The story of Sheba the cheetah

Thanks for all the comments and donations following the previous Blogs.

Apologies for the delay in updating this Blog site. I’ve been in England for a month at a series of project planning meetings with Born Free. Although the Born Free team offer support from UK and USA, I am on my own out here in Ethiopia and sometimes the difficulty of this job and physical distance from family and friends do make one feel very alone. For those aspiring wildlife conservationists out there, make sure you are incredibly self-motivated and take a break every so often to catch up with family and friends.

This week’s Blog is all about a cheetah called Sheba. The name Sheba reminds most people of the Queen of Sheba, but in fact the cub is male. Sheba being the Amharic word for lame.

Back in 2006, I had just arrived in Ethiopia to work for another wildlife organisation in Omo National Park in the southwest of the country. While at meetings in Addis I heard about a young orphaned cheetah cub that was being looked after by an American veterinarian and his wife. The cub had been confiscated from an animal trader. Cheetah have long been used for hunting in the Middle East where they are hand raised and then taken out wearing a hood similar to those used in falconry. At a given moment the hood is removed and the cheetah sprints off to catch the antelope or other ‘prey’. Even today, despite cheetah being endangered and their removal from Ethiopia against the law, cubs are taken from the wild and smuggled out of Ethiopia through Somalia and into the Gulf states to be kept for hunting.

Sheba at four months © JY

Cheetah that are hand raised can become habituated to humans (I prefer not to use the word tame as they are wild animals). Please don’t get the idea that a cheetah would make a good pet! Firstly, they are threatened enough in the wild, and secondly, despite getting used to humans they are wild animals and should not be kept in captivity.

I have spent several years working with Dr Laurie Marker, the founder and CEO of the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia. I’m by no means a cheetah expert, but have helped hand raise orphan cubs and helped develop the Cheetah Conservation Fund environmental education programme and set up an innovative business as a conservation tool. (For more information Google ‘Bushblok’).

Back to the six-month old Sheba.

X rays showed that one of the cubs’ rear legs had been broken in the past and had mended badly. Not only was the cub very lame, the cub was also young and inexperienced and chances of surviving in the wild were slim. In the wild, even healthy cheetah cubs with attentive mothers are often killed by hyena, leopard or lion.

As I have mentioned in a previous Blog, the Ethiopia Wildlife Conservation Authority would like to stop the illegal trade in Ethiopian wildlife, but need the Born Free Wildlife Centre to be built so that confiscated, orphaned, or injured animals can be cared for. Wherever possible treated animals would be released back into the wild, but in the case of severely injured animals like Sheba there is no other option than lifetime care in a spacious and naturalistic enclosure. Since we had not yet built the Centre, and the cub was growing too big for the veterinarian’s garden, a temporary home needed to be found – and found fast. The Ethiopian Government forbids wildlife from being taken out of the country, so it was decided that the cub should be kept in an enclosure in Omo National Park where I could take responsibility for him.

In January 2007, I lifted the very good-natured Sheba into a large dog travel crate with his favourite blanket and set off in my 4 x 4 to start the three day journey to Omo National Park. Amazingly, Sheba did not seem to mind the car journey at all and purred noisily while watching the Ethiopian countryside go by. (Cheetah are the only big cat that purr, and boy is that purr loud!)

James Young and Sheba, Omo National Park © JY

After a full day’s drive I decided to stay at a guest lodge in the town of Arba Minch, but they did not allow pets, let alone cheetah. Covering the dog crate with a blanket, I smuggled the cheetah into my thatched room.

It was important that the cub could stretch his legs after the day’s drive, so I had no alternative but to let him out in the room. Sheba stalked around sniffing everything inquisitively. His first hotel room! Sheba ate and drank as on a normal day, but I couldn’t bear the idea of shutting him back in the crate again for the night when he would be in the crate for the whole next day, so I put his blanket on the floor. I’m sure more from exhaustion than good behaviour, Sheba immediately walked over to the blanket, lay down and rolled onto his back. I admit to being relieved. I had wondered if Sheba might chirp all night. Young cheetah when unhappy or calling their mothers chirp like a bird. It’s an extraordinary sound, not like a cat at all.

Having descended from the hills of Addis into the Rift Valley, I was now in a malaria zone, so I covered my bed with the mosquito net provided and slipped under the top bed sheet. The temperature at 10 pm was still close to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius), so no blanket was needed!

I lay and fell asleep quickly – a combination of the soothing noise of Sheba purring from his blanket and the day’s exhausting drive. Driving on Ethiopian roads requires a healthy mixture of patience and anticipation. At any time you may need to avoid or stop for camels, people, donkey carts, cows, goats, sheep or – the most dangerous of all – kamikaze trucks or buses.

At about 1.30 am I dreamed my cheek was being rubbed by warm, wet sandpaper that smelled of raw meat while a revving lawnmower was being inserted into my ear. You guessed it. Sheba had snuck under the mosquito net and was lying alongside me on the bed sheet, licking my face and purring right into my ear.

Despite the flickering doubt that it might not be the wisest thing to let a six month cheetah I hardly knew sleep alongside me, I was so exhausted I simply stroked Sheba’s head. The purring quietened and then stopped. Sheba was asleep and taking up far too much of the bed!

I fell asleep myself and woke several hours later to find the whole sheet, the mattress and myself covered in warm cheetah urine. Disgusting! Obviously, Sheba was not house trained… I washed out the sheets and mattress the best I could and smuggled Sheba back into the 4 x 4. No one knew a cheetah had spent the night there, but I had to apologise to the hotel for the state of the bed. One of the most embarrassing moments of my life must be checking out of that hotel and apologising for ‘having an accident’ in the night.

Sheba spent a year and a half in Omo National Park. Some of the photos show how happy he was.

Sheba looking out on Omo National Park © JY

Sheba at the office © JY

Sadly, the organisation I was working for decided to leave Ethiopia and I was asked to look after Sheba at the new Wildlife Centre. The only problem being that the Centre is not built yet! The Ethiopian air charter company, Abyssinia Airlines generously agreed to fly Sheba up to Addis, and now Sheba has a temporary home at the Presidential Palace. Yet another reason why it is so important to get the Centre built and construct a new spacious permanent home for this special cat.

Sheba’s temporary enclosure in the Presidential Palace © BFF / JY

Sheba now spends most days on top of his grassy bunker sleeping quarters watching cows and calves in a neighbouring field.

Sheba in the Presidential Palace temporary enclosure © BFF / JY

Please do help if you can.

The Wildlife Rescue, Conservation and Education Centre will cost around UK£ 1 million (US$ 2 million) to build and equip, and it will cost around UK£ 250,000 (US$ 500,000) per year to fund the Centre and its conservation and education programmes.

We must get Sheba and other wildlife in captivity in Ethiopia into spacious enclosures as soon as we can.

And if anyone wants to help pay for the care of Sheba, he costs £6 (US$12) per day to keep.

Please donate here in the BF Ethiopia donation box to the right.

More news in a few days,


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  1. Posted October 11, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    What a lovely cub Sheba is – cheetahs are such remarkable cats! I hope the new centre gets built soon and Sheba gets a spacious new enclosure! All the best :)

  2. Jeremy Rothfield
    Posted October 11, 2008 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Terrific story and well written too.

  3. Posted October 11, 2008 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I was so inquisitivly reading about your adventures and time spent with such a wonderful cheetah. You are very blessed to be doing such amazing and fulfilling work alongside Cats. The sound of cheetah’s purr would have been soft harmony to my ears. You are lucky to get to hear such a sound.
    They truely are perfect creatures.
    I have four domesticated felines in my brood, however if I could take in and care for hundreds, I would. Big cats too.

    Keep up the good work.


  4. Gorilly
    Posted October 12, 2008 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    I have put the word out on Shebas plight. We cannot afford to lose any of them and to do so would be such a travesty would it not????

    Big Gorilly Hugs

  5. Posted October 17, 2008 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    It is great to catch up on your great work. Good luck raising the money for some proper accommodation for Sheba. Clearly he needs a bed he can make his own.

    Stay safe!

  6. Posted January 15, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful story, the plight of all the big cats breaks my heart, im very much a cat person myself having 10 rescue moggies, but the Cheetah is very special to me, i hope that Sheba and Menelik move to their new home very soon, i will be donating on the website for these to special animals, your very priviliged to be in such a great position to look after these wonderful animals, all the best of luck.CW

  7. Posted June 2, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the story (I was bracing for a sad ending)!

    Seeing as this was originally posted in 2008, are there updates about Sheba somewhere else on the site?

  8. Posted June 4, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    You are very blessed to be doing such amazing and fulfilling work alongside Cats.

  9. bornfree
    Posted June 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Hi OG,

    No sad ending! You can see the latest update on Sheba here –

    Thanks for reading!!

  10. bornfree
    Posted June 6, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Apologies OG, here is the update –

  11. Posted June 24, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    ohhh… so cute ^^ looks like a cat :) very nice post

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] couple who had so successfully cared for Sheba (Story in Blog 5) agreed to provide the cub with a home for a few weeks until I had built a temporary enclosure in […]

  2. […] and provide resecue, rehabilitation and lifetime care facilities to a number of animals including Sheba and Menelik the cheetahs, the Italian lions and of course the Dolo […]

  3. […] Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Girma Wolde-Giorgis requesting permission to collect Sheba (read Sheba’s full story here) as we had his new home all ready at the Wildlife Rescue Centre site. President Girma had delegated […]

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