by Kira Storm
“Stig, I will tell you a story, my story of what was before; so that you might share it with others of your kind. Make them understand. I trust that you stay true to my words and don’t twist the events to benefit from them. You surely have already heard a lot about my past but I am ready now to tell you myself.
Listen closely because what I have to say is important, to me and all the leopards like me. My story is not a unique one, hundreds share it. What makes my life different is how it turned around. The beginning on the other hand is just one of countless similar ones. Born and then raised by humans on a farm for big cats of all sizes and kinds. They treated us well at the beginning, they built a lie around us, pretending to be a replacement for our mothers. The shelter they offered us was build out of nothing but smoke. Behind their soft words lay a threat in waiting.
As a cub I did not know that, yet. When I lost the warmth of my mother, the safety she provided, a human stepped in. I got care, food, attention that I thought loving. The naïve cub blindly gave that human its trust. Who holds me, feeds me, cares for me must love me, I thought. She would keep me safe and happy, would make me forget I ever had another mother. Trusting I allowed her to take that spot in my young life. Soon I should learn not to throw trust around so lightly.
As soon as I was old enough to be left alone for a couple of hours I moved from the house into a cage outside. For a cub it appeared big but it should be my home for years to come and grow smaller with every passing month.
One day, my “mother” came to our cage. I was laying in a corner, enjoying the rays of sun that fell on that spot. Her smell tickled my nose and woke me out of my slumber. Happy to see her I got up and ran to the fence. The looming shadow of a man brought me to a halt halfway. I sniffed again. Tension lay in the air. The bitter taste of despair paired with surrender filled my mouth. Something was wrong, I could feel it. But she continued to call me and even though my instincts told me to hide I trusted her and stepped forward. Had I only followed my instincts they are the only thing you can trust, not humans. That´s the lesson I learned that day.
Reaching the fence I rubbed against her hands she had put through the holes. Her fingers brushed through my fur. Closing my eyes I enjoyed the feeling of what I took for affection from her. Something poked me in the rump and as I looked up at her a funny feeling spread through my body. The world began to swim in front of my eyes and suddenly I got very tired. My “mother” got up, putting some red feathery thing into her pocket. “He’
s all yours.” Her words seemed to come from far, far away but they stung none the less. She left me alone with the looming shadow and my fleeting senses. As he took out his keys and entered the cage I tried to run back to the others but my legs gave in, my muscles relaxed, and I blacked out.
When I came to I had a bitter taste in my mouth and a headache to accompany the feeling of waking from an unnatural long slumber. Slowly I sat up, the world swaying around me. I waited for it to righten itself before I got up, attempted to get up at least. You can´t imagine the pain that suddenly shot through my palms up my legs along my spine and into my head. It felt as if someone drove a dozen knifes into my paws. I stumbled and fell. Only then I saw and smelled the blood that spurt out between my toes. Fright closed its fists around my heart. Where does that blood come from? What was that pain? What happened? Then I remembered what happened. She lured me in and left me to that man. What had he done to me? Why didn’t she protect me?
Curling up into myself I began to lick my wounds. As my tongue found the hurting spots I froze. I flexed my paws despite the agony it caused but it didn’t change the fact that my claws were gone. The man had cut them straight off and with them bone up to the first knuckle. Panic threatened to overcome me but the memory of knifes digging into my paws prevented me from running. I let out a cry that spoke as much of physical as of emotional pain. How could she?!, that thought wouldn’t leave my mind while the foul taste of betrayal filled my mouth.
You have seen me in bad shape, you know my story, Stig, but you can´t imagine how that event changed my life. Since that day I lived alone in a smaller cage. On my own I nursed my wounded body and soul, no human tried to console me or tend to my cuts. Well, I also didn’t want them to. Never again would I let them get close to me. Most of the time I hid in a small hut safely out of view.
Slowly I learned to walk again. It wasn’t just the pain that had kept me from walking when I first tried. Without my claws and first knuckle I couldn’t walk on that part of my foot anymore which usually carries all my weight. Now I had to teach myself to walk on my heels. It´s uncomfortable and makes my joints hurt. But at least I could move around again, could hide. Since then, since I was a cub, the pain never left me, it became my constant companion.
I never understood why and I still don’t. What did I do that made them treat me that ill? What made me deserving of this punishment? It got even worse when they started feeding me twice a day with increasing amounts. Hunger and instincts made me eat whatever they threw into my cage and the more used I got to it the more I ate, the more I craved it. With my growing hunger my body grew as well. I didn’t get much exercise to begin with but the additional weight made me slow and tired. Each day it took more effort to get up and walking became ever more painful. Still they kept on feeding me excessively and I… I kept on eating even though it made me feel worse.
From time to time a man would come by and look at me. “The skin can still stretch a little further.”, he would say. “The larger the better. He needs to be worth his food.” And then they would throw in more meat. It wasn’t out of care all they wanted was a nice big leopard skin to sell. I had no idea then that my purpose there was to be shot as soon as they deemed me “ripe for harvest”. Even if I had known, I had already been too deep into that destructive cycle.
I had grown to an absurd size, my belly almost touched the ground and each step was agonizing. Rolling would have been more efficient. It was disgraceful. They turned me into something not worth being called a leopard. The disrespect they showed towards me and my kind nourished my resentment towards them.
I would probably have been killed pretty soon when a stranger appeared at the farm. He saw the condition I was in and the shock seemed genuine. He took me away from that place shortly after. Although I owe him my life I didn´t feel alive until I came to Panthera Africa, until I learned to trust again, until I met you. But that should take another six years.
The Game Reserve that rescued me from the breeding farm gave me a safe home but I had the feeling that they were not really prepared for a case like me. My enclosure was larger but rocks took up most of it. Unable to climb the space I could actually use was about as small as before plus a small wooden house which immediately became my hiding spot. The new humans tried to call me out with soft voices and promises of safety and food. But I didn´t dare to believe them. Now I know they never intended to harm me. The leopard that had been mistreated most of his life did not know that. Only when they left I sneaked out of my house to snatch up the meat.
Soon they ceased trying to win my trust, allowing me to relax little by little. The only human who came regularly was the man who fed me and the other cats, who cleaned our enclosures, and filled up the water bowls. He was also the first one to see me after arrival. Routine got me to pay his smell less attention. One day, I slowly moved out of the shadows to the dead rabbit he had thrown over the fence. Suddenly I noticed him, still standing there and calmly looking at me. For a very long second we simply stared at each other, then I bolted back into my house, the rabbit forgotten on the floor.
The next days I stood hidden longer than usual, making sure he was gone. He did not trick me again. Whenever he came along he gave me a polite greeting, a nod, and threw the food over. Then he started coming in the evenings; just sitting there and talking. What he said wasn’t important but that he took the time, that he was present, and that he addressed me personally. It had been a long time since I felt like a living being and not a possession.
Slowly I allowed myself to trust him a little. When he came after his shift to sit by the fence I would come out. Keeping a safe distance I looked at him while he looked at me and told me about his day, his worries and his joys and all that’s in between. I believe you could say I tolerated him as a human that is not as bad as others.
Probably he didn´t deserve my mistrust but better to be careful. That´s why I didn’t believe him, when he came to me one evening and said: “You know what? I am going to find you a home, where they know how to take care of you better.” And sure enough, nothing happened. Over and over he sat down with a disappointed face and gave me the same excuse: “Sorry, it didn’t work out again.” Years went by that way. I stayed in my small space, barely walked to avoid the pain in my paws and give my joints a rest, and wondered whether I would ever feel comfortable in my body again.
What happened next you know best, Stig. Contrary to my belief my caretaker did not lie and finally he got the approval of the owner to give me to a project that could provide the care I needed to get better. Panthera Africa was to become my new home. When the two women came to pick me up, I had no idea where I would go. Cat and Lizaene’s project could just again be a repetition of my first rescue. But as soon as the crate opened and grass and trees greeted me instead of rocks I knew this was different.
And then I met you. You not only saw me through my strict diet that would help me lose weight, but you opened up a door in me that had been shut tight for years. You helped me heal in more than one way. From the moment I met you I felt that you can be trusted, I felt a bond I can’t explain. As I settled into my new home I slowly let my guard down and you in. When they had to operate because skin of my face that got loose after my significant weight loss, I knew that I wouldn´t wake up in pain.
You do all you can to make me feel better, safe, alive. So I am not only telling you this story to make people see how disrespectful we big cats are treated to produce the most profit, I am telling you this story to say thank you. Thank you for being there, for seeing me as the leopard I am, and for giving me back my trust into people. They aren´t all bad, but if the good ones don´t step up they are all we ever know.”