The power and grace of the legendary Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and that of the magnificent cheetah. A strange combination, you say? But yes - it's real. Here's a place that combines them both.
And it's near Jacksonville, Florida? Yes - Oddly enough. How can that be? Read On.
About 45 minutes northwest of Jacksonville across the St. Mary's River into Georgia lies a large tract of land (7400 square acres) currently known as the White Oak Plantation and Conservation Center.
Among the 200 animals living at White Oak are black and white rhino, gerenuk antelopes, babirusa pigs, Addra gazelles, Eastern bongo (type of antelope), giant eland (largest member of the antelope family, Florida panthers, giraffe, maned wolves, and cheetahs. All of these and others of the 20 species here have been housed and studied at White Oak.
So now we have reached the cheetahs of the title. Some animals are occasionally rehabilitated back into the wild depending on the appropriateness, but most are traded to zoos for enriching their gene pools for breeding and conservation purposes. Their most successful work so far has been with the two types of rhinos and the cheetahs.
So how did Mikhail Baryshnikov become involved with cheetah conservation or with White Oak Plantation and Conservation Center? He may be an animal enthusiast or not—that we do not know. But this is what we do know. Howard Gilman, the last of the clan, was a love of all the arts, opera, ballet, sculpture, painting, architecture. In 1982, Howard built a $154 million dollar dance studio for Mikhail who then opened his White Oak Dance Project in that facility. (Paper production must indeed be a lucrative way to make a living!)
The company was a collaboration between Baryshnikov and Mark Morris and many of the world's leading ballet choreographers came to the Project to work on their own ventures, among them Twyla Sharp, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor and David Gordon, among others. Baryshnikov and Mark Morris toured many of their programs from White Oak. And though there is a beautiful performance center there, in general, there were no "shows" open to the public. Baryshnikov opened his Manhattan Dance Foundation in 2004 and since that time has used the White Oak facility infrequently. However, many other dance groups continue to utilize it.
Just as the public is usually not invited to any of the dance functions, it was not until a few years ago that the public could make reservations to visit the Conservation Center. Nowadays, one must call for a reservation in advance which will cost $100.00 per person. Timeliness is required since if one does not arrive at the entry gate at the appointed time, the reservation is cancelled.
So what did we get for our money when we visited the complex in early November 2015? Believe me when I tell you it was well worth our time and treasure but we are both world-class animal lovers as well as ballet enthusiasts! We were toured around the Conservation Center in a small van driven by one of the current researchers and met by others at various animals compounds.
Thus we learned more than I intend to stuff into this piece about all the animals and the work being done with them. One example will have to suffice and it concerns my favorite of the species on site—the beautiful lissome cheetahs.
The work we were introduced to was the project to raise Anatolian Shepherd Dogs to co-exist with cheetahs so that farmers in Southern African countries can use the dogs to protect their flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle from the cheetahs and other predators. When the dogs are trained not to fight the cheetahs but to keep them away from the vulnerable flocks, they are donated to the farmers so they can stop destroying the endangered cheetahs in the wild. So far pilot programs using this plan in Africa have worked splendidly.
The dogs are welcomed into the African homes and provide different kinds of protection for the farmers, their families and their flocks. These are formidable dogs in size: Females are anywhere from 28 to 31 inches at the shoulder and weigh from 88 to 120 lbs. Males stand between 29 and 32 inches and weigh in from 110 to 140 lbs. No wonder the cheetahs would rather play with them than fight them!
The rest of our tour consisted of getting to check out the huge conference center, dance studio with its dressing rooms, practice areas and performance stage, and closer looks at the bungalows that provide accommodations for guests who stay overnight. When we asked how much a night would cost we quickly realized that if you have to ask you probably don't want to try to engage one for any length of time.
This was a wonderful visit and it was such a treat to learn about this wonderful world famous facility right in our own backyard.