Ron Gray is definitely a cat person, at least when it comes to lesson planning. Cats — big ones — help him bring a complex concept to life in his Waldo Middle School classroom, where the cat of the day is the cougar and the lesson is symbiosis — the delicate environmental balance and interdependence between people, predators and prey. He wants his students to learn how animal populations are affected by predators, disease, habitat restrictions and availability of food and water. “You are going to be a cougar today,” Gray tells his students, “and your job is to get enough food to eat.”
Gray ’98, MAT’01, has adapted the same lesson for different learners, the people who inhabit the rolling savannas of Namibia, Africa. There, the delicate balance is between farmers, their livestock and the sleek, swift, spotted creature that has fallen victim to a relationship gone awry, another big cat — the cheetah.
Africa is a long way from Willamette University, where Gray studied biology thinking he wanted to become a doctor. But a restless desire to explore the world and a visit to a friend in South Central Los Angeles waylaid those early plans. More on that later.
Fast forward a few years to the time Gray met Laurie Marker, executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), after she spoke at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Marker told Gray that the CCF — an organization recognized worldwide for its cheetah research and conservation efforts — lacked enough trained educators in its ranks. Gray had been teaching for several years at Waldo Middle School in Salem and realized this could be the ultimate travel experience he had been seeking. He quickly volunteered to go to Namibia, home to the largest population of cheetahs left in the world. He eventually made four visits to the country, where he worked for CCF and the Ministry of Basic Education, part of Namibia’s government.
The cheetah, the oldest of the big cats, once roamed five continents in plentiful numbers. Just a short century ago, more than 100,000 lived in 44 countries in Africa and Asia. Today the cheetah is endangered: The species is nearly extinct in Asia, and only about 12,500 cheetahs remain in the world, mostly in Africa. Namibia alone lost half of its cheetah population during the 1980s, with current estimates hovering around 2,500.
Numerous factors have led to this rapid decline, not the least of which is human encroachment. Cheetahs prefer living in Namibia’s open grasslands because they need ample space to find food and mates and to raise their young. But as human populations continue to grow, more people have moved into the grasslands to live and raise their livestock. When their goats disappear, farmers often blame the far more visible cheetahs rather than the stealthy leopards that often are at fault, Gray says. Farmers shoot the cheetahs on sight, fearing them as aggressive predators — a reputation contrary to the animal’s gentler nature and innate avoidance of humans. As development encroaches further into the grasslands, cheetahs lose the large, open spaces they need.
“Our goal is to get people to understand why predators are important,” Gray says. “We don’t tell them to never shoot a cheetah because sometimes there may be problem animals causing havoc. We’re just trying to get them to understand if they don’t need to shoot, then please don’t.” To help Namibian schools incorporate environmental issues such as predator awareness into their curriculum, Gray spearheaded a project to publish a teacher’s guide and to rewrite Namibian textbooks. Previous textbooks had been modeled on those from other countries and had little relevance to Africa’s environment. The spotted owl that might grace the pages of an endangered species lesson in an American classroom held little meaning for Namibian children accustomed to sharing the savanna with big cats.
Assessing the existing knowledge base of CCF staff members and using that expertise to conduct training on environmental issues was one of Gray’s challenges for the project, Laurie Marker says. “To get CCF’s predator activities into the Namibian curriculum, Ron needed to find out how this could be done, work together with the organization that deals with curriculum development, and submit CCF’s materials,” she says. “Then follow up and more follow up.”
Gray led the effort to create a new guide for Namibian teachers, one that included everything from how to distinguish a cheetah from the similarly spotted leopard (look for the teardrop-shaped lines from the corner of the cheetah’s eyes to its mouth) to the important role the animals play in a healthy ecosystem, helping control the prey population. The guide, distributed to every teacher in Namibia, also provides tips on how to protect livestock against predators, such as acquiring a guard dog.
“The hard thing is coming up with lessons that don’t require photocopiers or other resources,” Gray says. “Also, in a lot of ways, their schools are like those in America in that they have standards and nationwide tests, and you can’t get very far away from those in your teaching. We had to figure out how to introduce the concepts we wanted in a way they could incorporate into their lessons.”
“Cheetahs are an incredibly interesting species that is nearly on its way out, but we’d like to keep them around if possible. You have to try to get people to realize and be interested in what a cheetah is and to see it as an important part of their country.”
– Ron Gray ’98, MAT’01
One of those lessons is the importance of maintaining a diversity of species in their country. “Cheetahs are an incredibly interesting species that is nearly on its way out, but we’d like to keep them around if possible,” Gray says. “You have to try to get people to realize and be interested in what a cheetah is and to see it as an important part of their country.”
Gray should know. He went through the same process himself, learning many lessons about cheetahs along the way. He quickly discovered they are not the fierce, intimidating cats some might expect. In fact, they’re afraid of humans, and they chirp like birds instead of roaring. (Hear for yourself at cheetah.org.)
CCF encourages Namibians who have captured cheetahs to bring them in to the organization’s farm rather than shoot them. Gray has hand-fed such cheetahs, including babies, to help them survive — and he has dealt with news of those that didn’t, like 3-month-old Peep. The tiny cub had been captured and abused before coming to CCF, where Gray helped care for it. The day after Gray left for home, he found out Peep had died.
But not all the stories are somber. Gray has many fond memories of helping cheetahs exercise by running a motor that pulls a rag on a string around a course. The cheetahs chase the fabric scrap until they tire (see photo on previous page). The person running the motor “gets to play the ultimate video game and keep the rag just out of reach of the cheetahs,” Gray says. He also worked with CCF to return the animals to their natural habitat. “The releases are pretty fun when you actually get to take the cage out, open it up and watch the cheetahs run back into the wild,” Gray says. “They react so differently. Some of them just fly out, and others you have to coerce to get them out of the cage.”
The organization’s work — and Gray’s — has had an impact. The population of cheetahs has begun to stabilize in recent years. School curriculum has started to incorporate predator awareness and conservation issues. But beyond that, Namibians are starting to think of cheetahs differently. When Marker started CCF in 1990, she would go to the town of Otjiwarongo and face hostile residents who just wanted to be left alone. Now the town has a huge banner declaring they are “Cheetah Capital of the World.” “There are cheetahs everywhere in the town,” Gray says. “You go to the schools and kids are making papier-mâché cheetahs. It’s very exciting.”
Marker says Gray helped empower other CCF staff members who saw the effectiveness of his gentle, yet direct teaching style. “CCF is fortunate to have him as one of our very close friends. Besides developing the new teacher’s guide, he has helped U.S. teachers here in Namibia learn about the value of the work being done at CCF to assist the survival of the cheetah,” she says. “At the same time, he is assisting livelihoods in rural Namibia through maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Ron teaches science in such a fun way that anyone and everyone gets excited.”
Back to that transformational visit to Los Angeles. When Gray saw the work his friend was doing there with Teach for America, he knew he had to get involved. Before he knew it, he was getting an emergency teaching credential — and his own middle school class in the inner city.
“I wanted to see more of the world, and you can see a lot of the world in South Central,” Gray says. That included rampant gang activity, a sweltering classroom where he couldn’t open the blinds for fear of drive-by shootings, and a school building that cleared out at 4 p.m. because it wasn’t safe to be there after dark.
Gray soon realized teaching was his true calling so, abandoning thoughts of medical school, he enrolled in Willamette’s 10-month master of arts in teaching program. He thought he wanted to teach high school, but when a position opened up at Waldo Middle School, he took it. Waldo gave him the chance to teach students like those he had met in L.A. — poor, diverse, struggling to succeed. “This is the type of kids I like to teach. They’re more real. It’s challenging, and you take on more roles. You’re a counselor and a teacher.”
Gray used his experiences in Namibia to develop classroom lessons on conservation, and he often shared his many photos of Africa with his students. “He’s able to bring the lessons alive with his knowledge and firsthand experience with the animals and people of Africa. It really gets the kids interested in the subject matter,” Waldo Principal Joe LaFountaine says. “Waldo has a very service-oriented student body. Ron brings Africa into the classroom to help the students understand there’s another entirely separate continent and way of life that exists here in our world. He helps them understand what their role might be in that world.”
Gray seeks that same understanding for himself. The lesson on symbiosis was one of his last for awhile. He is taking time off to pursue a doctorate in science education, looking for new challenges, he says. But Gray knows he’ll return to education in some way — perhaps in another middle school helping the pre-teens who have captured his heart. “Most people are scared of teaching middle school,” he says. “It takes some humility, but it’s a great age to teach. I’ll really miss these kids.” Big cats aside, Gray’s teaching experience illustrates a more personal symbiosis — between the teacher who wants to make a difference in the world and the young students who rely on him to succeed.
These facts were collected from the Cheetah Conservation Fund. For more, go to www.cheetah.org.