with Matti, I tended to a variety of vegetables and a Café serving visitors, where I made vegetable pies with Hestopheen and sold fudge (made from Fransina’s recipe) and ice cream, both products of CCF’s own Dancing Goat Creamery. All six flavors of ice cream and all four varieties of fudge are delicious and are worth the visit alone! I have brought home pounds of fudge as gifts. Thank you, Hanlie!

Being a Working Guest also allowed me to join two more research-oriented operations. With Bart, intern Alessandra, and fellow Working Guest Sven, we visited the camera traps to swap video cards and batteries. Later at the Ecology Center, we reviewed the images like detective work and we had many animal sightings. It’s pretty cool, after sorting through so many images, to actually spot an animal of interest. Almost like spotting one in the wild.

Adventures like this sometimes come with an unexpected small-world component. Bart is from France, so when he learned that I would be stopping in Paris to visit my daughter on my way home to Arkansas, he encouraged me to visit a friend’s restaurant. A week later, when I arrived with my daughter at the restaurant, I shared a photo of Bart and me with the first person I encountered, who turned out to be Bart’s friend. Needless to say, my daughter and I had an enjoyable time with a new acquaintance and a marvelous meal!

But I digress. Encountering a wild animal in its natural habitat, while outside the confines of a vehicle, is an exciting experience. One day I was lucky enough to be assigned to the Animal Health Team for the continuing treatment of Hella, an adult female. She had been released into a private reserve and later found to have been wounded in an encounter with a warthog. This was hopefully her last treatment and exam before releasing her and her three cubs again. Mercelin expertly darted Hela, and she and Ana, another Team vet, smoothly conducted the exam. In addition to being a close observer, I also got to help hoist Hella onto the back of the vehicle for the exam. It may seem like a small moment, but handling a wild animal, even briefly, was exciting and a unique privilege!

During my entire stay, I was able to easily adapt to life at CCF thanks to the seamless efforts of the Hospitality Team. Everyone was friendly, supportive, and engaging. Every greeting was with a smile and enthusiasm. I felt very much appreciated. So, thank you very much, Bianca, Himee, Job, Lauren, Shannon, Tracy, Creo, Crizelda, and Mike. You did so much!

I wouldn’t have been able to keep up my stamina without the wonderful meals prepared by Executive Chef Raul and Chefs and Cooks Kennedy, Lucas, Wilma, and Puya. They serve food as good as the best safari lodges I have visited.

In reflecting on my time at CCF, several things come to mind. To say I was a farm laborer is not inaccurate, but it was so much more in terms of the personal satisfaction and growth I derived, and the respect I feel for those who do this work on a daily basis. They all have a professional, compassionate, no-nonsense, and enthusiastic approach that accomplishes so much. They certainly had the time to be wonderfully supportive of an inexperienced Working Guest.

Many people return from a visit to Africa saying that they had seen a cheetah and other wild animals. I am comfortable saying that I experienced the cheetahs. This is not an end but a beginning.

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