I tried to punch the cheetah in the face - injured boy

Pietermaritzburg - Cowan House pupil Aiden Fry has described how he tried to punch a cheetah on the nose when it attacked him and inflicted deep bite wounds whilst he was on a school excursion last week.

The incident happened at the KwaCheetah breeding centre at Nambiti Game Reserve near Ladysmith last Thursday morning.

Aiden, who turns 10 on Tuesday, said he is “much better but is still scared of cheetahs”.

He was admitted to hospital for surgery to patch up his severe wounds on Friday, and returned home on Monday.

The cheetah’s left paw gripped deep into the left side of Aiden’s chest while the right paw clamped into his back, pulling him closer to the fence.

The cheetah then bit into Aiden’s left shoulder, leaving two puncture wounds on his left shoulder blade and under his left arm.

Fingers in cheetah's nose

“I tried to punch the cheetah in the face,” Aiden said describing how he attempted to break the animal’s hold.

The handler reportedly ran to Aiden’s aid, jumping on the animal and beating it with a stick. The cheetah still did not release its hold.

Eventually, the handler stuck his fingers up the cheetah’s nose, shocking the animal and breaking its hold on Aiden.

The Witness has seen photographs of Aiden’s injuries but chose not to publish them due to their graphic nature.

What were described as mere flesh wounds were in fact large areas of deep, raw flesh on Aiden’s chest and back where layers of skin had been removed, exposing tissue and bone. Also, there were two gaping holes gushing blood where the cheetah’s teeth pierced his body.

Cowan House principal Rob Odell said they would respond to the story on Tuesday.

Clarke Smith of KwaCheetah said on Monday night the male cheetah managed to force its head and front leg through the fencing of the animals’ enclosure and grabbed at the boy’s backpack, scratching and biting at the pupil in the process.

“Safety precautions at KwaCheetah are rigorous. Children are not allowed into any of the enclosures, with only people over a certain height allowed in after a thorough briefing. None of the cheetahs at the project has displayed behaviour of this nature and it is contrary to their usual demeanour.”

He said the cheetah has been isolated for further observation.

“The management of the KwaCheetah Breeding Project has met with the child’s father and the school’s headmaster and held amicable discussions. No measures against the cheetah are being considered.”

'The cheetah tried to kill him'

Meanwhile, Aiden's parents Donnette and Craig Fry were upset over the treatment that their son received in the wake of the incident and said the gravity of it was downplayed.

“The cheetah tried to kill him. It is clear it went for his throat. I sat up crying on Friday after reading people’s comments who made light of my son’s ordeal,” Donnette told The Witness.

Craig Fry said they are not advocating that the cheetah should be killed and said that they understand it is a wild animal with predator instincts.

The couple believe the teacher in charge of the school excursion was “irresponsible” for not telling them immediately how serious their son’s wounds really were, and for allowing him to continue with a game drive.

They were also unhappy with the “hack job” done to stitch Aiden up at a hospital in Ladysmith.

Donnette Fry said the doctor clumsily sewed the skin together without cleaning the wound adequately.

He then gave Aiden a pain tablet called Stilpane and sent him home with some more painkillers.

“They did not give him a tetanus shot or any antibiotics,” she said.

Instead of bringing Aiden back home after he was taken to the hospital, the supervising teachers continued with the excursion, taking Aiden and the entire group of about 40 children, who had witnessed the attack, along for a game drive through the reserve.

The group only returned to Pietermaritzburg after 17:00.

Delirious, vomiting

His parents realised that he needed further medical care and rushed Aiden to Mediclinic Hospital after he “became delirious and started vomiting”.

Donnette said there was still dried blood on Aiden’s arm that had not been cleaned and the bite wounds had become septic.

Aiden spent two hours in surgery on Friday and was discharged on Monday. Still recovering, Aiden has little mobility on the left side of his body.

She said someone from the centre called her at about 10:30 and she was told Aiden “had a few scratches” and was being taken to the hospital for a check-up but everything was fine.

“She told me I should not worry and that my son was fine. We asked if we should go out there but said it would not be necessary and they would have him back at the end of the excursion,” Donnette said.

Craig Fry said that although they were upset with the manner in which the incident was handled, Cowan House school is doing what it can to help them and is paying all the medical costs.

Conflicting reports

He and his wife said they initially did not go public, wanting to protect their son.

The incident made national news and the couple said they felt that conflicting reports about it had “trivialised” the attack and they want to put the record straight.

Holding back tears, they described what they were told happened.

They said according to Aiden and a cheetah handler at the facility, about 20 Cowan House pupils aged between 9 and 10 were standing two metres away from an enclosure that housed three fully grown cheetahs.

The pupils were watching the cheetahs, two of which were on the far side of the enclosure.

The other one kept pacing the flimsy wire fence where the children stood while the handler stood with a stick in the middle of the enclosure.

The pacing cheetah then walked slowly to the middle of the enclosure before turning and sprinting at “full pace” towards the group, launching itself onto the fence, which was pushed outwards from the impact.

The animal was able to get its two front paws and its head through the fence, grabbing Aiden’s 27kg body while he turned to run away.

Strict protocols

Although not considered endangered, cheetahs are protected by Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Dawn Glover, an education officer for Cheetah Outreach in Somerset West, on Monday said she couldn’t comment on the Nambiti incident and was unaware of it.

However in 18 years there has not been a single attack at the Cheetah Outreach awareness centre where cheetah’s are “educational ambassadors”.

Cheetahs there regularly interact with children and school groups in particular, but strict protocols are applied. The animals are always accompanied by a handler and kept on a lead.

Currently there are seven adults and four cubs at the centre.

Glover estimates there 7 000 cheetah left in the world.

South Africa has a stable population of about 600 in captivity and 500 “free roaming” wild cheetahs, excluding cheetahs in game reserves.

The biggest survival threats to cheetahs are loss of habitat, decline in prey, poaching, persecution by livestock farmers and competition with other predators.

The Cheetah Outreach website says they are the fastest mammals on earth, covering up to nine metres per stride, and can reach a top speed of 100km/h.

Cheetahs 'wild at heart'

A wildlife expert, who asked his name not be published, said it was impossible to guess what caused the cheetah to attack Fry.

“Cheetahs tame well, but they remain wild at heart and we should always be cautious of any wild animal,” he added.

Incidents of cheetahs attacking humans appear to be rare.

In April News24 reported that a cheetah chased and bit a 13-year-old boy who illegally took a short cut through Johannesburg’s Lion Park on his bicycle.

In 2012 a Scottish woman, Violet D Mello, 60, was attacked by a pair of cheetahs at Kragga Kamma wildlife reserve in Port Elizabeth. Subsequently an American tourist, Michelle Bodenheimer, told The Times newspaper she was also attacked at the reserve three years earlier and believed should not be allowed into the enclosure with the cheetahs.

A cheetah also jumped on the back of American actor, Adam Sandler, in a private reserve when he visited Africa in July 2013, the Daily Mail reported. He said he was told he could feed the cheetah but something went wrong.

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