The dream of being able to speak to other species seems distant for almost everyone. This isn’t the case for a 22-year-old conservationist and photographer from South Africa, who converses with the cheetahs, lions, and hyenas at her family’s animal sanctuary.
Having grown up as the child of two wildlife specialists protecting our amazing biodiversity, Kristen Kerr learned how to be around animals from a young age.
“It may sound crazy, but I feel like I can talk to the animals but without saying a word,” the young animal whisperer said. “It is all about body language, they read yours as much as you read theirs.”
It all started with her parents, Barry and Adele Kerr, who had an animal sanctuary and worked with Project African Wilderness in Malawi. This meant that there were always animals in need of rescue and love around her.
“The first big cats I ever met were two three-month-old lions when I was 11, and I still remember the wave of joy that went through my body,” Kerr said.
Kerr calls it a “surreal experience” and finds herself lucky enough to live it every single day.
Like any other youngster, this animal-lover girl too thought she might try on big city life, in her case the megacity of Johannesburg. However, after just five months, Kerr decided it would never be her scene.
“I found people were always competing with one another like who has the best car etc.,” she said, “and I just wanted to be back where I belong with the animals.”
Since returning to the world of animals she grew up with, Kerr has played an integral part in rehabilitating the many animals that are rescued or abandoned there. “It has become part of my daily routine to interact with animals whether they are big or small, it is all I have ever known,” she said.
Kerr said that often half of the time, she forgets that the cheetahs are wild; rather, she considers them to be more like “house cats.” This makes even more sense when you take into consideration the strong bonds she has with them.
“I have raised three cheetahs since cubs, and they are like my family—I know they would protect me as much as I protect them,” she said. “They are totally harmless; I lie on the floor with them and kiss their face and sometimes even sleep in the enclosure with them.”
The job of taking care of these wildlife creatures is tremendously rewarding but can be tough too.
“One rule that I stick by is never forcing the animals to be my friend,” Kerr said. “I show that I am not going to hurt them and slowly getting closer every day to gain their trust.”
Kerr believes in “building a respectful relationship” with these beasts. This is particularly important when the sanctuary rescues a wild animal. Kerr said that she has never been hurt by these animals, but if she ever gets hurt, then it is likely to be her own fault.
“It usually takes a month to build their trust,” she said, “but if I ever overstep the mark, the cheetah jumps up and slaps his paws on the ground which means that is enough.”
Apart from looking after the wildlife, Kerr is also involved in educating volunteers about the animals and showing them “exactly how amazing they are.”
Kerr said: “I have loved animals ever since a baby. When I was younger, kids used to cruelly pick baby birds out of the nests and leave them to die but I would save them.”
The reward for taking her time to build a respectful rapport with each animal is that Kerr gets some fantastic close-up pictures with the big cats.
“I don’t regret raising animals,” Kerr said, “they are all my best friends.”