By Mark McConville
A BRITISH girl who gets up close and personal with cheetahs has helped to save her best-pal from being almost certainly sold for wealthy hunters to kill and turn into a stuffed trophy.
Intimate pictures show how blonde big cat lover Heather Tookey (23), from Beckenham in Kent, has volunteered seven times at South Africa’s Cheetah Experience since she was just 18-years-old. She can be see hugging, playing chase and even kissing the predator full on the snout.
Heather has formed particularly close bonds with two cheetahs called Dew and Eden. She explained what is going on in the pictures.
“When Dew comes toward me, she loves to ‘groom’ me by kissing me. It looks very sweet, but it is actually the most painful thing.”
“Her tongue is so rough and she insists on kissing me all over until I can’t take anymore.
“Eden loves to go on walks in the veld to explore new sights and smells, or enrichment with her favourite toys.
“As our bond is so strong, I do sleep outside with her and another cheetah, Faith, at night in their enclosure.
“This is my favourite thing to do in the whole world – take my blanket and pillow to a spot under the trees, lie down and wait for them to come over and cuddle in for the night under the stars.
“It is totally on their terms and not forced at all. Eden likes to sleep as close as possible to me, often leaning her head on mine or entangling her legs with me, and giving me a good wash with her sandpaper tongue.
“Faith normally lies by my pillow. They will then purr so much that the whole blanket vibrates until they both fall silently asleep.
“Then come sunrise, the roar of the lions will wake us up and Eden will greet me good morning with more kisses before I have to start work for the day.”
However much they love the felines in their care, Cheetah Experience (CE) do not own all of the animals in their care and to the dismay of the organisation and volunteers, the owner of four cheetahs wanted to sell them to the highest bidder.
Instead of allowing her best friends to be sold and potentially killed for sport, Heather raised over £5,000 to save her pal Dew, through donations sent to her JustGiving webpage, while two of the other cheetahs were saved by money raised by her fellow volunteers.
The fourth was saved when Cheetah Experience owner Riana Van Nieuwenhuizen collated enough funds to keep it.
“They are loved and cared for so much, it would have broken my heart for these cheetahs to end up in the wrong hands,” said Heather.
“Selling cats for hunting is rife in South Africa. We had cause to feared that at auction these cheetahs would end up in the hands of potential hunters.
“Therefore I took the initiative to raise the money for CE to purchase the cheetahs before they were taken to auction.
“With a lot of help from friends, family and other volunteers from around the world, the fundraising page was flooded with donations and shares on social media, and we were able to raise the money within just thirty days to save the cheetahs from this unknown and most likely deadly fate.
“They will now forever live at Cheetah Experience. It’s amazing what you can achieve with the united love for animals.”
Heather keeps returning to Cheetah Experience to volunteer after developing a bond with the animals there.
“To have the strongest of bonds between a wild animal and a human is amazing. It is such a different bond to those you have with your pet dog or cat at home,” she said.
“I know it is so rare and special to spend time and look after these animals. The best way to develop a relationship with these amazing animals is not to force it.
“I have been lucky that over the years I have been a part of many of the cheetahs’ lives growing up, and have spent a lot of time with them and taking care of them.
“The most important thing is respect, we respect their space and behaviour, and in return we gain their respect for us.
“They slowly come closer and closer to me, to get used to my smell, my voice and so on. Every time I return to the project this bond becomes stronger as they always remember me and often come running over to greet me with kisses and purring.”
Cheetah Experience is a big cat centre that was founded in 2006 with the long-term goal of breeding cheetahs. They also wish to introduce a new cheetah bloodline.
Their intention is to release them back into a ‘protected wild’, where they will be interfered with as little as possible by humans, yet will still be monitored closely by vets and researchers in order to gain better insight into the lives of these animals.
More information on how you can get involved or donate can be found at: http://www.cheetahexperience.com/.