By Danny Baggott @Dan_Baggie
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Videographer / Director: Dolph C. Volker
Producer: Danny Baggott, Ruby Coote
Editor: Josh Halil
Dolph C. Volker, 50, has volunteered at the Cheetah Experience Breeding Centre in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on and off for over four years.
Despite living in America, and spending little time with the animals at the breeding centre, Dolph has managed to create a special bond with one of the male cheetahs, Gabriel.
Dolph often goes a full year without seeing his best buddy – but the predator recognises him almost immediately and remembers all of the things they used to do together.
And during his time at the sanctuary in January 2018, Dolph managed to hand-feed Gabriel and spend the entire night sleeping next to him out in the open.
Dolph told Barcroft TV: “It takes a long time to reach an imprinting and bonding relationship with a wild animal. A wild predator.
“I’ve been volunteering now at Cheetah Experience for over four years. It started when Gabriel was a cub and I got to know him at eight months old.
“It was an absolute joy. We became super friends.
“Gabriel is very special to me for a number of reasons. Probably the biggest one is that he fulfilled a lifelong dream. I always wanted to befriend some predator.
“He remembers all the special things we used to do and I remember what he used to like to do. You know, getting up close, putting his paws on my shoulder, laying on me and grooming me.”
Cheetah Experience is a registered, non-profit cheetah-breeding centre that also takes care of leopards, lions, a tiger, servals and caracals.
Last year, Dolph was thrilled to find out that he could make his bond with Gabriel extra special by officially buying him from Cheetah Experience and becoming his legal owner.
This official status allows Dolph to enter Gabriel’s enclosure whenever he visits and he can receive up-to-date progress reports of his well being when he is back in the United States.
Despite the close bond he has formed with Gabriel over the years, Dolph remains aware of the dangers that come with interacting with a predator of this kind.
“I’m still learning about him,” Dolph said.
“After long stints of time away from them all, I do have certain apprehension and caution with some of the cheetahs.
“I’m not suddenly going to come up and grab a cheetah I haven’t seen in a year. That’s just crazy.
“People wonder if cheetahs are dangerous. Okay, they are a weapon from tongue to tail.
“I’ve never personally been attacked, but I have been injured by them.
“People think I have a fatal attraction. I don’t. I have a calculated attraction and I’ve chosen the best animal possible to do that with – the cheetah.”
Studies show that cheetahs rarely attack humans, and that is due to their typical non-aggressive nature and the smaller prey species they target – like antelope-size herbivores.
Dolph said: “Right now, Gabriel gets 2.3kg of red meat a day.
“I wanted him to have a better diet, a more natural one. So once a month, I pay for special game meat for Gabriel.
“When there’s not game meat around, I ask if they feed him red meat and no chicken. I just want a more natural diet for him.
“Ranches and farmers sometimes donate their deceased animals. Horse comes in sometimes, cows, donkeys and even wild game meat. Gabriel is actually fond of donkey, he loves that.”
Dolph is now hoping to move to South Africa in the next few years and be with Gabriel full time in his own Cheetah Breeding and Conservation Project.
He said: “I started off as a volunteer at Cheetah Experience and then became an intern. And now, Gabriel is my foundation animal for the project I want to begin myself. I want to improve the breeding, rewilding and release process of captive bred cheetahs.
“Cheetahs are disappearing in the wild and projects like Cheetah Experience and others may be the last hope in saving this wonderful species.
“Me personally, I have never been happier than I am right now.
“Gabriel will be on my will. In case something happens to me, I’ll make sure Gabriel is cared for in the best possible place.
“It just shows you how much this animal has touched my life. He’s changed it. Gabriel has changed my life.
“One day, I’ll die happy with a legacy knowing I made a difference.”
To find out more about Dolph's story and the Cheetah Experience Breeding Centre, click below: