Winter has hit Inverdoorn and with the snow on the mountains creating a backdrop that is as magnificent as what we see in summer, the frosty season has its own wonders. The cheetahs, however, are not perturbed about the cold. "They don't like the rain, but they don't care about the cold," says Leah Brousse, the main cheetah handler at Inverdoorn. The rain also means that they cannot always go on their runs. "We do walks, but they can't run in this weather, because the soil is muddy and they might slip and break a leg. They run when it is dry." Despite the cold not bothering them, they do enjoy finding a good spot in the sun and during the safari you will see the cheetahs slink onto the knoll in the cheetah reserve where they bask in the sun, their eyelids fluttering shut in contentment.
Preparations are still underway for their release. "We are deciding which cheetahs to release and waiting for the right time, " says Leah. Focus is currently being placed on the mating and breeding programmes as everyone, staff and guests alike, would love to see cubs lolling about in the Karoo. Banzi and Nushka are now in the breeding camp, along with Joti, Lotta and Shady. "Lotta is showing all the signs of being in heat," Leah confirms; while Nushka seems to be showing the signals that she may be on heat soon too. The ideal situation would be to pair Lotta with Joti, because he has strong genes, but she has taken to Banzi instead. The cheetahs seem determined to act out a classic comedy caper, because "Banzi seems scared of her" while Joti only has eyes for Nushka. However, the latter two are not an ideal match as "Joti is big compared to Nushka and we are afraid he would hurt her if they had to mate." The males become quite violent when mating. "The male is aggressive and can hurt the female. It's difficulty in captivity to stand and watch them fight and know it's good. To find the right balance is difficult." The whole situation, with all its physicality and abundant matchmaking, is rather reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy and his words "that the course of true love never did run smooth" seem most apt.
This comedy of cats is not the only action going on at the WCCC. Leah has been trying to bring Velvet and Iziba together to form a bond so that Velvet can teach the younger cheetah "some manners". After eyeballing each other suspiciously for a bit, as well as a few cat fights (quite literally), the two females are firm friends. "Now when the one [cheetah] comes out, the other one calls for her and they are playing together". Leah is assisted in her cheetah duties by fellow handler Marlene Nieuwoudt, as well as newly-arrived volunteer, Marion Sabatie. Hailing from France she is spending the winter in South Africa to lend an extra hand. Getting to know these big cats she will soon discover – as we all do – that not only are they fast, but also full of character. Although centuries of inbreeding have resulted in a constricted gene pool, the personalities of these cats remain unique. So when you try to distinguish which cheetah is which, rather try to spot the personality as "naughty Iziba" loftily holds her head up high and the princess-like Velvet melts your heart with her soft, liquid eyes.