My Life With Leopards: Graham Cooke’s Story

Fransje van Riel

(Penguin, R198)

Anyone who has read Joy Adamson’s books will rekindle some of that awe of experiencing life in the company of our big cats.

Graham Cooke’s tale is no less engaging, written as a first-person account by Fransje van Riel. We enter the world of the somewhat whimsically named Boycat and Poepface, a brother-and-sister pair of leopard cubs, and follow their antics from the bush camp in Londolozi to the Zambian wilderness and their eventual release.

From the start, it is clear that over a year Cooke formed a close bond with his charges, and it’s this emotional entanglement that makes the story all the more heart-rending. Humans and leopards live in two different worlds, and this is something Cooke understands. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and the cubs must learn to survive in a dangerous world, or die.

Author Van Riel does a sterling job of evoking the sights and sounds of the African bush with lush descriptions, and brings readers directly into Cooke’s world. Some memorable moments include Cooke’s description of the hat game he used to play with Boycat or the chaos the cubs caused during filming in a Maasai homestead.

But not once do we forget how dangerous the African bush is. Cooke’s brushes with danger serve as stern reminders that the untamed areas are exactly as the name suggests – a wilderness, where man had better tread softly.

With this in mind, readers had best beware that any real-life account involving wild animals is bound to reflect nature’s harsh existence. What is abundantly clear is that Cooke gave his all to make a personal sacrifice, facing death in the process, to see to these big cats’ eventual release.

This is not a story about conservation, but a snapshot, illustrating a brief moment when two very different worlds touched. I’ll admit that the ending brought a tear to my eye. – Nerine Dorman