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Pets Gone Wild

Speaking of pouncing reminds me of probably the most unique human-animal relationship I have ever come across. It wasn’t during vet school, but years later in the mid 1970s. Laurie Marker worked as a veterinary technician at a wild animal park in the Northwest. I met her when she was in Southern California to attend a conference on big cats (as in lions, tigers, cheetahs, etc.). Although I worked on cats myself, they were?decidedly smaller varieties (Tabbies, Siamese, Calicos, etc.), so I wasn’t even aware of the conference. It was Georgianna, a mutual friend, that suggested I might be willing to host Laurie for the week. We hit it off marvelously, and I made more than one trip up north to stay at?her place at the wild animal park.

I admit I?went to?visit Laurie for more than her terrific company. For starters there was the special access to all the magnificent animals at the wildlife park, which was fabulous, but it was more than that. You see, Laurie was one of those people who was always bringing work home with her. A briefcase full of paperwork is one thing, but for Laurie it was a young cheetah. Khayam had to be taken away from her mother as a very young cub, and Laurie got the task of bottle feeding and generally hand raising her. Because such a young cub requires frequent feeding, Laurie received permission to take Khayam home with her. They formed a unique, intense bond, and Khayam continued to go home with Laurie for over?nine years. Instead of setting up a cheetah-sized litter box, she taught Khayam to use the shower to relieve herself. That made cleanup easy for Laurie. And, yes, she used a different bathroom for her own hygienic needs.

Their unprecedented relationship led to a first-of-its-kind of research project. Laurie and Khayam flew to Namibia, Africa to see if a captive-bred cheetah could be taught to hunt in the wild. After months of sitting patiently at waterholes being taught the steps of hunting by her adopted “mother,” Khayam took down her first antelope. Laurie never did manage to catch one herself. Laurie and Khayam became celebrities, touring the country telling the cheetah’s story until Khayam’s death in 1986.

Laurie’s passion for cheetahs did not die with Khayam. While in Africa, she learned that a cheetah’s survival depended not only on being able to hunt, but also on being able to avoid Namibian farmers, who were killing hundreds of wild cheetahs each year to allegedly protect their livestock. Dr. Laurie Marker (she received her doctorate from Oxford University in 2003) continued to travel to Africa regularly until 1990 when she founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund, housed in Namibia. The CCF has grown into a renowned research and education facility, with one of its primary focuses being to teach farmers that they can safely share the land with cheetahs.

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