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The big cats' best friend

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Van Dyk isn’t the only conservationist to successfully breed cheetahs, but few can match her numbers. Since 1971, she has bred 800 of the big cats, some of them tagged and released into the wild and others sent to zoos.

This success has won her respect from zoo authorities and other conservationists. In 2004, the Cheetah Conservation Fund named Van Dyk as Cheetah Conservationist of the Year, saying that her “years of dedicated work in South Africa exemplify how conservation has evolved” and calling her organization “one of the most successful breeding centers in the world.”

IN PICTURES: A Sanctuary for Cheetahs

But she has drawn some hostility from local farmers, some of whom still shoot wild cheetahs as a threat to their livestock.

“Cheetahs take their livestock, so you have to look from their point of view,” says Van Dyk of the farmers. But because her center offers to capture and remove cheetahs from their property free of charge, some see Van Dyk and her conservationists as allies.

“You can never put a wild-caught cheetah into a captive situation,” she says. “We’ll take them in, but usually we’ll relocate them to a game park. And it’s been a great success; they are breeding.”

Van Dyk walks into a pen belonging to a cheetah named Big Girl. The cat recognizes Van Dyk, and after a few strokes on the head and under the chin, Big Girl settles into Van Dyk’s lap, purring. At this point, Van Dyk tells some visitors that they can come into the pen as well.

“Now, I have great admiration for the leopard,” she says, “but you will never get that look of trust that you get with a cheetah.”

She points at Big Girl’s face, which seems as relaxed and contented as a tabby cat’s – albeit a large one. “A leopard will look at you with a cold eye – ‘I’m going to have you for supper.’ A cheetah looks at you the way a child does.”

If Van Dyk feels a bit maternalistic about her cheetahs, it’s understandable. In a sense she’s been midwife to nearly 800 of them.

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