Ralph Gardner JR: Soul Of The Cat

Feb 25, 2017

Beverly and Dereck Joubert

Only once did a walk in the woods upstate disappoint me. It happened in the spring of 2015 shortly after my family and I returned from a safari in Botswana.

After following a herd of elephants across the Okavango Delta or watching a lion sip at a watering hole at sunset, the chance that you might run across a white-tailed deer doesn’t seem all that remarkable.

Of course, the deciduous forests of the Hudson Valley have their advantages. The likelihood of getting eaten alive during an afternoon stroll is pretty small.

Our trip to Botswana occurred under the auspices of Beverly and Dereck Joubert, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and Emmy award-winning filmmakers. The Jouberts also run Great Plains Conservation, an organization that manages several wildlife reserves in Botswana and Kenya.

Where should I begin with the Jouberts? They recently played a role in persuading China to shut down its ivory trade. And through “Rhinos Without Borders,” a program they started in 2015, they’re well on their way to saving almost 100 of the prehistoric looking creatures by airlifting them from South Africa to Botswana where they’re safer from poachers.

The Jouberts reported that the rhinos are flourishing in their new homes. They’ve already had four calves in the wild and three females are pregnant.

However, the couple’s major effort is something called The Big Cats Initiative. They’re trying to draw the world’s attention to the fact that lion populations have decreased from 450,000 to just 20,000 over the last half-century.

I like to get together with them whenever they’re in New York, typically once or twice a year, to learn how they’re trying to save the planet and whether there’s anything I can do to help.

Their latest work is called “Soul of the Cat.” Airing on Nat Geo Wild, it explores the similarities between the kiddie you have at home and their much larger cousins in the wild.

“The entire premise of the film,” Dereck told me, “is that this little cat is doing all of the same stuff as the big cat did. The only difference is scale. So if little cats were as big as big cats we’d be in big trouble.”

The hope is that if people see the similarities they’ll serve as ambassadors to save the big cats.

But that led me to a question. Do people actually have pets, such as dogs and cats, in the bush?

Dereck explained that dogs, in particular, aren’t a good idea. “Because when you go walking in the bush,” he said, “you know how dogs tend to run ahead and scare up things? If they scare up a lion or a leopard, they then come running back and you’re left to deal with the angry lion or leopard.”

Cats, their similarities to big cats aside, don’t fare much better. It’s not like a lion looks at a house cat and sees a long lost relative. It sees lunch. “In fact,” Dereck said, “my sister-in-law went out in the morning and found her favorite cat hanging in the fork of a tree in the paws of a leopard.”

The pet didn’t last long.

The Jouberts have a policy against intervening in nature, let alone befriending wild animals. But sometimes contact can’t be avoided. For example, the zebra they adopted after somebody dropped it off at camp.

“That didn’t end well,” Dereck recalled. “It took a shine to Beverly and hated me. It would get in between us and try to kick me to pieces.”

Then there was the warthog that took a liking to the couple. That didn’t end well either.

“He overstayed his welcome,” Beverly remembered. “One evening as he was going back – the rest of the family left earlier – we heard this almighty squeal and a lion pride took him out on his way back to his little hole.”

However, because the Jouberts have that hands-off approach, elephants frequently stroll through their camps and baboons use the tents as trampolines.

And then there was the black mamba they discovered under their refrigerator. The venomous snake cohabited with them for six months and actually helped them maintain a healthy lifestyle because they thought twice about raiding the fridge for midnight snacks.

Nonetheless, the Jouberts acknowledge there’s something wonderful when animals use their camps for their own comfort and safety. For example, the elephant who turned their front steps into a king-size bed because that made it easier for him to rise in the morning. Apparently, elephants have a hard time getting to their feet from a lying position. The only issue was that the pachyderm had a snoring problem.

Lately, the couple has been filming meerkats, members of the mongoose family. “If you stay very still,” Beverly told me, “all of a sudden they climb up on top of you and use you as a vantage point to see if there’s any predators out there.”

She admitted she loves those moments. “They’re incredibly blissful,” she said. “Euphoric in every way.”

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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