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Eyes On Your Own Paper

Comparison is the thief of joy. Theodore Roosevelt

Friday came fast, and I was nearing the end of my time with the animals. Monday would mark my second week and the beginning of my stint at the school. I was definitely settling into a routine at Na’ankuse. So much so, I started to focus on other things, like that fact I hadn’t really gotten much time with the animals.

“You need to go on a Cheetah walk,” Carla told me at breakfast. “They are incredible!”

“I don’t think my team is scheduled for one this week.” I’d said, feeling a twinge of regret.

“What about Hunger Games?” Jean asked.

“Nope.” (I didn't even know what that was...)

The looks on their faces reminded me of high school when we would compare class assignments for the following school year.

“Who’d you get for Social Studies? Crandall? Ohhhh…that sucks. How ‘bout Math? Ugh. Sorry, girl."

“Well, what’ve ya got today?” Helen asked.

“FIT in the morning and Enrichment in the afternoon.”

Helen scrunched her nose up like she’d smelled something rotten.

“Whut’s tha?”

“I think enrichment is making toys for the animals or something,” Jess added.

Great. So instead of having actual contact once again, I’d be like that elf in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer who had aspirations of being a dentist but was stuck making toys all day long.

Funny how just a few days ago, I was on top of the world after making it back to Bush Camp by myself with no snake bites to report. Today, I was staring down the barrel of activity envy.

And I wasn’t the only one. Lotte, when she saw me at the morning meeting, greeted me with a sigh.

“My roommate is on a baboon walk. We are looking at footprints all morning. So boring...”

Footprint Identification Technology (FIT) is an innovative way to track animal movement and gender. Knowing the whereabouts of the larger animals is essential to wildlife conservation. Typically, the cheetahs and leopards were outfitted with a collar that transmits a signal and enables location tracking. But those collars are costly, and it’s not the best thing to collar a wild animal. So Na’ankuse started working with FIT to provide data to the Large Carnivore Management Association and similar agencies.

As we followed, Charlie, our volunteer coordinator to one of the enclosures, I was still stewing over having to endure hours of studying where the cheetahs were while others were actually walking with them.

“Guys, it looks like the cheetahs missed their walk, so we’re in luck. Let’s all take off our sunglasses. If they see their reflection, they will think it’s another cheetah and attack.”

Wait. What? We’re going to be inside with the cheetahs? Panic replaced activity envy quick. I mean, shit, all I wanted was a little more excitement not full-on time with five cheetahs in an enclosed area. And what is this about being attacked if they see their reflection?

Be careful what you wish for.

Charlie called the cheetahs, which had been lurking in the bushes. They sauntered over, slowly without much care for us. As they came closer, I tried to get a hold of myself. My mind flipped around like a bored guy with a TV remote. “Holy shit – cheetahs!” “Stunning!” “I really hope they don’t rub up against me..." The noise in my head was distracting.

“Who wants to rake the ground?” Charlie asked as she pulled scraps of meat from a bucket and threw them to the now very alert large cats.

I sprang to action. And it wasn’t because I had a burning desire to help out. I needed to quiet my mind, and raking seemed like a good place to put my focus.

FIT turned out to be really cool. First we’d rake the ground and add some water to make it smooth. Next we’d lure one of the cheetahs through the fresh dirt with a piece of meet in the hopes of catching some viable footprints. Then each of us would take a turn measuring one print, snapping photos and recording the measurements in a small notebook.

All the while, the cheetahs hung out and watched from their spots in the shade. I was so into the whole process, I’d forgotten they were so close. That’s the thing about Na’ankuse. It’s this strange existence where the craziest things (like being INCHES from a bunch of cheetahs) are treated like an everyday occurrence.

Next up was a quick trip to feed some caracals. I’d never seen or heard of a caracal before. For those people in the same boat, a caracal is in the cat family. They are medium-sized animals with a short face, long, tufted ears and long teeth that protrude from their mouths. They are carnivores and typically kill rodents and birds.. One of the three we were feeding was actually someone’s pet, if you can imagine. Not surprisingly, the caracal became a danger to the family and he was given to the sanctuary. They still come and visit him, but we all agreed on the stupidity of domesticating a wild animal.

Charlie did the feeding by way of tossing chunks of raw springbok over the fence. Man, could these cats JUMP!

As we watched them devour their meals, Charlie’s walkie-talkie squawked.

“Okay, guys. We need to go back to The Farm and move a couple of warthogs. Ready?”

Hell, yes, I was ready! This was turning out to be the best day yet.

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