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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

The Cat Lady

Published 11/17/08
By Sharie Lesniak, Vice President of Marketing

Barack means “blessed” in Swahili. I know this because I was blessed to be in Kenya for two weeks, just before Barack Obama won the election. It’s hard to say who had the bigger parties after he won, the US or Kenya. (Obama’s father is from Kenya.) Everywhere we went, the one word we all knew was “Obama!” And we shouted it back and forth as if a greeting. (“Jambo” is actually “hello” in Swahili).

Not only were the Kenyan people wonderful and gracious, but I gotta tell you, I have never been so moved by the sight of animals in all my life! I mean, like most of us in the US, the only time I’ve seen lions, elephants, hippos, cheetahs and other African wildlife is in a zoo or circus ... in chains or cages. And these animals were free ... wild and free! What a breathtaking experience to witness animals more beautiful wild. So many times I really had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.

There were too many awe-inspiring moments for one blog, but I’d like to tell you about a particular one ... a sight that really did move me to tears.

For a change, we humans were the ones in a “cage” so to speak. We bumpily rode around in a green “safari” vehicle — we affectionately called Lance — from which we could stick our heads out of the top to get a better view, but we could not exit the vehicle while out on safari. This day, as with all our safari days, we each had our eyes trained in all directions, hoping to be the first to spot something extraordinary.

CheetahsAs we rounded a bend in our path, I spotted something moving in the grass. At first I thought it was a spotted snake ... then I realized what it was: the tail of a cheetah. “A Cheetah!” I practically screamed. The spotted big cats allowed us to pull up within 30 feet of them! They were absolutely beautiful ... some of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. It looked to be a mother and her two juvenile cubs. We spent time just watching them and snapping pictures. Then, all of a sudden, like a heavy fog, my feeling of utter amazement was taken over by unbelievable sadness and descended on me, coated me.

Almost like a slide show, clicking through images so fast they are just a blur, I felt like I had tapped into a visual of every feline, past and present, who had ever been on this Earth. I felt my eyes well up. Why was I so deeply upset?

Then it came to me — all the cats who were held captive! That’s where my sorrow steamed from! Big cats in zoos and people’s backyards. Big cats who were beaten to perform or cubs who were drugged so that they would sit still for a “photo op.” The picture our exotic “pet” investigator took of serval cats in a dirty, dark attic. And all the big cats who never even touch grass! It was all crashing in on me with such force I could barely stand it.

But it wasn’t just the big cats’ pain and suffering that hit me that day. My thoughts flashed to all the domestic cats who are just tossed outside to fend for themselves. The scraggly stray and feral cats I see in my neighborhood back home, darting away and hiding in decrepit garages. The millions of cats euthanized in the US each year because no one wants them. The three grey-stripped kittens I had just rescued a few weeks before our trip — who were sleeping in a leaf pile in the street when I found them!

Small, Medium, and LargeThey were so hungry they let me scoop them up from the can of food I fed them and put them in a box in my car.

The pile of leavesI went by that spot later in the day to see if I had missed any kittens and the street sweeper had been by and sucked up all the leaves they were sleeping on. I shuddered to think what would have happened if I didn’t see them that day.

The PoodeI ended with thoughts of The Poode. My beloved cat, who had died this January and is the one that started everything for me — my journey from ignorance to animal activist. It was because of her, I realized, that I was here, in Kenya, today.

A cheetahI was finally able to look out from my daze to again see the cheetahs in front of me — and I realized something; I made a difference to The Poode, who was found scared and skinny in an apartment complex over 15 years ago. I made a difference to those three kittens who are now going to loving homes. I do have the power to make things better for cats. On my own, I can help individual domestic felines. Adopt a rescue. Trap, neuter, and release a feral. Find a home for a stray.

And together with my colleagues here at Born Free USA united with API and you, we can make a difference for big cats on a much grander scale.

Finally, as if the sun were rising, I felt warmed by happiness. I felt joy to be with good friends in the middle of Masai Mara National Park during the annual Wildebeest Migration. To be in the company of an amazing Kenyan guide and driver. And to be standing in “Lance,” only a few feet away from three of the most amazing cats I had ever seen.

At that moment, I was the luckiest Cat Lady on earth. I thanked The Poode.

Feeling Barack,


P.S. Along with being blessed, I also followed my co-worker Zibby’s advice on putting something aside — every paycheck for a year — to save up for the trip of a life time. And you can do it too! Life is too short not to!

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