"Cheetah Orphans"


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.


A related topic-Should we feed wild birds coming into our back yards? Feeding them grains etc from a bird feeder can alter their natural urge to look for worms,insects, seeds etc in the vegetation. It would be far better if we can grow diverse, organically grown plants in our backyard and Parks.

That brings us back to the point made in the Blog. Let us protect the habitat wild creatures like rather than forcing them to adapt to our ways. I suspect their way of living is far more eco-friendly.

Fascinating essay.

There are apparently a few belts in Africa that currently have no livestock because they can't tolerate the trypanosomes carried by the tsetse fly.

If a vaccine were successfully introduced, then livestock would take over, and wildlife would completely disappear from those areas.

I hope we never develop that vaccine.

We would then be displacing scores of wild animals, each of whom is a valuable individual, to make room for scores of enslaved animals, each of whom is a valuable individual, and consigning them all to death.

As you say Eric, we must acknowledge that non-human animals are also individuals who value their lives and freedom; they are not just resources for us to manage.

Since they are individuals with personalities, the possibility of attachment exists whenever we get close to them. This engenders compassion, which hopefully then brings the realization that we shouldn't be able to get close enough to form such personal attachments in the first place!

Studying and appreciating wildlife seem best done from afar, with interventions only as necessary to correct egregious human-induced wrongs. Hooray for well-made wildlife specials for allowing us to glory in the spectacle with minimal intrusiveness, and for sharing the personal stories that reveal each animal to be a valuable individual!

I truly loved your essay. Thank you for addressing this difficult and extremely important problem. But you posed several insightful questions and then did not say how you would answer them. They were these:
What is our responsibility to wild animals?

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?

I would much appreciate hearing your answer to these questions.

Sincerely, thanks, again.

Great blog... really makes one think. I didn't watch the show but if I ever see it on tv I will be sure to watch it. It's not hard for me to become emotionally attached to an animal. Often I'll work one shift at the SPCA and I'll already be attached to one or more of the animals.. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to form an emotional attachment with an animal.. that just goes to show that humans are not the only species that matter.. we share the earth with so many other living creatures that are beautiful and valuable in and of themselves.. and we all have a right to freedom. I think the more that people develop attachments to animals the more compassionate we become and more aware of the issues surrounding their survival and what we are doing to the environment that we all share. After all, the concern for animal rights is growing as more and more people are starting to view pets as members of the family and form these attachments. I hope more and more people will realize that every animal values it's life and we should value their lives as well.

Thanks for the comments, readers. And don't forget to tune in. naturebunny (and others), the episode doesn't actually air until this Sunday at 8pm (check your local listings).

sheepdog, I think our responsibility to wild animals is to practice a form of Star Trek's "Prime Directive." In other words, observation without tampering is probably fine, but we must take great pains to avoid creating situations that conflict with the interests of other animals.

This means cleaning up our act as a species as well. Not only do we need to back off from the remaining wilderness in the world, both in terms of human habitation and agriculture, but we could stand to re-wild vast swaths of the planet, as well. While we're at it, we need to clean up the air and water so as to restore habitat for all animals, including humans.

We also ought to learn to put a check on our unsustainable growth and to consume less, so that we don't continually pressure the rest of the natural world into oblivion. I don't know about anyone else reading this, but I imagine most of us don't want to live in a world with 14 billion humans but only a pitiful number of animals relegated to zoos, wild animal parks and so on. This is their planet, too. We need to start acting like it.

hear, hear!
I'll be sure to watch it on Sunday!

I'm watching "The Cheetah Orphans" right at this moment. What a wonderful presentation!

What a story!!! What has become of Toki to this day?

Great program....glad to read the update on Toki at this site most recently reported by Simon when he saw Toki this past September....glad Toki is doing well. I hope they do figure out a way for Toki to have a mate.

This was a very touching show. I think the cheetah is the most beautiful creature. Kudos for saving one.

"The Cheetah Orphans" is an outstanding program. It raised the important questions that we need to face and not only discuss but act on soon. The world would be a darker place without the cheetahs and other wildlife that are being lost through all the conflicts. I just hope we act in time.

I watched the program on the Cheetah Orphans tonight and was very moved by their story. Thank God for Simon King and his mates who rescued the cubs. I think the trust Toki has with humans is proof that saving the cubs was the right choice. King questioned himself on why he had such a hard time letting Toki go on his own, but that is such a "parent" thing to feel. Bless you for protecting him and for keeping Toki safe.

I just watched this show on pds tonight and was very moved by Simon King's very human and emotional reactions to his charges. His grief at Sambu's death was touching and brought a tear to my eye. The questions Eric brings up are all very valid but the reality is that sometimes a person just does something to improve their little corner of the world. Of course Toku's life is not more important than the gazelle he killed for food but in the great scheme of things neither are my cats any more important than the cur sentenced to death in the pound. But I can't house and love every animal, so I choose. I do volunteer work in wildlife rehab although not on the same level as Simon's but it's easy to get attached a helpless creature - bird, possum or cheetah - that you have nurtured back to health. The larger questions that Eric poses are food for debate perhaps but in life there are no easy answers. We as animals end up protecting our own and those we make our own.

I loved the show and fell in love with the beautiful Cheetahs. I'm glad they were saved.

I agree with Eric. I felt saddened when the baby ibex was killed by the cheetah. I felt like the baby ibex had as much right for protection as the cheetah. Seeing King sitting near the two cheetahs and commenting how beautiful it was to see them filling their bellies on the baby ibex kill made it even worst. I think that after the two cheetahs reached maturity they should have been left alone to take care of themselves, the same as the ibex. The cheetahs were special to king,but i love ibex as well,and again, I must say I was saddened to see it getting eaten up by the cheetah. Calvin

I watched the story on the Cheetah Orphans tonight and I to was very moved by their story. I got very emotional. Thank God for Simon,Steven and everyone else involved in catching these beautiful creatures.It is vey hard to let go when you have become so attached to them.It is very sad that Toki does not have his brother Sambu with him.He is a fighter(Toki).He will soon find a mate and have cubs of his own.He is so lucky to have you be a big part of his life.Hope he is doing fine. Simon,You are a wonderful person.Keep up the good work.EVERY ANIMAL DESERVES A CHANCE WHETHER ITS WILD OR NOT

Thank you Robin Crumpton 11-11-07

I just saw this tonight on PBS, and was mesmerized by every minute. I felt the love, joy and pain that Simon felt throughout the film. I too, was saddened by the prey that had to be sacrificed for Toki to survive, but all creatures are either predator or prey and without one, there would be neither. Thank God for people like Simon and crew. This was an awesome hour of T.V.

This show was great. Touching emotional and Happy. I cried, I laughed, and I sat on the edge of my seat sometimes.I tought it was amazing how those wonderful annimals lived. It was sad to see one of the orphans go. I give best wishes to simon and steven I Also godbless them for rescuing and making sure the cheatas had a great life. I enjoyed this show alot!

When I worked in the Zoo field many years ago. The first thing they teach you, is don't humanize a wild animal. Toki is use to being loved and petted you could see that. If he was to go around a village with humans, he wouldn't be afraid to approach. We learned about ancient Egypt and how they we're the first to train and use the Cheetah as their hunting animal. Zoo's a long time ago had a hard time with breeding of the animal. We had to learn again from the Egyptians about running room was needed. Surely Simon King can find a female for Toki. I have a great deal of admiration for taking the cubs in and raising them. As part of the human race, I feel like we should help out the babies in the wild. I've raised a few animals myself, it's very hard not to put the human touch on them. I just want the animal that is raised to be returned and do well. I hope you have another show on the follow up on Toki. Success be with you and Toki.

I just caught the tail end of the programme "Orphaned cheetahs" and like all of you, I was moved by Simon King's film. Thank you PBS for selecting this type of programme for us.

Maybe PBS could post a few Animal charities that are involved in protecting habitats for wild animals and air a film of one of their projects?

Enjoyed reading and agree to many of the arguments posted here. Thank U.

I believe all animals have a purpose, some animals will always be prey because of their numbers{ie}antelope,wildebeast,thompson's Gazelle, etc., they number in the thousands where as Cheetahs,Leopards,Jaguars,Tigers are becoming somewhat of an endangered species, I would hope that we as humans take responsibility to manage & protect as best we know how to this wonderful array of wild animals, I'm not saying one animal has more right to live than the next,I just feel some endangered animals need more protection than others. I hope you understand my point,& view it constructively. I would most likely react exactly like Simon King did w/ the Orphaned Cheetah Brothers.AZ Flyer

Toki and his brother experienced something that made them LESS "WILD" than all the other cats in the wild: The Love Of A Human Being. It is for this reason that I feel that he is NOT AS WILD as the other cats and therefore it is inhumaine to place him in the wild where he doesn't know how to befriend, or NOT to befriend other cats, he doesn't know how to get out there and survive. PLEASE PLAN TO SEND HIM TO THE ZOO WHERE HE WILL CONTINUE WITH THOSE HE UNDERSTANDS -- HUMANS! HE HAS A WAY SWEETER NATURE THAN THE REST OF THE CATS IN NATURE BECAUSE HE WAS HAND FED. HE IS A SWEETER CHEETAH THAN ANY WILD ONE, THEREFORE, I FEEL HE IS BEING MISTREATED AND AT A DISADVANTAGE TO PLACE HIM IN THE WILD? i HOPE HE IS STILL HERE NEXT YEAR!




Shirley, a zoo would be a terrible place to send Toki. I think he is in the best place imaginable for him at the moment.

In closing, thanks to everyone who commented here at the blog before, during and after watching the show. It was informative reading your reactions, and I hope that programs like these will increase our respect for the other animals with whom we share this planet.

My daughter and I watched the story of Toki and his brother. We thought the love, passion and commitment for them was very moving!
I feel confident that the plan for his future/safety is top priority for all involved, and only the best/intended decisions will be made for him. I look forward to checking back on Toki for further updates. Good luck and God bless!

This was an absolutely amazing show. Simon King never ceases to amaze with his work. This was one of the most touching stories of animal/human interaction since Born Free. His ability to get up close and personal to showcase these amazing animals to the world was truly a priviledge to watch. Thanks PBS for airing this fantastic story !!!!

hi! when is this program going to air on PBS again? I just saw this blog post and am sad that I missed the show by a day!

After reading several of the comments made. It is obvious that many of us are in like mind.
Toki was a darling animal who really needs to be with those who can care for him and yet allow him to explore his "Wild" side.
This show and all the episodes of "Nature" are captivating and so informative. I hope they remain on the air for years to come.

Just wanted all that made this viewing posible to know that this was one of the best I myself have viewed. You could just feel the bond from the two cats and the humans that is just a bond that I felt so strong just watching the show...And I did get very emotional during the ups and downs during the show....I think that in no way was it anyones fualt in what happened to the first cat Sombu* and that even that some people sugest that nature should take its course and that rasing them hurt them in a way....I dont see this at all.....If it wasnt for the radio tracker collar and us humans the second brother would have died also. Thanks again for this show again and keep it up guys....God bless the world and not just america.

I would like to thank Eric Prescott for the informative and beautifully written article "Nature Cheetah Orphans"

I pray that no wild animals will have to live in a zoo. I compare that to myself living in my bathroom for the rest of my life.

If Pbs could air the programme again???

I would like to get first hand work experience working with orphaned cheetahs in the Kenyan Savannah, just as Simon King is doing. Can anyone guide me in getting some useful information on this issue?

I would just like to congratulate PBS and Nature on this outstanding program on the orphaned cheetahs . The photography and story were riveting. Loved every minute of it! Please air it again.

The program was magnificent.

Should we protect animals from each other?
I do not see how we can unless we eliminate
all of the predators. Since humans are the
apex predators this would appear
counterproductive. Hence we must make choices.

Should we protect impalas from cheetahs?
This seems counterproductive as well. Without
predators, impalas will reproduce until there is
no more food or rooms for them and hence will
starve. Not a pretty sight.

Should we then protect predators? (Cheetahs
are a special case.) This might be a solution.
However, since humans live in the world and we
are the apex predators the chances of many
other predators (or prey species) surviving
is slight (assuming we protect ourselves).

In order to preserve the species in the world
must we limit the number of humans? Good idea
until we observe that:
Many religions will object
Many people in regions where wild animals
exist will ask why they must limit their
numbers because we want to preserve animals
Hence, without a dictatorship this appears unlikely.

Do we then preserve individual animals? But this
does not preserve species. For a species to be
preserved, enough genetic diversity must exist which
means a large diverse population. Where do we get
the space and land considering that human population
is increasing? Who will give up their land? We
are back in the problem in the preceeding paragraph.

Any solutions? I would be happy to hear of one.

The dance between cheetahs and their prey has been going on for millions of years. There is a higher population of these animals than there are cheetahs and that's for good reason. This is the way nature is designed.

The issue is that the cheetah is an endangered species and this is primarily due to human impact. Farmers killing them, poachers, hunters, etc. Loss of habitant of course is a major problem for cheetahs as well as many other animals.

At this point humans can't leave animals alone and simply protect their habitant. Virtually every piece of land has been impacted in some way, shape or form by humans. Whether it's war, pollution, or basic human expansion.

Cheetahs are amazing creatures, inherently they have more beauty and grace than anything a human will ever be able to create. Just experience a wild cheetah running at full speed and you're left speechless.

It's no surprise that Simon fell in love with these two cheetahs and the fact that he seemed to have a bias toward their well being over the well being of other animals is understandable. Look at humans. In the US we whine and cry and have memorials over the few thousand people lost on 911 but we go out and have our lattes and frapechinos everyday while thousands die in Iraq every week. People value certain human lives over that of other human lives so of course they value certain animal lives over other animal lives. People kill, murder, abuse and exploit animals on a regular basis and the only way this can be justified is to keep a distance from our actions and the results of our actions. If we were in tune to these animals, that they feel pleasure and pain, that they care for their offspring, that they develop complex relationships, etc. we'd have a difficult time rationalizing our unchecked mistreatment of them.

It's important to note that sometimes you just fall in love with a species and there's no explanation. It's also just important to note that humans routinely confuse life forms with life. It's birth and death not life and death. Life is forever, forms come and go. That being said, life forms are still sacred.

Perhaps one thing can be said with certitude. Humans owe all wild creatures and this planet in general a huge apology and even more a commitment to stop raping and exploiting every thing, every life form, in every place our footprint is found.

To Don Lutchii

The Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, Africa has volunteer opportunities. They currently have 46 resident cheetahs who were orphaned or injured and cannot be released back into the wild. Go to www.cheetah.org for more information.

Very beautiful program! I loved it.

Cheetah Orphans was a great show and it emotionally moved me. I am a cat lover and even more after seeing the show. I think Simon King did the right thing in putting Toki in a preserve big enough for Toki to roam and hunt. This was a difficult decision I am sure for King to make. In the long run, I think it was right because part of nature is being preserved. Placing wild animals in zoos makes me feel sad because the animals looked caged and not able to run free. Even though Toki is confined it is a large area where he can roam. I would love to meet Toki some day with Mr. King. Mr. King's work is truly remarkable.

Eventhough I agree that the ibex isn't any less important there's a good reason why it appears that way for us. That's how it is for us. I care as much about my problems in everyday life as kids not getting food in Africa. It sounds awful, but that's how it is.

I love cheetas, and this program is amazing. Some people have commented on the fact that Toki is handfed, and should be more afraid of people to survive and so on, but I'm pretty sure I've seen another version of this program, where Sambu and Toki played with elephants dangerously, and they taught them to be afraid of humans except themselves and such. Not sure if it's the same orphans, but I'm pretty sure because I remember their names. It's not the PBS show though.

hmmm i :) i didnt want to read this boring article so i wouldnt know. hahahahahahahahahaha

Post a comment

Ground rules for posting comments:

  1. No profanity or personal attacks.
  2. Please comment on the subject of the blog post itself.
  3. If you do not follow these rules, we will remove your post. Keep it civil, folks!