Saturday, August 25, 2012

Guha's Babies

Leaving Ontario’s west coast on a Sunday meant we drove against the cottager traffic most of the time.  This was the day they’d rush back to the City ready for the work week.  Friday by contrast was the day the reverse happened.  I had never seen a Canadian ‘cottage’ before so was keen to experience it.

In Bermuda a cottage is thought of as being a stand alone single storey house.  What we’d call a bungalow in England in fact.  However over the years, Bermuda cottages had been built on and extended in all directions so quite often they sprawl.  When we’d first arrived in Bermuda it was to a 2 bed, 1 bath bungalow – a cottage indeed, and we lived 12 happy years there.

Because we were bimbling still, we aimed north to go through Collingwood, a resort town on Georgian Bay.  They have a ski mountain there, the closest to Toronto, which is very popular to the point of exclusivity.

I’d found a B&B on a lake called Rosseau in Muskoka, the district which is considered to be prime cottage country because of the massive preponderance of both lakes and of course cottages.  Lakes Rosseau and Muskoka are very large indeed, not quite Great Lake size (Huron is as big as England) rather the size of, say, Yorkshire.  It was near Port Carling, a very small speck on the map that in summer time grew in size from 300 to more than 3,000 with the summer cottagers.

Not exactly what I'd call a cottage!  Very swish.

The B&B was very pleasant on the lake and Viv and I were most comfortable there.  We headed off to a big resort called Windermere for dinner (another golf resort) and settled down for a cottage night, our first.  At breakfast, mine host told us off a place only 5 minutes away (Ha!  Never believe people that live in the country.  Maybe to them it seemed like only 5 minutes away but it took us nearly 40!) where an Indian guy raised lions and tigers. 

Now I’m a skeptic at heart so the likelihood of there being an Indian actually training lions and tigers simply miles out in the bush where in the winter the temperature fell to minus a hell of a lot for simply months was highly unlikely so we just had to take a look. 

Apparently this Indian had trained Elsa the lion in that early animal movie, Born Free.  This was too much and when we finally found the drive and turned in all we saw was a ramshackle house and what looked like a bunch of poorly tacked together cages with all the brush overgrown.  Like a trailer park in fact. 

And then the dogs started barking… and pretty soon after that an elderly guy with a floppy hat wandered out and looked around wondering no doubt what on earth was happening to destroy his peace and quiet.  That’s when we saw one another and I explained what we were about and he genially welcomed us in.

Guha with Mum and Dad. When the weather gets too bad, he still takes them all indoors out of the cold but they still get their daily walk in the woods.
This was Guha and he told us pretty quick that he’d chosen this remote location because he wanted to lie low beneath the radar as he was much in demand for what he did.  Guha was a 13th generation animal trainer and for as long as he remembered he always had lions and tigers, Indian lions and tigers that is.  Bigger and more rare than their African counterparts.  He told us his 110 year old mother who lives in Darjeeling still keeps Guha’s elephant for him and rides him every day just to remind him who’s boss.  Apparently the elephant DOES remember who Guha is when he visits.

First was mum and dad – the big lion and lioness.  Guha told us that lions are pretty frisky for the first 7 years of their life but once they hit fully grown up age (7 years old) they become very lazy.  And these guys barely moved a muscle the whole time that Guha talked to them.  He’d brought these 2 lions up himself from the age of 6 days (poachers took their parents) and they’d lived with him and his wife until they were 7 years old.  Each day Guha would go into their cage with their food (they are 800 pounds in weight and eat 250 pounds of meat each week apparently), talk to them and have a cuddle.  They were in fact quite loving lions and certainly when he spoke they listened intently.  Eating that lot would make you pretty sleepy though and as it was nice and sunny they certainly took advantage of that.

There’s only 200 Indian lions left in the wild and in all the world’s zoos and Guha has 6 of them.  His lions are much in demand for stud purposes; there are 3 boys with Guha, all 4 years old so still adolescent but their older siblings are in several zoos around the world busily doing what needs to be done to prolong their line. 

Guha’s Siberian tiger is currently with Cincinnati zoo on the same mission.  There are fewer Siberian tigers than Indian lions courtesy of the poachers, so the issue is more critical.  Guha frequently takes in females for mating purposes but the big problem with this for the tigers is that prior to mating, the female needs to have selected a secure place to bring up the cubs so staying for a month at a time with him doesn’t work.  Guha wanted to carve off a decent area within his 100 acre holding that he would enclose safely and simply kick the 2 tigers out there for a while but apparently the local authorities couldn’t get their heads around a couple of 12 foot long 1,000 pound tigers roaming around in the wilderness so baulked at the notion.  Guha seemed bemused about this ‘ridiculous’ decision as quite often he’d have the tiger in to watch TV with him and his wife so really how could they be considered dangerous?

So as a result the tiger is elsewhere doing the business and so successful has he been that there are now 32 young Siberian tigers that are being reintroduced into the wild in Siberia some time in the next few weeks.  Guha will be attending to advise on the details however his tiger will not be going to Siberia.  He’s coming home presumably for some nice home cooking and TLC from Guha and his wife.

Guha also has 1 black panther and 2 cougars (father and son) plus the other 4 lions all of whom responded amazingly to his voice.  The elder cougar (who’d just lost his wife and unborn cubs in childbirth) in fact had a conversation with Guha going back and forth like a human would.  Guha had had all these big cats since they were only a few days old so was a father to them all.  The cougars liked to watch TV even more than the tiger but while the tiger knew its place and wouldn’t climb on the furniture, the younger cougar would try when Guha’s wife wasn’t looking.  However she was very firm with them and wouldn’t let them get away with much.

One of the last 12 black panthers left in the world

The talkative cougar that likes to watch TV and climb onto the furniture -- much to the lady of the house's displeasure

Two 'babies' -- aged 4 and only 400 pounds.  These are the active ones.

Amazing story but when we spoke more, the rest of the story was equally so.  Guha has a PHD in economics from LSE and was offered the chance to do another, in German, at Heidelburg when he was only 21.  That was where he met his German wife who didn’t believe it when he told her that his girlfriends were the big cats at Frankfurt Zoo where he volunteered.  Clearly Guha is a romantic as well.

He’d come to Canada to teach and somehow ended up in North Bay teaching Economics to students who didn’t want to learn, only argue with him so he quit and moved to Muskoka with his big cats.

We asked if he ever sold any of his ‘babies’ (he has 3 sons dotted around Canada as well all who help out when they are around – they used to go swimming with the tigers when they were younger so are clearly as comfortable around the big cats as mum and dad).  Guha told us Disney are always trying to buy some of the cats – and he has relented but never took money for them, only ensuring that they are treated ‘royally’ (which means 3 personal attendants each).  But there was one occasion when the children of the Emperor of Japan visited and took a liking to a couple of the black panther's babies – there are only 12 left in the world, Guha has 1 and now the Japanese royal family have 2.  Guha insisted that the Emperor's children spend time with them prior to taking them to Japan (they spent a month) and Guha went over for 6 weeks to make sure they are OK.  They are truly being treated ‘royally’ now!

As these are huge cats and the cages while comfy are pretty small, we wondered about exercise.  Guha said he takes them out for a 2 hour walk every day. I wondered if they acted like dogs when taken off the leash who ran around crazily, Guha said what leash?  He treated his babies with respect and they did the same for him.  They would accompany him quite happily and placidly in the forest to the point where if they ever saw or heard a moose or deer, they’d be the ones that were afraid more than the others.

Having a conversation, going for a walk, watching TV together -- this was an extraordinary visit and one that quite frankly when I drove into the driveway I wanted to turn around and drive straight back out again.  It was a privilege to spend an hour with Guha and his amazing cats.  Long may that happen. Thank you very much, Guha.

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