The cheetah is one of the fastest and most endangered animals on Earth. In fact, it is thought that there are only about 7,000 of them left in the wild. So the encounter that one American naturalist had with a member of the species in its natural habitat must be rarer still. And 50-year-old Dolph C. Volker lived to tell the tale via a clip he uploaded to YouTube in 2015.
From an early age, Volker was always passionate about animals, but he claims that it was one experience in particular that changed his perspective on life. You see, Volker was holding his pet dog when it passed away – and ever since he has viewed his fellow living creatures in a new light.
Indeed, the traumatic event made Volker realize that all life is special, and this belief shaped his future. He subsequently dedicated his education to animal behavior and eventually earned a degree in zoology. His ethos is also what engendered the naturalist’s greatest passion: species conservation.
And it would be one particular species that would come to occupy Volker’s heart and mind first and foremost: the Acinonyx jubatus, or cheetah. Consequently, in 2011 Volker traveled from his home in the U.S. to volunteer at a South African sanctuary near Bloemfontein run by a charity called the Cheetah Experience. The non-profit organization’s goal is to educate people to the plight of the endangered species and save selected big cats from harm. It also operates a breeding program to bolster cheetah numbers.
Contrary to what its name would seem to indicate, though, the Cheetah Experience is not just a home for that species. In fact, its rescue center provides a haven for all kinds of vulnerable cats, including leopards, lions, caracals, servals and African wildcats. Volker, then, became an on-off intern at the Bloemfontein facility, traveling back and forth from the States to indulge his passion and vocation.
And it was during one of his extended missions to the Cheetah Experience center in 2014 that Volker first met a resident called Eden. That first year, the pair did not get the chance to know each other too well. But Volker really bonded with the female cheetah when he returned the following summer.
Indeed, the evidence of their amazing connection is online for all to see – after Volker uploaded a video to YouTube on July 11, 2015. In the film, Volker recounts how he and the three-year-old cheetah became friends. “True to Eden’s nature, she warmed up to me in days and ended up really liking me,” he tells the camera. “So much so that I was able to trust her completely.”
During his time with Eden, Volker gradually realized just how exceptional she was – and just how special their friendship was becoming. In fact, his theory was that the closer he got to Eden, the more she thought of him as a cheetah. And it is hard for anyone to disagree, judging by the amazing encounter that he captured with his camera.
The video begins with Eden approaching Volker as he reclines on the grass at the Cheetah Experience. The big cat advances with stealth, rather than the speed for which the species is famed. Indeed, while hunting their prey, cheetahs can achieve an incredible running rate of up to 70 miles per hour.
Nevertheless, Eden is not hunting Volker; it turns out that she is after something else entirely. The zoologist reveals that he is sitting underneath her favorite tree, and Eden has come to greet him. When she gets close to Volker, the female lies down next to him and immediately begins emitting a low, rumbling purr.
The cheetah seems perfectly comfortable, and she begins to lick the man as if he were another cat. It is a great thing to watch, but according to Volker, it is not such a good thing to experience. “There is nothing pleasant about that,” he admits amid pained groans.
When the camera makes a closer inspection of Eden’s tongue, we can see why. The powerfully muscular organ is covered with backward-facing barbs. These spikes are otherwise known as papilla, and they are designed to scrape meat off bones. Socially, they are used by the big cats to groom and detangle fur – something which Volker notably lacks.
As a consequence, the licking hurts sensitive parts of the zoologist’s body, and he says it can even draw blood. Nonetheless, social grooming is important to cats, and it is proof that the cheetah views her human friend as one of her own. Volker knows this, too, and so he is more than happy to endure Eden’s attentions.
However, not only does the female enjoy licking Volker, but she also displays other bonding behavior, such as nibbling. The naturalist informs us that for Eden, it is a pacifying behavior. “It’s not aggressive; it’s just something she does,” Volker explains to the camera. “She does the same thing to the other cheetahs.”
The zoologist elaborates, “I eventually allowed her to bite and nibble after I learned I could trust her.” Even so, he has to be extremely careful and read Eden’s body language closely. If the big cat stops purring, for instance, it means that she is about to bite. Consequently, Volker needs to get Eden purring again double-quick before she can do perhaps unintended but nonetheless very real damage.
Indeed, cheetahs are unable to control this bite, and Eden probably does not even realize that it hurts her human friend. She is certainly not showing any signs of hostility towards Volker. In fact, she appears to display total ease when the guy gives her a tummy rub. Moreover, the cheetah seems delighted to curl up contentedly in her companion’s arms.
Amazingly, the wild animal dozes on Volker’s shoulder as he strokes Eden’s beautifully marked fur. “It’s snuggle time – the cutest thing she does,” the naturalist announces. “She’ll lay on you, and she likes you to intertwine your leg with hers.” Watching the video, it is difficult for animal lovers not to be jealous of this shared snuggly moment.
Volker vocalizes what the viewers are thinking. “Isn’t that cute?” he says as Eden snoozes away. “This is the best cheetah ever.” And the YouTube users who have come across the clip clearly agree, having flagged up their approval. Astonishingly, the super-viral video has been watched almost eight million times. It is a testament to the affection, love and trust between Volker and Eden.
Unfortunately, on June 29, 2017, a representative of the Cheetah Experience had to make a sad announcement on Facebook. After suffering kidney failure, Volker’s special friend passed over to the happy hunting ground. “Eden, you were the light in all of our lives,” said the update on the not-for-profit’s page. “You have touched so many hearts with your affection and sweet nature.”
Volker also added a personal eulogy to the forlorn feed. “One of my most precious memories and experiences in life is because of Eden,” he wrote. “I will forever miss Eden and value the recordings of her purr, which was a symphony to my ears every time I heard it. The cheetah purr is my favorite sound on earth because of Eden. Rest in peace, sweet Eden.”