by Louise Searl
Shanna, the Amur leopard, paced up and down obsessively. It was nearly feeding time and she knew the keeper would soon appear. It was getting dark, the visitors had all left hours ago. There had been some tasty looking children in the crowd today, but try as she might she could never reach them through the thick plate glass of the prison which was home.
She had been born in captivity, but her mother had told her stories about the lives of their forebears who had lived in the wild. She knew that there are few Amur leopards left in the forests and mountains of China and Russia, and her dearest wish was to be there herself. She wanted to run in the huge open spaces, to hunt for her own food and never, ever again see the faces of human visitors, desperate for a glimpse of her agility and the sound of her distinctive rasping bark.
Shanna was sick of her enclosure. She was sick of the sight of the three trees. She was sick of the sight and sound of the visitors. She was sick of the routine. She longed for release from captivity. She longed for excitement and danger. She longed to be free as the wind, for her life to be her own.
One day she was woken and found herself being herded into a box on wheels. Before she knew what was happening she was travelling along a bumpy road. The zoo had been left behind. Through the bars of the wagon she could see fields, trees, hills and sometimes people and their houses. Eventually into view came huge machines with wings like birds, nestling on the ground. The wagon slowed down, she was let into a small enclosure and sedated. She slept all through the flight, and the next thing she was aware of was being released into a large patch of ground, enclosed in wire. It was a bit like the zoo she had left, but there were no gaping crowds. Then she realised that there was no keeper coming in every night with food. Instead, every evening she was let out into a wild area where there were other animals she could eat if she could catch them. She was happy in that half-way house between captivity and freedom. She soon became a good hunter and caught enough prey to assuage her hunger. She found the water holes, where she could both drink and stalk unwary deer. She adapted quickly to her new surroundings.
The keepers had been watching her. They noticed how quickly she learned to hunt. She was part of a programme whereby animals raised in captivity are gradually returned to their natural habitats to breed. They saw that she was ready to survive in the wild. They were about to grant her dearest wish.
Once more she was sedated and put aboard an aircraft which would take her far far away to Russia. She wondered what was happening now. Was she on her way back to the zoo? She hardly dared to believe she might be on her way to her homeland. But when she awoke after the long flight, she knew she had reached home. She looked around her. She sniffed the air, she knew this was where she belonged. At last she was free.
She set off to explore this wonderful paradise. She found a group of deer grazing and soon singled one out, a little apart from the rest. Later, she settled in a leafy hollow, aware that her coat, thickening up now for the winter, would act as camouflage. She knew that she must rely on her own wits and survival instinct. She was in her own country, she was home at last.
Leopard skin coats fetch a good price overseas. The skin of the Amur leopard is particularly prized. Shanna was being watched. Every day she slept in sheltered spots. Every night she set out to catch her food. She delighted in the space around her and in the many smells and sounds of the bush. Sometimes she picked up the scent of humans, still familiar to her from her years in the zoo. Sometimes she noticed trails in the grass which had been made by man. Her instinct was to avoid such areas.
The season changed. It became colder and food was harder to find. Sometimes when she was very hungry and had no success in hunting she remembered how her keeper used to bring her daily ration of fresh meat every evening. But then she'd also remember how she was confined in a small space, and how she was gaped at by human beings every day. Here she was free.
Spring was on the way. Shanna met a male leopard and they mated. She bore four beautiful cubs. She was a good mother, spending hours feeding her babies and later hunting tirelessly for fresh meat to take back to where they awaited her return. One particular day she followed a track in the undergrowth which smelt of humans. Suddenly a set of metal teeth closed round her legs. Searing pain swept through her body. She was trapped. The more she struggled the tighter became the grip on her legs. As she lay there for hours, bleeding, panting and twitching with pain, she thought of her hungry and vulnerable cubs awaiting her return, and she realised that she although she would never have turned down the chance of freedom, there was a price to pay. And then she died.
About the author
Louise Searl lives in Essex