Cape TOwn - Some children have dogs or cats to keep them company while growing up. For the Schoeman family, these pets may seem a little tame. For a little more than a year, Kim and Hein Schoeman have been raising two cheetahs alongside their three-year-old son, Malan, and year-old daughter, Kayla, as part of a project at the Garden Route Game Lodge.

“One of the first words our daughter said was ‘cheetah’,” said Kim.

The Schoemans adopted Wakuu and Skyla when Kayla was three months old, in April last year. Kim essentially treated all of them as her babies, warming milk for her daughter and the cheetahs simultaneously.

“We fed everyone, all the time.”

While bottle-feeding the cheetahs, Kim introduced wild meat, including springbok and guinea fowl, by mixing minced meat into their milk. “Now they eat out of our hands.”

The game lodge has had a cheetah breeding project for the past 14 years. Last year one of the cheetahs born in the project was released and had four cubs in the wild.

If the game lodge had left the mother with all four young, Kim says, their chances of survival in the wild would have been about 30 percent.

They decided to take two of the cubs out of the mother’s care and leave two with her in the wild to ensure all of the babies would survive.

Hein is the most senior managing game ranger and was the most qualified to adopt the two.

Although the cats are gentle toward the family, the Schoemans do take precautions.

“We are under no illusions and know they are wild animals no matter how tame they are. And although you can hear them purr a mile away when they see us, we know that the natural instinct is always seconds away if provoked,” said Kim.

She said the key is to act dominantly. Cheetahs are not fighting animals – their strength is in their speed, and they would rather not pick a fight. So the family “acts big” – but with a tinge of caution, of course. The Schoemans do not do anything that might provoke the cheetahs – no running in front of them or turning their backs on them.

The children have contact with the cheetahs only under supervision, when the cats have been fed and are feeling lazy or looking for cuddles, said Kim. The children are not present when the cheetahs are being trained.

The strategy has worked. Under supervision, the children can cuddle and play with the cheetahs, alternating between fighting over toys and snuggling with them. Kim said the male in particular loves cuddling, and often his purrs are so loud that it is hard to hear anything else.

“I don’t think any of them know they aren’t all the same species.”

Because the cheetahs have grown over the past year the Schoemans keep them in an enclosure away from the house. They have 100 hectares to exercise in, and the main reserve where they hunt is about 3 000ha. They have been teaching the cheetahs to hunt springbok so as not to alienate them from their natural environment.

“Then they take their kill back and have their takeaways,” said Kim.

The cheetahs are also used as ambassadors at the game lodge. Visitors are allowed to go on walks with one of them at a time.

Kim said they hope soon to send the animals to neighbouring schools in the farming community. Farmers believed cheetahs were a nuisance, and shot them on sight.

“They’re not these vicious creatures that are going to eat all the sheep.”

The ranch will soon apply for permits to take the cheetahs off the ranch for the ambassador programme, which it hopes to begin in the next six months. - Cape Argus