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The Gift of Subira
She lay in a classic feline pose, legs stretched out, head proudly held high, turned to one side, a classic pose that delights high-fashion photographersand the many who came to have their picture taken with her. No stranger to celebrity, her perfect features graced cards, stationery, newsletters; her strong and supple body played centerfold to many a lovely frame on bed stands, dresser tops and mahogany desks. Gorgeous, regal and, though young, she was principal ambassador to the kingdom of Shambala and known throughout the world as a wondrous symbol of beauty and raw energy, and circumstantial luck.
""Subira is her name,"" the lovely woman, clad in jeans, boots and buckskin coat, said, beaming. Thoughtfully, she looked at the small group of young people who were there on a field trip from a local rehab center. With gentle affection in her voice, the woman said, ""She's a three-year-old cheetah, not even at the height of her game. Magnificent, isn't she!""
As though it were a well-rehearsed script, Subira turned her head to the audience and gazed into the crowd. Her eyes, with their horseshoe black lines angling back from their corners and running to her mouth, looked as though they were freshly painted on for the day's exhibition. So dazzling was her rich coat of closely set black spots on a tawny-colored backdrop of thick fur that all felt compelled to comment, ""Oooooh, look at her. She's so beautiful!"" With a look that was both content and alert, as though she knew they found her captivating, Subira cocked her royal head and, with a serene gaze, assessed her many admirers.
Allcontinued to stare in aweexcept for a teenage boy in the back row, who groaned in what seemed boredom and discontent. When several members of the group turned in his direction, in a macho-posture-to-impress he rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, further exposing his well-developed muscles. To no one in particular he barked, ""What are you looking at?""
The woman paid no attention. ""The cheetah is the fastest land animal on earth,"" she told the small crowd. ""Aren't you, honey?"" she asked in a playful velvety tone, looking over her shoulder at the exquisite animal that lay atop the large, long, low branch of a massive oak tree.
Once again facing the group of young people who had come to observe the beauty of this spectacular animal and the other wild cats in this unique sanctuary, the woman continued characterizing the animal. ""Cheetahs are able to achieve speeds of seventy miles per hour for short durations. They hunt in short spurts that are like the sprints of a track star. And from a standstill, the cheetah can accelerate to forty-five miles per hour in just two seconds, with bounds that measure twenty-five feet. Just imagine! In the wild, the cheetah races after its prey, unlike most cats, which usually pounce on their victims. She uses her heavy tail for balance when executing sharp turns."" Though she'd recited the facts of the cheetah many times to visiting crowds, her obvious enthusiasm and excitement shone in her face.
""Do they eat humans?"" a teen in the crowd inquired.
""To the best of my knowledge, no human has ever been killed by a cheetah,"" the woman thoughtfully replied. She continued, ""As you can see, Subira's head and body are about five feet long, with a two-and-a-half-foot tail. She stands about thirty-nine inches at the shoulder thanks to her long, slender legs. Her weight will max out around 140 pounds."" Suddenly, almost as if on cue, Subira got to her feet and leapt from her perch. Once on the ground, she began gracefully walking around inside the large enclosure that contained her. The group fell silent at the awesome sight of this beautiful beast in motion.
A knowing smile swept across the woman's face as she anticipated what was to come, and what happened every time people first encounter Subira. It was just a matter of when.
I was sitting in the front row of chairs assembled for the group. ""They haven't noticed . . . yet,"" the woman, a friend of mine, mouthed to me. Her winsome blue eyes gave the impression of a child who had a wonderful secret and could barely contain it. She continued, ""It's not easy in the wild to run down animals that are also speedy. That's because cheetahs can only run at high speeds for short distances. A strong antelope, for instance, can often weave or zig-zag enough to escape a cheetah's pursuit. So sometimes a hungry cheetah has to wait several days to find a meal.""
Impressed by the beauty and grace of the animal, and revealing that she understood the cheetah is an animal facing extinction, the young dark-haired girl in the front row asked, ""I'm sorry, I don't know your name, but I have a question. Is that why they're endangered?""
""Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot to introduce myself,"" the woman responded. ""My name is Tippi. Tippi Hedren. You can call me Tippi. And to answer your question, the two main reasons cheetahs are endangered are poachers and loss of habitat. Poachers illegally hunt and kill cheetahs for their fur, which they sell on the black market. The loss of habitat has occurred over time as man continually encroaches on their environment.""
The group momentarily fell silent. With an engaging half-cocked smile, Tippi looked first to the cheetah and then to the crowd and then back to the cheetah, then walked over and sat close to the fence that contained the animal. It was easy to see that Subira was smitten with his mistress. The exquisite animal hummed wondrously and purred persuasively. The love affair was mutual. ""Ohhhhh,"" Tippi cooed, ""what glorious sounds from your magnificent throat.""
Tippi Hedren is no stranger to early morning sounds of the wild. Every dawn, as faint traces of pink begin to color the sky over her home nestled in the awesome grandeur of California's Soledad Canyon, the big cats roar, their deep-bellied choruses rumbling in sequence, some overlapping.
She calls her home ShambalaSanskrit for ""a meeting place of peace and harmony for all beings, animal and human."" Shambala is tucked into the Santa Clara Valley, forty miles north of Los Angeles. With the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Range nearby, Shambala spreads along the narrow Santa Clara River for about a quarter mile. It resembles parts of the African riverine woodland, though the trees are mainly tall cottonwoods instead of the savanna's thorny acacias. Replicating the raw beauty of the kopjes of the Serengeti and Manyara, gigantic brown rock outcroppings lay randomly dispersed throughout the sprawling land. It is, quite simply, breathtaking. Here, in an environment so like their native home, the lions roar in unison until that final strange bark from the dominant lead cat that says the conversation is over.
Abruptly, as though disgusted by all this affection, the boy in the back row mocked, ""Big deal. A big, skinny cat with a bunch of spots that runs fast. So what! Next! Bring out the stupid tigers or whatever so we can get this over with!"" Embarrassed by the rude outburst, the other members of the group turned and looked at the boy in disapproval. Tippi also observed the adolescent but made no response to his comment.
But the cheetah did. Looking in the teenager's direction, the cheetah instantly began chirping.
Using this behavior as a cue for her next statement, Tippi informed the group, ""Cheetahs have certain sounds that are unique to each animal alonea voice print similar to that of individual humans. A happy sound is a distinct chirp, like the one you are hearing now. Her hungry sound is a throaty vibration, and her way of saying 'watch out' is her warning noise that sounds like a high two-pitched hum. But as you can hear by all this chirping, she's pretty happy. In fact, I think she likes you,"" she said, looking directly at the boy.
""Yeah, yeah, sure! She just loves me,"" the boy mimicked sarcastically. Again, Ms. Hedren continued without responding to his ill-mannered remark. She knew from experience that something had happened to make this boy so angry and full of spite.
Tippi's presentation to the group hadn't been planned. It's the job of her staff to share Shambala's history and educate those who come to visit. She and I had simply been passing by when the group assembled. With the staff member waiting, Tippi now turned it over to a young assistant. Turning to me, Tippi motioned that we continue on our way. As we did, we turned to observe the group. It was from that vantage point we saw the belligerent boy with the smart, quick mouthan image that revealed something his words hadn't. Clad in a T-shirt, a fit torso emerged, one that sat tensely in a wheelchair. One empty pant leg, folded under, hung next to the remaining leg and tennis shoe.
Seventeen-year-old Cory had dreams of playing major league baseball one day. That was his one and only goal. He lived and breathed baseball and dreamed of the day when he would have a following, fans who knew he was ""the man."" No one doubted Cory's ability, certainly not Bob Shepard, the lead university scout for baseball talent in the state. He had recruited Cory, confirming a promising future. That was before the accident that had claimed his right leg. Nothing could replace the joy that the accident dashed.
Cory lost more than his leg in the tragic car accident: He also lost his hope. And his spirit. It left him not only physically disabled, but emotionally crippled. Unable to dream a goal that was anything other than being a major baseball talent, he was bitter, jaded and feeling just plain useless. Hopeless. He sat in a wheelchair with a chip on his shoulder, angry at the world and, today, on another ""boring field trip"" from the rehab program.
Unwilling and unable, Cory had become one of the rehab center's few ""un"" patients: unable to reconstruct a plan for his life, one that compensated for the loss of one leg and didn't allow excuses to impede it; unable to summon the courage to dream new plans for the future. He gave up on not only himself but others. ""Get off my back,"" he had told the rehab director. ""You can't help me. No one can.""
Upon seeing the image of the boy and the missing leg, Tippi wanted to stay longer. As though she knew something was about to unfold, she turned to me and said, ""This is usually the best part. Let's stay a while longer. Once that boy sees this he'll never forget it.""
We stood close by as the new group's guide continued. ""Cheetahs never feed on carrion. They eat fresh meatthough in captivity, they do like people food!""
The word was somehow of interest to the boy.
""Carrion?"" the angry-at-the-world young man boisterously questioned, ""What's that mean?""
""Cadaver, corpse, remains,"" the young assistant responded.
Cory smirked. ""So the cheetah doesn't eat roadkill,"" he taunted loudly in response.
Upon hearing the boy's guttural sound, the glorious animal once again took up her efficacious purr. The audience, enchanted once again by Subira's glorious sound, cooed in hushed unison, ""Ohhhhh!""
Enjoying their positive responseand always willing to flauntSubira decided to give them a show of her skills. As if to say, ""I can please you more. Watch and let me show you how fast these spots can fly,"" Subira instantly began blazing a trail of speed around the enclosure encircling the awestruck spectators. ""Ahhhhh,"" sighed the crowd, ""she's so fast.""
Then, it finally happened: They noticed! ""She only has three legs!"" the crowd gasped. ""Oh, no!"" the girl in the front row exclaimed, rising from her seat. The other astonished young people looked on in silence, aghast at what they saw.
No one was more stunned by the sight of this incredible animal running at full speed than Cory. Looking bewildered, he verbalized what the others were thinking. ""How can she run that fast with three legs?"" Amazed at the cheetah's effortless, seemingly natural movements, in a whisper, he remarked, ""Incredible. Just incredible."" And then, a miracle happened. Staring at the young strong beast with the missing leg, Cory smiled, a look of sheer amazement spreading across his face.
Seizing the moment of opportunity, Tippi walked back to face the young people, telling them, ""As you have now all noticed, Subira is very special. She has refused to let what many deemed a gross defect get in her way, and she has adapted very successfully. Since no one told her she shouldn'tor couldn'trun as fast as a cheetah with four legs, she doesn't know otherwise. And, so, she can. In some respects her condition makes her more endearing, and yet she deserves the attention she gets. Because she has adapted she earns the respect from all of us; that provides her with yet more contact, and even more adulation. So in many ways, her missing leg sets up a condition where she gets more of everything, really."" Tippi paused for a moment and, turning to Subira, continued by saying, ""We just love her. She's a living example, a symbol, of what Shambala is all about . . . recognizing the value of all living things, even if, for whatever reason, they are different. And learning that at the height of our limitations, we find the strength of our love.""
The boy now listened with interest as Tippi explained Subira's history. ""Subira's umbilical cord was wrapped around her leg in the womb, so it atrophied, causing her to lose the leg soon after she was born. Born in an Oregon zoo, but with only three legs, she was cast off. Her fate seemed hopeless. They were considering euthanasiaputting her to sleep.""
Surprised, Cory asked thoughtfully, ""Why?""
""Because,"" Tippi responded, ""they thought, 'What good is a three-legged cheetah? What would people say?' They didn't think the public would want to see a deformed cheetah. Since it was felt that she wouldn't be able to adapt, you know, to run and act like a normal cheetah, she served no purpose. She had nothing to do. But we all need to do something, don't we?"" With a kind and wistful look, she looked into Cory's face. ""That's when we heard about Subira and offered our sanctuary where she could live as normal a life as possible,"" Tippi said. ""It was soon after she came to us that she demonstrated her own wortha unique gift of love and spirit. As I mentioned earlier, normally cheetahs are solitary animals, but not this cheetah. She decided to love people, and made herself part of the family immediately. Subira has touched the lives of people around the world, and has become our most persuasive spokesman for promoting our message and cause. Though discarded because she was an imperfect animal in a world that demands perfection, she had to create her own worth by adapting to something new. We are so happy to have her. We need her. She truly is a most cherished and priceless gift.""
Abandoning all wisecracks, Cory grew reflective. Inspired, he asked softly, ""Can I touch her?""
Perhaps in that poignant moment the boy understood that Subira's courage did not allow a missing leg to hinder herand that opened the gates of his own heart and mind. Whatever it was, it changed his demeanor and willingness to participate. When the leader of the visiting group was preparing to leave at the end of the tour and asked for a volunteer to push and hold the large rolling gate open so the van could exit the ranch, Cory dared to take his first step in creating his own worth. He volunteered.
As the rest of the group looked on, Cory wheeled himself over to the gate. Struggling to maneuver it open, he gripped the high-wire fence for support and pushed it open. The expression on his face as he continued to hold the gate until the van passed through was one of great determination and satisfaction. And, judging from the smile on his face, it appeared that Cory took his first step in opening to the possibility of victory over the challenges he faced.
I looked back at the beautiful sleek cat, now an observer from the large oak branch in her compound. There was a peaceful look of contentment on her face as she gracefully groomed herself. It was, for her, just another interesting day in the beautiful dwellings of Shambala where a certain magical element is present in the ongoing day-to-day happenstance, one she finds both stimulating and intriguing. It was just another demonstrationto yet another humanof creating self-worth, hope and purpose.
(c)1998. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Taste Berry Tales by Bettie B. Youngs, Ph.D. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.