Violet D’Mello described yesterday how instinct took over and she played dead after one of the two "completely tame” cheetahs attacked her as she was trying to protect a seven-year old Bay boy.
Just moments before, D’Mello had posed for a picture with one of the animals. She was in a petting area for the hand-reared cheetahs with her husband, Archibald, at about 2pm on Saturday.
Cleary Estate family Glenda and Samuel Malan, and their children – Cassidy, 11, Camryn, 8, and Calum, 7 – were also there.
While Glenda and the children were inside the petting area, Samuel waited outside.
Suddenly, one of the two cheetahs grabbed Camryn by the leg, leaving her with multiple cuts and abrasions which needed stitches.
"It all happened in just a few minutes, but it was a nightmare,” D’Mello said yesterday.
"They weren’t being vicious. You could tell they [the cheetahs] were just excited, but it became serious very quickly.
"It all happened so fast. After his sister [Camryn] was free, the boy [Calum] ran.
"As I stopped him, something jumped me from behind.”
The cheetah knocked her to the ground where it pawed at her head. "You have to understand, these are big animals,” D’Mello said.
As their guide tried frantically to pull the large cat from D’Mello, instinct took over.
"Something inside me just said, ‘Don’t move. Don’t move at all. Don’t react, just play dead’.”
As soon as the guide pulled the first cat off, his brother joined the fray, biting D’Mello’s legs and keeping her on the ground.
Visitors struggled to get both cats off at once, and, after a few minutes, they all managed to make a run for the gate.
"This was meant to be a holiday, but it’s really turned into a nightmare,” D’Mello said.
Samuel Malan said Camryn had been excited to visit the park after doing a school assignment on cheetahs.
He waited outside while his wife and children entered the petting area. "It was hectic ... I couldn’t do anything because I was outside. I was just screaming,” he said.
"I heard my children screaming. By the time I arrived there, she [Camryn] had already been bitten.
"It’s a traumatic experience ... but it could have been worse.”
Malan, who arrived as the cheetahs were attacking D’Mello, said his family were receiving counselling.
"They are not sleeping – they wake up screaming. I keep seeing it ... Just to see that thing biting that lady ...”
Park manager Mike Cantor said it was not clear what had sparked the attack.
The cheetahs, brothers Mark and Monty, have been hand-reared since birth, and are considered to be extremely tame.
"It’s not something we’ve ever really experienced. It’s obviously very unfortunate, and we’re looking into what may have startled or riled up the cheetahs.” Cantor said a number of factors might have resulted in the incident, but did not want to assign blame.
"We’ve had these animals for four years,” he said. "Dozens of people have come through here and seen them and fallen in love with them, so it pains us to hear about something like this.
"From what we’ve been told, there was a lot of commotion at the scene, which, unfortunately, most likely aggravated them somewhat.
"We’re also considering the possibility that a female in heat in one of the neighbouring enclosures might have played a role here, but we can’t be sure at this stage.”
The petting facility has been closed while the incident is investigated. Centre for African Conservation Ecology director Graham Kerley warned about big cats.
"Keep in mind that in the last 10 to 12 years, three people have been killed by captive lions,” he said.
"We mustn’t pretend these are tame pussycats here.
"They are wild and should be considered dangerous.”
Kerley said cheetahs were more likely to respond aggressively to children than adults, and warned parents against having their children too close to wild cats.
He said that "cheetahs are wild animals, and adult cheetahs have the capacity to hurt very badly”.