I pulled into the driveway, gazing up at the beautiful redwoods through my bug splattered windshield as I parked my car. It’s a year later as I nervously climb the steps to Wild Cat Education and Conservation Fund (WCE&CF) as a new volunteer. As I enter, I hear a warning from inside as Rob moves toward the door to the hallway where the new black leopard kitten is scampering about. Walking in on exotic kittens seems to be in my cards, a déjà vu moment that reminds me of Bandhu. I can’t help but hope that he still has his unique smile, a symphony of soft pink and fluffy white. I am certain that by now all of his kitten fur is gone, replaced by a thick, water repellent coat. Will he recognize me? Definitely not. Kittens forget people and their faces just as easily as we do when we are babies. No, he won’t remember a single thing about me. He won’t remember me gazing down at his heavy eye lids and gaping yawn. He won’t remember the uneven texture of my old jacket, nor will he remember the sound of my voice.
Barbara was in Africa when I began volunteering and Rob was ill, so the timing couldn’t have been better for me to begin offering a helping hand. Kanika, the little black leopard I stumbled in on, became my project of three years now. After a few hours of play following a solid half hour of caution on her part, she became too tired to hold her head up so I stole the chance to go out and see Bandhu. As I rounded the corner towards his enclosure, cradled by a beautiful redwood tree, all I saw was a flash of gray and a black play tube swinging from the ceiling. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the image in my head of his clunky body curled up inside, intently listening to the leaves cracking beneath my feet, my breath nervously flowing in and out of my lungs, maybe he even heard the excited “thump thump” of my beating heart. I waited and waited for him to offer me a glimpse of his beautifully intense features, hoping curiosity would kill the cat. Upon Rob’s suggestion, I even offered him a few fishy snacks but he wouldn’t budge from his hiding spot beyond my view. Eventually, as the sun sank lazily to rest behind the trees, I had to return to my duties and begin feeding the rest of the cats, giving up my efforts to see little Bandhu.
For the next few weeks I began working hard to gain Bandhu’s trust. I spoke softly to him every time I walked by, embedding every ounce of kindness into my tone that I could muster. Weeks passed by as Bandhu became more accustomed to my presence, my voice, my efforts. As the months passed, he began to relax around me, his fur resting lightly on his shoulders and trailing the length of his spine, hugging his muscles and flattering the bones in his short legs. The glow of the fire in his eyes changed with the passing of time as he gazed intently at me. In my presence he began to feel comfortable enough to respond to stimulation from the world around him, flicking his ears in response to the tickle of the wind in his tufts, shifting his gaze towards a bird above his head, whipping around to tend to a patch of uneven fur along his flank, allowing an eye lid to fall in protective response to a needy fly. I could see he was changing his attitude towards me.
It was during this time that Bandhu was approaching an age of sexual maturity, a road block in the world of ambassador based education. We all held our breath as Bandhu hit a period of time where he was unsure of himself, unsure of the crowd eager to learn about him. My heart was prepared to shatter thinking he would no longer want to be a part of educating both children and adults about fishing cats around the world. As a species they are incredibly clever, agile, and unique. They are so different from any cat on this planet and yet the world knows so little about them. Bandhu had already plucked the strings of my own heart, an incredibly powerful experience I wanted for everyone in my community and beyond. For hours upon hours Barbara and Rob worked to ensure that Bandhu would feel comfortable and confident enough to present his awe inspiring presence to the generation that will make a difference in the world. Only time and tireless effort would tell if Bandhu would continue his work as the cat that became the voice for his species, and I was just beginning to become a part of his life.
Photographs of Bandhu by Steve Flaherty