By Nicky Grandin…
Savannah Heuser has been helping big cats in need since she was 16 years old. She currently looks after 6 lions and 2 Siberian tigers at her Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, which is based on her family’s farm in Limpopo, South Africa. Soon she will provide a forever home to 33 more lions rescued from circuses in South America by Animal Defenders International.
Savannah Heuser’s delicate features and soft voice are offset by a head of striking golden-red hair and big burgundy-rimmed glasses. This is just as well because behind the appearance of delicate, youthful beauty is a fiercely determined young woman.
You also surely have to have an amazing nerve to want to look after lions.
Like any young teenager, there was a time Savannah enjoyed malls and shopping and hanging out with friends. Now she’s known as the redheaded girl who loves lions and she divides her days between caring for big cats, raising sheep and raising funds for her charity FUNdit.
The day I meet Savannah she’s at a fundraising activity at the Brooklyn Theatre in Pretoria. The foyer is crammed with young dancers and other busy people, but I find her in an instant (that hair!). We grab two empty chairs and I ask her to tell me the whole story of how she came to help these 33 lions. “From the very beginning?” she asks. I assure her, “Yes, right from the beginning”.
Perhaps she was born with nerve, because Savannah knew at age 14 already that she wanted to work with big cats. It all came about when she joined her mom, Minunette, on a trip to Zambia in 2010. “It took a few days but I convinced my mom to let me go on a lion walk,” Savannah says with a smile. “That was when I realised what I wanted to do. Not specifically walking with lions, but I knew I wanted to work with the cats.”
At first Savannah wasn’t sure where her work with big cats would take her, but that changed when she came across a story about a lioness rescued from Cairo. “Her name is Masrya. She was basically kept in a tiny cage for two and half years of her life. She had been declawed and was very malnourished.”
Savannah knew she had to help give Masrya, and cats like her, a better life. Who else would?
“These malnourished and mistreated cats aren’t very attractive. People don’t want them. It’s like a puppy or a kitten, everyone wants them when they are young, pretty and playful, but no one wants the sick and not so attractive animals,” explains Savannah. “I decided that those are the cats I want because they need a home; they need sanctuary.”
With the now unflinching support of her mother, Savannah began the process of creating a big cat sanctuary on the family’s farm in Limpopo. Eighteen months of patient persistence paid off and a permit was finally granted in 2012.
Savannah opened the doors to her Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary when she was just 16 years old. Three short years later, she has eight big cats in her care, including Masrya, the rescue cat from Cairo.
Masrya and her partner Nero arrived at the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in May 2015, having travelled from Stichting Leeuw in Holland. “With that was probably the most following we have got so far,” says Savannah. “Those two lions are very famous in the Netherlands; they are the Dutch Lions.”
The Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary has over 50 000 followers on Facebook so far, and that number grows by the minute. One of these followers, a woman named Diane B. Miller, had been so impressed with the sanctuary that she contacted Savannah and asked her if she’d be willing to take on more lions – 33 more lions to be exact.
Diane arranged an introduction to Animal Defenders International (ADI), an organisation that recently rescued 33 lions from circuses in Peru and Colombia in what was the culmination of a 9-year campaign to stop animal suffering in circuses across South America.
Jan Creamer, the president of ADI who led the rescue mission, visited the sanctuary in May 2015 and she loved what she saw. “When we visited Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary we knew this is a dream come true for ADI and, more importantly, the lions,” said Jan. “The climate and environment are perfect for them and we are delighted that these lions who have suffered so much will be going home to Africa where they belong.”
The lions will stay at the ADI rescue centre in Peru until it’s time for them to come home. Emoya is helping raise funds for the $400 000 flight to bring the #33lions from the rescue centre in Peru to O.R Tambo International in Johannesburg. They will travel on a dedicated Boeing 747, along with a veterinary team, in what will be the biggest airlift operation of its kind.
Once the lions touch ground, they will journey 300 kilometres by road on two giant Superlink trucks to the sanctuary. And this is where Savannah’s journey just begins. She will look after the #33lions for life – providing homes, food, supplements, medical care and enrichment.
Savannah has already started widening the roads at Emoya in preparation for the Superlink trucks. She’s also started building the phase one adaptation enclosures, which have been funded by ADI. But there is still much to do and both Savannah and her mom, Minunette, are working tirelessly to prepare the sanctuary for the #33lions and help ADI raise the funds they’ll need to look after them for life.
To give the #33lions their forever home, Emoya must finish building both the phase one adaptation enclosures and phase two permanent enclosures. They’ll need a cold room to store fresh food for the lions and vehicles to transport the food.
Emoya also need an onsite clinic to administer medication and treat the lions. This will include contraceptives for the females and vasectomies for the males (to make 100% sure Emoya doesn’t breed lions in captivity) as well as surgical procedures such as reconstruction of teeth that have been damaged as a result of abuse and neglect.
The total cost for the upkeep of each lion is about $50 a week and their life expectancy, depending on the age of the lion, ranges from 3 to 20 years. The older lions have a life expectancy of 3 to 5 years and the younger lions have a life expectancy of up to 20 years in captivity. Animal Defenders International has a dedicated fundraising campaign and Emoya has joined in on their efforts to raise funds for the #33lions.
See the ADI #33lions fundraising website here: http://lionsbacktoafrica.org
Go to Emoya’s #33lions fundraising page: https://33lions.org/donate/
Savannah has her work cut out for her for sure, but she has the resolute calm of someone who knows she is simply fulfilling her role in something far bigger.
“What’s most important for us is that this is for life,” says Savannah. “We’ll be caring for each of the 33 lions for the rest of their lives – and we get to do this in the natural African habitat of Emoya, the closest they’ll ever come to freedom.”
To find out more and support the #33lions, visit 33lions.org.