Beloved cheetah dies

Byron's long-time handler Marilyn Hull and Byron shares their shared passion!

“We all have very heavy hearts here at the centre,” says Rita Groenewald, education officer at the centre who has worked closely with Byron the last couple of years in the centre’s education programme.

Byron and the education team have touched so many hearts from the inception of the education program in 2003. The education team was headed up by Marilyn Hull, who was also Byron’s primary handler and trainer.

From rural schools in Atherstone, underprivileged schools in Ga-Rankuwa, Soweto, Shoshanguve, Mabopane and Diepsloot, right through to beautiful hotels and elevators – Byron had seen it all. With a strong emphasis on encouraging the school kids and delegates to do their bit in ensuring a healthier environment for all species, Byron has visited about 90 000 people through the years. Many of the youngsters in rural communities would never have been exposed to wildlife without this opportunity.

Byron encouraged and fascinated burn victims, junior honorary rangers, children and adults with disabilities, celebrities, school children and delegates alike and wherever he went everyone loved him.

“When you have seen this phenomenal animal in person, heard him purr and looked into his large soulful eyes, you cannot ignore the plight of cheetahs or turn your back on your responsibility to be a custodian for the environment. Byron not only touched the lives of the children and adults that have met him through the years, but also crept deep into the hearts of all the staff involved with the centre and particularly, the education team. Anyone who has ever loved an animal knows how difficult it is ,” Rita says.

“Byron was a one in a million. He was not only a gentle, large beautiful cheetah, but also had a big heart and was especially patient when visiting students or adults with physical or mental disabilities. His purr was legendary, and his curly whiskers were unique. Through all of his adventures during the course of his time as an ambassador, there are so many fond memories. Byron didn’t like red vending machines, and would hiss at them if he had to pass them. When driving to functions, he loved dreaming about one day catching a motorcycle, and hated driving through tunnels. Of course, he loved cuddles from his handlers, being groomed and going for walks at the centre. And it wasn’t just the handlers that loved him, but also some of the female cheetahs that were in the breeding programme…”

When travelling far from the centre, Byron and the team would overnight in accommodation, and this handsome cheetah would make himself extremely comfortable in any situation.

Through the years, many celebrities assisted the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre in creating awareness about the plight of the cheetah. Byron and the team featured in many newspaper articles and television shows. Byron even had his own episode on a show featured on Animal Planet titled “Byron the Cheetah Teacher” highlighting his work in rural schools.

“The entire team at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre already miss him immensely, but honor him by

Marilyn Hull, Byron’s first and long-time handler, who loved him dearly and spent many road trips sharing a bed with Byron, wrote this heartfelt message on facebook on Wednesday: “Today would have been Byron’s 15th birthday. Every year he celebrated his birthday at an underprivileged school. The children would get cake and sweets and he would get a hand crafted mince cake.When he an I retired a few years ago, we would share an Oreo McFlurry together, one Oreo McFlurry and two spoons (he did so love his ice cream). Thank you, Rita, for ensuring he got his Oreo McFlurry before he left us. Thank you to everyone for all the comfort and comments as we remembered the life of this amazing cheetah who was and always will be ‘His Royal Highness – Prince Byron’.”

Daleen van Manen

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