Raising wild cheetah cubs may sound like an Animal Planet special, but to Deborah Singiser and her family of four, it was a reality.
These days, Singiser is the International Student Service Coordinator at Castleton College, but she has had many other career paths before this one. From 2006-2009, Singiser worked in international development in the African country of Ethiopia.
During those four years, Singiser and her husband, Kevin Rushing, raised two children and nursed many wild animals back to health.
The couple traveled from one poverty stricken country to the next trying to help people. But, while in Ethiopia, they also noticed that veterinarian services were lacking and found there was a huge issue with wildlife trafficking.
“The problem in Ethiopia,” Singiser explained, “is that there are a lot of laws written, but they aren’t enforced because of a lack of human capacity or lack of resources.”
The people of Ethiopia didn’t understand the needs of wild animals. Many times businesses would capture wild animals and chain them outside their restaurants to attract customers. But even if the government wanted to confiscate these animals, there were no facilities or sanctuaries to relocate them to.
This is where Singiser came in.
“Our first cheetah came to us in June of 2006,” said Singiser. “My husband is a veterinarian, so when our American ambassador found a cheetah cub that was being kept illegally, he called us.”
The 3-month-old cub, named Sheeba, lived with their family for six months.
Cheetahs tend to be the most domesticated out of all the big cats, and they don’t pose a threat to humans.
“They are kind of like a big dog in many ways,” explained Singiser. “Ours slept with me in my bed and watched Sesame Street on the couch with my children.”
Although these large cats aren’t dangerous toward human adults, it’s a different story for small children, like those Singiser was raising.
As Sheeba grew bigger, Singiser worried what she would do when the cheetah got too rowdy with her kids. She knew she couldn’t keep him forever.
So Singiser set out to find a solution.
“The best way to find a solution,” she said, “is to find someone who is in an equally desperate situation as your own.”
Singiser came in contact with two Italian diplomats who were raising two orphan lion cubs. They were in an even more desperate situation because lions grow very fast and become dangerous to humans quickly.
They worked together and started contacting organizations outside of Ethiopia.
During this same time period, the American Embassy asked Singiser to organize an International Conference on wildlife. She worked hard to get participants and donors to talk about protecting the wildlife of Ethiopia. This project couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We got a lot of media attention which was great,” said Singiser excitedly. “An organization called Born Free, out of England, heard about our cheetah cub and the lion cubs and offered to help.”
Fast forward two years and Born Free Foundation Ethiopia or BFFE was officially established and began helping to support the conservation and welfare of the wild animals in Ethiopia.
The center was officially opened in 2011 and is located on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. The center is called Ensessakotteh – A Wildlife Rescue, Conservation and Education Centre.
This center is the first of its kind in the region and has proved to be very helpful and necessary. Since it was opened, over 40 orphaned, injured or confiscated wild animals have been rescued. These animals include owls, eagles, tortoises, lions, cheetahs, amphibians, hyenas, mongoose and primates, Singiser said.
Singiser described the center as being about the size of Castleton’s campus. With huge enclosures, they imitate to the best of their ability what the animal’s life would have been like in the wild.
This past Christmas, Singiser and her children went to visit Rushing, who is still in Ethiopia. They also got a chance to see the center open and running smoothly.
“It was almost impossible to believe that something that started all those years ago turned into something so big and permanent,” recalls Singiser. “In the beginning we just wanted to help, you know?”
Now that the center is up and running, Singiser has another goal in mind. She wants to build a relationship between the center and Castleton College.
Ensessakotteh is adding a large environmental education center. This new addition to the center will bring local children and adults to the sanctuary to teach them about the wildlife in their country.
Singiser and the staff of Ensessakotteh envision education majors from Castleton coming to Ethiopia to help create a curriculum for environmental education.
Students interested in environment studies, conservation biology or botany could be helpful as well. Singiser has ideas of creating an alternative spring break program for interested students to travel to Ethiopia and help out at the center.
President Dave Wolk is very supportive of Singiser’s collaborative arrangements between Castleton and Ethiopia.
“I admire Debbie Singiser very much,” said Wolk. “This idea fits perfectly with our efforts to better connect Castleton students with the global community.”
Looking back at the last 10 years, Singiser is amazed.
“This project is a good example of how when people work together they can accomplish all sorts of things,” she said. “I don’t want to take all the credit. So many people did so much work.”
Looking back, Singiser said she’s glad she helped spark a change.
“It is truly a testament to a ton of different people. I really hope we can connect those people with students from Castleton,” Singiser said.
Wolk hopes so too.
“This connection would allow our talented students to continue to make a difference in the world,” he said.