Cheetahs are leaving the world. In 1900 there were 100,000 cheetahs. In 2000 there were 10,000. All cheetahs are so closely related that they are almost the same genetic individual: skin grafts from one to another are virtually foolproof. This is because there is so little genetic variation among them. They are all descended from a very small population—perhaps as few as seven individuals isolated in a late ice age. This means there is not sufficient genetic diversity for them survive. They have had to breed with their siblings and parents and cousins. The males have weak sperm and low sperm counts. The species is so vulnerable it is unlikely to make it much more than a decade or two. Unless we learn how to recover genetic material from some time before the bottleneck occurred. Science cannot do that yet. If a disease comes along for which cheetahs have developed no resistance and humans have found no cure, the cheetahs will be gone.
Humans were surrounded by other animals from the beginning of time: they were food, clothes, adversaries, companions, jokes, and gods. And yet, our companions in evolution are leaving the world — both as physical beings and spiritual symbols — and not returning. In this collection of linked essays, Alison Hawthorne Deming asks, and seeks to answer: what does the disappearance of animals mean for human imagination and existence? Moving from mammoth hunts to dying house cats, she explores profound questions about what it means to be animal. What is inherent in animals that leads us to destroy, and what that leads us toward peace? As human animals, how does art both define us as a species and how does it emerge primarily from our relationship with other species? The reader emerges with a transformed sense of how the living world around us has defined and continues to define us in a powerful way.
Cheetahs have been beloved by people for at least 5,000 years. Sumerians, Egyptians, and Persians kept them as pets and trained them for hunting, taking them to the hunting grounds on a leash or wearing a hood. One of King Tut’s funerary beds takes the form of a cheetah flattened out so that the royal body might lie on the cheetah’s back as Anubis attended to him, the king’s head lying back to back against the gilded cheetah head. The cat is identifiable as a cheetah because the noble face has black tear lines curving down its cheeks, small gestures of darkness that punctuate a figure radiating all that ancient, celestial gold.
What does it matter if the cheetahs go out of the world? People with hearts calloused by loss are fond of meeting extinction laments with the dismissal that 98 percent of living things that have so far lived on Earth are now extinct. That doesn’t pay due respect to our own species, which has brought an innovation to the planet. People have a moral imagination and, unless they’ve become benumbed by suffering, they care. Do our actions always line up with our empathy? No. But that in itself is so unsettling that we cannot rest easy with our shortcomings.
The moral imagination insists that every species has a right to its full evolutionary potential. That’s the way I need to think about how we’ve failed the creatures living with us in the Holocene and early Anthropocene, the new geologic epoch in which we find ourselves. Nobel Prize-winning geoscientist Paul Crutzen defines the epoch as one in which during the past two centuries human beings have become the foremost agents of change on Earth’s surface: population growth, burning fossil fuel, climate weirding, sea level rise, ocean acidification, degradation of land and atmosphere and water, displacement of the wild and the poor—all alter the terms of existence for all life. No place or creature is separate from this influence.
The cheetahs have had a good run—maybe 11 million years or so—since they split off the big cat highway from cougars and panthers. Cheetahs are the fastest sprinters in the world with their taut athletic waists and deep chests. They are beautiful, with their spots like obsidian beads, with their whipping tails, with their four-feet-off-the-ground zero-to-70-in-four-seconds sprint, with their chirping that sounds like birds when they call their brothers to eat.
A blonde California woman sits at the wheel of the Jeep, easing down a gravel lane. She wears a palm leaf print shirt and a ball cap. She has that perfect athletic look that fits San Diego, as if she runs ten miles every day. She has a big black retriever riding shotgun in the Jeep, tongue hanging pretty and pink in happiness for the ride. But there are no surfboards or mountain bikes riding as cargo on this outing. Instead there is a large cage in which lies a very calm cheetah. The woman, dog, and cat are on their way to work.
I’ve ridden in the back of the canvas-topped stock truck to the savanna at the San Diego Safari Park’s 1,800-acre campus to watch the keepers exercise a cheetah. Majani is four years old and has been training for a year. He was born here, one of more than 130 cheetahs born in San Diego Zoo’s captive breeding program begun in the 1970s. The trainers prep for the run, chatting, walking the track, while we observers sit outside in an open-walled brown canvas tent for safari-style tea. First on the track is the retriever. Cliff is Majani’s dog. They have been raised together. Cliff is the cheetah’s security blanket. When the cheetah sees the dog relaxed, panting with tongue hanging out, which shows his lack of stress, Majani knows that all is well and goes along with the program. They bunk together, travel together, and Cliff hangs out while Majani goes through training.
Another perfect California youth, a guy wearing the same palm tree motif, cell phone and pager clipped to the waist of his black shorts, sets up the Chevy starter motor at the far end of the track. It will pull Majani’s lure at 70 miles per hour along the ground and the cheetah will race after it. Each of the three cheetahs in the training program has chosen his own lure. This one contains bits of sheepskin, bits of plastic bag for noise, and a pillowcase soaked with female cheetah urine. It takes trial and error to determine what will excite an individual cheetah—what will incite it to run. The trainers plan to run this cheetah three times, the dirt track starting down among the thorn acacias, running past our tent to the end zone that lies about 130 yards from the start. If the cheetah makes the full run, a whistle blows and he gets a big bowl of meat. The timing has to be right, so that the release trainer opens the cage just as the lure begins to fly away. The event goes by so fast that I find it hard to see anything but speed. What can I hold in mind? Only the soft pounding of the cheetah’s foot pads—soft but thundering.
Mike, the guy running the motor, tells us Majani has been conditioned from 140 to 120 pounds during “his country club existence.” He now has a good fat to muscle ratio. After the training, each of the guests has a chance to stand beside the cat to have a photo taken. Majani by this time is on his leash and Cliff is lying on the ground close by. The dog’s job is pretty easy. He has nothing to do but just be. The trainer leads the cheetah to sit on wooden box that has been placed so that the cat is about eye level with the “safari” guest.
When my turn comes, I stand a few inches from the cheetah. It is a strange moment, posing like that and wondering if I should look at the cat or the lens. He feels shockingly strong, a muscular tension that is electric. Majani is restless and jumps down from the pedestal to the side of the box where the trainer stands loosely holding the leash. When he jumps back up, his tail whacks against my back—the huge, thick muscular softness…
“Don’t move,” says the trainer.
“Oh, I know,” I whisper. The shutter clicks. The cat makes a soft purr that is so deep it sounds like a growl. I look to the retriever. The cat looks to the retriever. Cliff is lying calmly on the ground, as if this is a day of basking at the beach. The cat and I turn to look into each other’s eyes, each of us pulling our heads back a bit in awkwardness. I look away, unsure why, except that it seems brash to look a cheetah in the eye. I look then into his mouth—that wet, toothy, pink maw.
An account of cheetah hunting written in the late 1970s comes from R.S. Dharmakumarsinhji in Reminiscences of Indian Wildlife. He writes that the sport came into India with Mongols and Persian emperors. Prior to independence many “princely states” kept cheetahs. The 16th century Emperor Akbar the Great had over 1,000 captive cheetahs. The author’s father kept 32 African cheetahs for hunting, hiring Muslim trainers who knew the art by inherited tradition. The cheetah needs the chase. A gazelle could walk past a cheetah and the cat would not respond. But if the gazelle is spooked and starts running, that triggers the cheetah’s instinct.
This family hunted for blackbuck, releasing the cheetah from a bullock cart when in range of the antelope. Blackbuck, in the 1940s, the author reports, roamed in herds thousands strong, “a line which took a quarter of an hour to pass from one portion of the horizon to another, a stream of antelope, a thick moving line of fawn and black and white colour, a chain in movement magnifying itself in the mirage like a ghostly train, a sight now unimaginable.”
The whole hunt would be over in a matter of minutes, the cat flattening out in chase, pushing with a last span of supercharged speed, two of the fastest animals in the world competing. When the cheetah overtook the blackbuck, it struck out with a front paw at the hind legs of the prey. The hooked dewclaw caught. The buck began to fall. The cheetah braked with hind legs. The buck fell. The cheetah clamped jaw over windpipe until the buck starved of oxygen. The cat was rewarded with a drink of the prey’s blood or some meat.
Each culture has its forms and patterns for interacting with animals. For those in need of killing animals in order to feel close to them, there is Namibia’s Ozondjahe Hunting Safaris, run by the same European family for three generations. For about $10,000, a person can spend 12 days with a professional guide, hunting among the highest density of cheetahs in the world. If you get one, you’ll have to pay an additional trophy fee of $3,800 (you can’t buy a hot tub for less than five grand). If you don’t luck out with a cheetah, there’s cheaper game to bag: leopard, $3,500; dik dik (the graceful antelope tiny as a fox terrier) $2,600; zebra $1,250; warthog for $400; and for the truly desperate, you can kill a jackal for 50 bucks. Birds, you can kill for free.
The photographs of these hunters posing with their kills, the giant heads or chests stained with leaking blood as the man seeks to position the beast so it looks like a trophy and not like a corpse, all the while embracing the rifle or bow like a baby, are the emptiest human portraits I have ever seen, emptier than all the victims of trauma and collective suffering documented in the news.
“The blindness in human beings,” wrote William James in a 1906 address, “is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.”
I write to try to see.
Read “Ruin and Renewal,” an editorial, poetry, and an interview with Alison Hawthorne Deming, all appearing in Terrain.org.
Special thanks to Patrick Burns for his research assistance on this essay.