When I was in grade school, I was deeply into wild animals, especially the big cats. Tigers, lions, jaguars, leopards, and cheetahs. In Grade Nine, I even got it into my head that when I grew up, I would start a zoo with an eye toward breeding and releasing the cats into the wild to help with conservation efforts. But, as my wife can attest, I never did grow up.
This “incident” happened a few years earlier, I’m not entirely sure when, specifically. It would have been either Grade Four, Five, or Six. So, sometime between the fall of 1973 and the summer of 1976. Quite a while ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
I went to a little rural school, surrounded by wheat fields, trees, and patches of forest. All of us kids rode the school bus to get there in the morning and to go home in the afternoon. Back in those years, families were moving out to the country and the population in the area had swelled to the point where there weren’t enough school buses to go around. To accommodate everyone, several busloads full of kids were put on “second load” which meant that several bus drivers picked up one load of kids, dropped them off at school in the morning or at home in the afternoon, and then went and picked up another load afterwards.
I loved being on second load, especially at the end of the day. It meant I didn’t have to rush to get packed up and onto the bus. It meant I could hang around and talk with my teachers. And on this particular day, it meant I got to witness something that was both incredible and hilarious at the same time.
For the last half of the afternoon, there was a school assembly. Every class was trotted down to the gym to sit in nice, well-behaved rows – younger kids in the front, older in the back – to be talked to about some subject deemed important to us all by the powers that be. In this case, Al Oeming, a local wildlife conservationist came to the school to talk about, what else, wildlife conservation.
He owned and operated what was then called The Alberta Game Farm. It was, in essence, a zoo. Back then, it was on the forefront, at least, in Canada, of the wildlife conservation movement. As you can imagine, this talk was right up my alley.
I will never forget Al walking onto the stage. He was wearing what a game warden would typically wear – khaki shirt and shorts, boots and knee-high socks. In his left hand, he carried the end of a very heavy leash. On the other end of that leash walked a full-grown male cheetah! I was captivated, to say the least.
Did you know that cheetahs are the only big cat that can be “domesticated”? I put it in quotes because, really, can a wild animal ever truly be tamed?
This cheetah was very well behaved. He got it to jump up on a table and sit/lay down. He even removed the leash while he talked, probably for about an hour, about wildlife conservation. And he took questions at the end.
One of the things that, of course, garnered a lot of questions was the cheetah. Here’s what I learned: cheetahs are the fastest land animal on the planet, capable of reaching speeds of 80 – 130 KPH (50 – 80 MPH) in short bursts. In captivity, you have to find a way to exercise them. You obviously can’t run alongside them.
Oeming had taught his cheetah to chase a broom. When they’d bring out the broom and get his attention, they’d tie it on behind a car and, voila! Exercise for the cheetah.
Oeming’s talk ended far too soon for me. I cannot express how excited I was to be that close to that beautiful cat. It was magical.
As everyone was filing out of the gym to pack up and go home, it dawned on me. I was on second load! I did not have to go and pack up just yet. So, I hung back until the gym emptied, with a few of the other second loaders.
Oeming was standing around, talking with the principal and a few of the teachers and noticed that there were several students standing around. He invited us up onto the stage. The cheetah was more than comfortable around people, even in crowds. We got to pet him! His fur was very coarse compared to a house cat’s and his purring was much louder.
If sitting in the audience, twenty feet from the animal was magical, standing there right beside him was surreal. I could have stayed there for hours.
But, as with a lot of things, fate intervened.
Suddenly, the cheetah leaped to his feet and stood very still, head lowered, just like you see them on those nature shows, focused out into the gym.
Oeming’s head snapped around when all us kids gasped. He followed the cheetah’s gaze out into the gym to where the janitor had just started to sweep the gym floor.
Oeming rushed over and made a grab for the cheetah’s collar and missed. That cheetah was off the table, off the stage, and into the middle of the gym in a flash.
The janitor froze as the cheetah, head still lowered, literally stalked toward him.
“He’s only interested in the broom. Just drop it and back away,” Oeming called from the stage.
The janitor must’ve been petrified. And really, who wouldn’t be? I’d guess he wasn’t processing what Oeming was calling to him from the stage. Still holding the broom, he’d take a couple cautious steps back and the cheetah would take a couple steps forward.
Couple steps back, couple steps forward.
Couple more, couple more.
The distance was closing.
When the janitor got near enough to the exit doors that led outside, he bolted. Just slammed the door open and took off, the cheetah hot on his heels because the janitor still hadn’t dropped the broom!
The poor guy!
I’m happy to report that, eventually, he did drop the broom, which the cheetah instantly pounced on.
In the end, the valiant broom gave its life to save the janitor, who I’m sure had to go home and change his shorts.