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Big Cats Q&A With Super Skier Anna Fenninger

There are very few ways a human being, without the aid of machines, can get itself to move faster than a sprinting cheetah. Downhill skiing is one of them. Something about the thrill of that untamed speed, as well as a love for her own house cat, got 2014 Olympic Women’s Super-G gold medalist Anna Fenninger dedicated...

Anna Fenninger’s 2014 calendar photo shoot with rescued cheetahs helped raise money and awareness for the Cheetah Conservation Fund. (Photo by Kampa/Kettner)

There are very few ways a human being, without the aid of machines, can get itself to move faster than a sprinting cheetah.

Downhill skiing is one of them.

Something about the thrill of that untamed speed, as well as a love for her own house cat, got 2014 Olympic Women’s Super-G gold medalist Anna Fenninger dedicated to helping big cats survive in the wild. Her work began in earnest when she became the European Ambassador for the Cheetah Conservation Fund and wore a cheetah-print helmet in Sochi to help raise awareness of the cats’ plight.

Now, Anna is expanding her efforts to help protect other big cats well. As a big cat champion for National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, Anna is taking on the challenge of the Build a Boma project to help protect lions by supporting the construction of fortified fences that keep them from preying on livestock. When lions don’t strike their herds, villagers don’t kill lions in retaliation.

As she prepares for 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Vail, Colorado, Anna took some time to talk to us about her connection with big cats, and what we can all do to feel that connection and help out.

What is it about moving fast that seems to draw athletes close to animals?

I believe it is the passion for speed that connects us. All of us are highly trained individuals who develop very specific skills in order to be as fast as possible. This on the other hand makes us very vulnerable.

How does that connection between high speed and vulnerability work in your mind?

Every second counts, no matter if you are racing or chasing prey. Whenever you come close to your personal limit, you are vulnerable.

(Photo by Mirja Geh)
“Every second counts,” Anna says of the need for speed, “no matter if you are racing or chasing prey.” (Photo by Mirja Geh)

Why did you get involved with the Big Cats Initiative?

For me personally it was the next logical step. I have put my efforts into the protection of cheetahs for the past few years. The more and more I got involved and talked with people from wildlife conservation the more I saw the need to protect all big cats, since most of them are severely threatened with extinction.

It must be possible that future generations can live in peaceful coexistence with big cats and this [Build a Boma] program is crucial to ensure there will be big cats in their natural habitats in the future.

Secondly it is an honor to become part of the National Geographic family.

What were your thoughts when you finally came into contact with a live cheetah up close?

During the CCF photo shoot I was close—very close—to the [CCF’s rescued and rehabilitated] cheetahs and since they are quite curious they sometimes touched or nudged me.

The feeling was indescribable. These gorgeous but wild animals so close … I felt respect and admired their grace. Sometimes I was a little bit tense, especially when sitting below them or if several cheetahs were very close to me, but I relaxed, just breathed normally and tried to enjoy the moment. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

(Photo by Kampa/Kettner)
Being with the CCF’s ambassador cheetahs could get tense, so Anna says she “just breathed normally and tried to enjoy the moment.” (Photo by Kampa/Kettner)

What do you think people can do to feel more connected to wildlife?

I know that for some people it is difficult to afford, but the ultimate way to learn about the big cats and to get connected to wildlife is to travel to their natural habitats. Seeing a lion, the king of the savanna, a strolling leopard, or a chasing cheetah is so impressive that you will never again lose the connection to wildlife.

What can people do to help out?

First of all people should inform themselves. Then raising awareness is a very important thing, especially among your family and friends. I participate in National Geographic’s Build a Boma campaign to encourage other people to do so as well. Again raising awareness and collecting even small funds is extremely helpful if done from a lot of people at the same time. So start your own Build a Boma campaign right now and become part of my team.

(Photo by GEPA pictures/ Christian Walgram)
Anna’s runs at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi brought her a gold and a silver medal, while her cheetah-print helmet and well-timed comments brought attention to the plight of cheetahs in the wild. Now she widens her efforts to protect other big cats as well through National Geographic’s Build a Boma program. (Photo by GEPA pictures/ Christian Walgram)

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at