The Odd Couple: A story by Penny & Norman English…
January 1, 2012
Raising Sylvester was an amazing privilege. He took over our lives from the moment we brought him home. A mere 520 grams of spotted fur, with the umbilical cord still attached, he was the sole survivor of five cubs who were attacked by lions. His mother had fought for her little family, but whether she was injured and died later, or was run off and was too traumatized to return, we don’t know. We do know she didn’t return to the area during the next 5 days.
During the 7 months he lived with us, we learned more about cheetah cubs than we’d ever thought possible, but one of the most remarkable things was watching the relationship that developed between Sylvester and Spook, our chubby, a rather sedate cat.
When we first brought Sylvester home Spook’s eyes lit up with that intent glow that cats get when they see something small and furry. He had recently dispatched a rat in the kitchen, and a squirrel in the pantry, and it was obvious that he thought this new arrival held similar possibilities. So to begin with we made sure the two of them were never alone together at any time. After the first week, when it became evident that the humans of the house leapt into action each time this small spotted creature let out its piercing whistle, Spook seemed to decide that perhaps it wasn’t a rat or a squirrel after all. Sylvester was 9 days old before they were officially introduced, and after a few sniffs, Spook decided to treat this intruder with disdain and proceeded to ignore him.
This worked quite well until Sylvester was about 5 weeks old. During that time we had found a formula that worked well for him, and he’d gone from being a lethargic “failure to thrive” baby, to a more mobile creature, interested in everything around him. He certainly wasn’t going to be ignored. Having learned to climb out of his box at 3 weeks of age, he was now keen to investigate the world outside.
The only things that prevented him doing so were the stairs from the porch down to the lawn. Coming up presented no problems, but no matter how many times we tried to show him how to go down, he was too nervous to try. It was at this point that Spook began to take more of an interest in Sylvester again, and we were amazed as we watched him in action.
He seemed to recognize that Sylvester needed help, and while the cub watched, Spook went up and down the stairs several times. Sylvester seemed to recognize a kindred spirit in Spook and hesitantly followed him down one step at a time. Having done it once, stairs presented no more problems. We were to see this behaviour repeated many times in the weeks to come as they tackled termite mounds and trees together. Spook often had to help Sylvester down from whatever mound or tree he’d stranded himself in. And he did – patiently going up and down to where Sylvester was perched, until he gained the courage to come down himself. I’m sure Sylvester learned to climb far more easily with Spook’s help, than if we’d had to try to teach him ourselves.
While Spook took his new duties as cheetah trainer very seriously, Sylvester for his part was delighted with his new feline friend. As soon as he was up in the morning he ran around chirping for Spook, and he wasn’t happy until he’d found him. He then spent most of his day in Spook’s company. At this stage, Spook was still larger than Sylvester and had the upper hand completely. He knew exactly how to deal with him if he became too boisterous. Like many small boys, Sylvester always hated having his face washed, so whenever he became too much of a nuisance Spook simply grasped him around the neck and gave his face, and anything else in reach, a thorough licking. Sylvester, protesting loudly would wriggle until he could free himself, then take himself off and leave Spook to snooze in peace…until next time.
Spook had always enjoyed going for a walk with us so it was only natural that when Sylvester was old enough to go for short walks outside the yard, that he should follow Spook. They investigated things in the long grass, peered down holes in the ground and sharpened their claws on tree trunks. Whatever Spook did, Sylvester did too. For a short time, he even dug holes to defecate in, and then covered it up. This is not cheetah behaviour. It was something he’d seen Spook do, and copied. It only lasted for a while but it was interesting that he did it at all.
When Sylvester was 4 months old, partly due to a stressful event, and partly due to receiving his first immunizations, he became quite ill. For most of one day, he lay curled up miserably on his rug in the living room. He didn’t want to eat or drink or do anything but sleep. We aren’t sure how he knew, but for most of this day Spook remained curled up beside him; something he wouldn’t normally do. Fortunately, Sylvester was much better the next day, although it was a whole week before he was completely back to normal.
As Sylvester grew, the size difference became more of a problem for Spook. Sylvester, not having brothers and sisters to play with, considered Spook a suitable substitute. Spook developed a strange form of locomotion when accompanied by Sylvester. He would walk a few steps, turn a summersault, and then lie on his back with all claws ready. It took a while to get anywhere using this method, but it still gave him the advantage over Sylvester who liked nothing better than to stalk, then, pounce on his friend.
Like all cats, cheetahs spend a lot of time relaxing and sleeping. At times the house would suddenly seem very quiet so we would go in search of Sylvester. Our yard was not completely fenced in, and there was lots of mischief he could get into. More often than not though, we would find him just hanging out with his friend, watching the world go by, or sleeping.
Fortunately, as he got older and larger, Sylvester preferred his own company more. He had a number of favourite spots around the yard, where he would happily lie up for most of the day. He still liked to know where Spook was, but he didn’t need to be with him. This suited Spook too who often spent his day on top of a large crate where Sylvester couldn’t reach him. However, even when he was much larger and heavier than Spook, it was still the cat that called the shots. If he didn’t want to play, then they didn’t play. There were many mornings when I watched in fascination as Spook wandered about the yard with Sylvester chirping behind him, giving him the occasional gentle pat with his big paw. Obviously, Sylvester wanted to play, but in some way, Spook was sending the message that he wasn’t in the mood, and amazingly Sylvester accepted that. However, there were also many times when we dragged Sylvester away from Spook who appeared to be getting a very rough mauling. To our amazement Spook would get up, twitch his coat back into position, then just sit there. Predictably, as soon as Sylvester was released he would pounce on the hapless cat and begin chewing on his head again. As Spook never bothered to try to escape when rescued, we concluded he actually didn’t mind being mauled sometimes.
Despite all the sleepless nights, anxiety, frustration and dramas that went with raising Sylvester, we wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I can’t help thinking that a lot of the credit for our success goes to Spook though. He was able to interact with Sylvester in a way that only another cat could, and even though he was only a small domestic cat, I think Sylvester benefitted greatly from his company and his example. For several weeks after Sylvester had moved to his new home in Vic Falls, we would see Spook looking for his big friend in some of his favourite sleeping spots. Whether he was just reassuring himself the Spotted Menace was actually gone, or whether he actually missed his him we will never really know, but life was certainly much quieter without him.
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