I was mightily impressed with Nature's telecast of "Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History" so, when asked to share my thoughts about an upcoming installment of this powerful series, I leapt at the chance. It didn't hurt that the subject was a species of animal for which I have long held a fascination. As I watched Simon King's "The Cheetah Orphans," I found that, far beyond indulging my childhood preoccupation, this story presented a valuable opportunity to consider our relationship with the other beings who inhabit our world.
"The Cheetah Orphans" raises many questions. What is our responsibility to wild animals? Should we seek to protect them from one another, and why? Should we rescue those who are orphaned, or should we respect the law of survival of the fittest? Is the best way to protect wild animals to leave them alone altogether? Should we create artificially sealed-off wilderness bubbles to protect them from the human encroachment that so threatens their numbers and throws them into greater contact and, thus, conflict with us?
Obviously these questions become more complex the more one becomes emotionally attached to the individuals who benefit or suffer from our decisions. As Simon King's own experience aptly demonstrates, people can feel great affection for nonhuman animals that they have come to know. Further outside our circle of immediate concern, affection is much harder to come by.
In this regard, "The Cheetah Orphans" reveals both the blessing and the curse of our empathy for other animals. When we know so little about them, it seems our ignorance endangers them before we realize what is happening. But, when we connect with these beings on a fundamentally personal level--realizing that they have intrinsic interests, that they value their lives and the lives of their loved ones--we are moved to do something to help them. But what is the right thing to do, and how? Does our involvement help or hurt?
"The Cheetah Orphans" looks at King's approaches to these questions. Approaches, plural, because even King--intimately involved with raising cheetahs Toki and Sambu from the age of four weeks when their mother is killed by a lion--ultimately has a hard time deciding what's best for his young wards after he's developed a personal interest in their fate.
When he decides to try letting his grown friends live freely in the wild, he is dismayed one morning to find the relatively inexperienced Sambu has been killed by a lion. Watching King contemplate his reaction to Sambu's death, I was struck by the ego of humankind--not King, necessarily, as his reaction is painfully common among our species--that inability to accept mortality for ourselves and those that we are close to: "Was it all a failure?" he asks when he discovers Sambu's fate.
This doubt gave rise to what I consider a key statement in this film: "You shouldn't get this emotionally attached to an animal." Within the context of the film, I hear the subtext of a man who is heartbroken and trying to understand how he can make an objective decision for an animal he has committed himself to helping. He proves his own point, of course, because his very attachment prevents him from seeing the bias he holds against every animal that he has not pledged to save, from Sambu's killer or the cheetahs that attack Toki, to the ibex that the brothers kill for food. The big cats are no more or less intrinsically valuable than those animals. They are all important to themselves, of course, but Toki and Sambu are only important to King because he had become emotionally attached to them.
The loss King feels over Sambu's death is affecting for us partly because he succeeded in portraying Sambu as an individual. What we might try to learn here is that, common or endangered, the life of each individual member of a species is inherently valuable to that being. And, as King himself found, these lives often have value to other beings around them. It is fascinating to observe the concern, for instance, that King has for Toki, the beautiful yet deadly survivor, when he suffers through the loss of his brother. It's heart-tugging seeing these emotions laid bare by both Toki and King. Apart from being truly touching, it makes me wonder how humans would relate to all animals if we knew them on this level.
Just imagine how we would have felt if our attachment had been to the nameless prey that frequently became the cheetahs' meals, rather than to Sambu and Toki. Had those cats not survived their orphaning due to King's intervention, the ibex they hunted down might have produced a family, too. You can argue that this is merely survival of the fittest at work, but note during the film how Sambu and Toki's human benefactors work tirelessly to secure the cats' survival. In this light, "The Cheetah Orphans" could be construed as a lesson that the animals we favor will always have it better than those we do not. Perhaps one of the key answers to our questions, then, is for us to value animals equally, whether they are cheetahs, ibex, dogs, cows or chickens. They are all worthy of consideration, once you get to know them.
And, while it's inspiring that some people have come to understand the intrinsic value of individual animals through their relationships with them, perhaps the insight that should be gained through these relationships is that we ought to leave animals alone altogether, and better protect their habitats. As King said of Toki: "He had a right to live in the wild," and that's a place where we no longer belong.
Ironically, the greatest danger Toki faces when placed in a preserve less densely populated with competing male cheetahs is the migration corridor that allows him to escape the preserve and enter a territory fraught with dangers he is ill-equipped to avoid -- farm land. Yes, the cultivated lands of humans and their domesticated species of dependent animals like goats or sheep are no place for a cheetah. Talk about competing interests. Just as there's little room for us in the domain of the cheetah, there's little room for cheetahs in our domain.
The concern is that our domain continues to spread. In over a third of the land-based "eco-regions" identified by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, farmed animals are considered "a current threat", while two thirds of Conservation International's "global hotspots for biodiversity" are affected by farmed animal production, characterized by serious levels of habitat loss.
As our species claims more and more of this planet for our own use, wild animals are being confined to enclosures that might well be viewed as large cages. And, as we see in the film, animals don't tolerate confinement.
Simon King got to know a couple of cheetahs like family, and he developed a sense of responsibility for them. "The Cheetah Orphans" should be a lesson for us to take more responsbility for our impact on animals as well. If we can find within ourselves love for a pair of cheetahs, is it such a stretch to think that we could extend this compassion to all beings? We humans must start acknowledging them as individuals, not as mere resources to be conserved.
But what is the appropriate role for us to play? King tried to do what was best for those orphans, but even with all his experience, he couldn't figure that out. His story does suggest that we must seek and support solutions that provide animals with the freedom to pursue their interests, as dangerous as those may be, as well as solutions that protect wild animals from human encroachment.
We hold their fate in our hands. We must realize that our seemingly limitless freedom infringes on that of other beings whose freedom is no less valuable to them than it is to us. Just look at Toki.