When the Admiral Van Heenshirt docked in England in 1936, she held more than one surprise for the men who unloaded her cargo. Exotic produce and spices were common aboard the merchant ship, which had traded between East Africa and England for close to a hundred years, but live animals were considerably rarer. What’s more, the manifest had grown since beginning their latest journey: a captured bongo antelope headed for the London Zoo had turned out to be pregnant, and given birth during the weeks at sea. The newborn was named “Heenshirt” in honor of the crew, and London newspapers celebrated mother and calf as the first bongo specimens to reach the country alive.

The bigger surprise, however, didn’t make the papers—at least, not at first. Tucked in the cargo hold were several giant crates made of teak wood, whose contents could only be inferred from the occasional predatory growl passing through the air holes. The animals’ escort and caretaker, a teenage boy named Ali, had never been to Europe and spoke only Swahili. But he somehow managed to send word of their arrival to his patron, who had taken the faster route home by plane several weeks earlier. Soon, a caravan of rented furniture trucks arrived to carry them inland. Unlike the bongos, these crated beasts were not headed for the zoo.

Hackbridge Quarantine
Hackbridge Quarantine

At 4:00 a.m., just days before New Year’s Eve, the trucks arrived at Hackbridge Kennels, one of several facilities run by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Though originally intended for strays, public animal shelters had seen significant expansion during World War I as soldiers left their dogs behind to go fight on the front. Thousands of these cynophilic soldiers then returned with foreign dogs they’d rescued from the battlefield, sparking a second boom in the construction of individually walled quarantine facilities alongside the larger, shared kennels. Six months later, the surge passed, leaving a canine ghost town perfect for Ali and his wild cargo.

Howard Sumpter, the veterinary surgeon and kennel manager at Hackbridge, had been told what to expect, though not why. Still, he was as awed as anyone when staff pried open the crates to reveal no fewer than 12 graceful, snarling specimens of Acinonyx jubatus—more commonly known as cheetahs. Each was about 5 feet long, not including the tail, and 2.5 feet tall at the shoulder. Fortunately for the kennel staff, country-mouse Ali found the urban bustle to be far more frightening than the cheetahs, and he gently guided the prowling cats past his trembling city-mouse counterparts and into their enclosures. Then he went to sleep. Answers, it seemed, would have to wait until morning.

The man responsible for the whole affair, playboy adventurer Kenneth Cecil Gandar-Dower, arrived several hours later with the cheetahs’ new trainer, Hooku, in tow. Standing beside one another, their friendship looked like a classic brains-and-brawn pairing: Gandar-Dower was fit but somewhat petite, while Hooku was “a giant of a man,” according to Sumpter, known for chasing down cheetahs on horseback in his native Kenya. To Sumpter’s bafflement, the legendary animal wrangler—who sometimes went by the Westernized name Raymond Hook—claimed that, once captured, cheetahs could be trained to hunt for sport, or tied up with nothing more than a shoelace and kept as pets.

Gandar-Dower, on the other hand, saw more than utility and companionship in the cheetahs’ spots. He saw opportunity. Like the bongo he’d procured for the London Zoo, exotic animals appreciated in value the farther they traveled from home, and trainable exotic animals even more so. The cheetahs were so receptive to commands, Gandar-Dower declared, that Maharajas in India held formal cheetah races for entertainment—and now, he intended to bring this “most modern of modern sports” to England.

Gandar-Dower with Pongo
Gandar-Dower with Pongo

Gandar-Dower’s herd (with the proper term of venery, “a coalition of cheetahs,” applying only to males) would frequently be hailed in the coming years as the first to set foot in Britain, but that wasn’t actually true. Records indicate that Italian and French nobility routinely kept cheetahs as early as the 13th century, and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II even included them in his wedding procession. Precisely which English aristocrat first picked up the trend is unclear, but at the very least, the Duke of Cumberland is known to have imported two “tigers” in 1764, which contemporary descriptions reveal as cheetahs, though Western biologists wouldn’t formally acknowledge the species for another 12 years. Like any blueblood with a status symbol, Cumberland wanted to flaunt his new pets, so he raised a 15-foot net around Windsor Park and set one loose to hunt a stag. But when the antlers proved too formidable for the wild cat, it leapt over the netting and through the startled crowd to find easier prey in the forest. This incident, plus another in which a real tiger escaped Cumberland’s grounds and killed a young boy, largely put a stop to exotic pets among English nobility—until Gandar-Dower decided it was time to have another go.

Though not traditional nobility, Gandar-Dower’s father was “of independent means,” as the saying went, and his son certainly played the part. After graduating from the exclusive Harrow boarding school in 1927, Gandar-Dower spent much of his time at Cambridge University earning athletic distinctions in everything from tennis to rugby. Sports competitions remained his primary focus as a young adult, interrupted only by jaunts on his personal plane to India and Africa. The former destination provided bragging rights, as he was the first person ever to fly the route solo, but the latter was where he found his passion. Soon, he was funding his expeditions with bestselling travelogues in which he described himself as “a Big Game hunter in embryo,” mapping the cliffs of active volcanoes and documenting his effort to find the (ultimately elusive) marozi, a predatory cat that African locals claimed was distinct from other species. In his introduction to The Spotted Lion, he wrote:

“To me poetry is preferably the poetry of escape, and what I really like best of all, when I am brave enough to admit it, is to dream I am standing before the lost altar of a dying god amid crumbled, forgotten temples—to be buried several storeys deep in cheap melodrama, as it were… In the jungles of these islands there should roam not Mae West, not even Marlene Dietrich, but some particularly woolly guardian monster, primordialling juicily to its heart’s content.”

He also noted that explorers should never write books lest they ruin the magic of the unknown.

Gandar-Dower with greyhounds and cheetahs
Gandar-Dower with greyhounds and cheetahs

With the ample quarantine space at Hackbridge Kennels, Hooku and Gandar-Dower began training the cheetahs immediately. They built a 100-yard track along the length of the compound, and hoisted an old Fiat car at the finish line with a specialized drum attached to the back wheels. From it they spooled out a long cable with a dead rabbit at the end, allowing the engine to pull the bait away at increasing speeds until the cheetahs would reliably chase after it.

Before long, word of their activities got out, and Gandar-Dower found himself at the center of an unexpected controversy. On February 4, 1937, Labour politician Sir Frederick Messer raised an official inquiry in Parliament over the rumor that Gandar-Dower would be “coursing with live game,” and asked the Home Secretary to prohibit “this new form of cruelty.” (With typical dry English wit, another Member of Parliament asked if the right honourable gentleman was aware that “cheaters” were already a feature on most racing tracks.) Messer didn’t specify whether his concern lay with the death of the rabbit or the treatment of the cheetahs, though neither complaint seemed entirely appropriate to the venue. Live game was already prohibited in greyhound racing, and was not exactly a “new form” of cruelty. Moreover, the import of exotic animals was not under the Home Secretary’s jurisdiction. But public perception didn’t hinge on such technicalities. A week after newspapers reported on the testy parliamentary hearing, Gandar-Dower arrived at the kennels to discover two of his cheetahs inexplicably dead inside their locked paddocks.

Suspicions ran high, and an autopsy was performed. “There is no question of malicious poisoning,” Gandar-Dower reported afterward, perhaps aware that his wording could be interpreted multiple ways. “The cheetahs had been fed on rabbits, and from post mortem it appears that certain of these rabbits had not been as fresh as I had been led to suppose. Steps have now been taken to ensure an even fresher food supply. My plans with regard to the cheetahs are not definite at the moment. Any plans will, of course, be within the law, and there will be no question of cruelty to any animal.” Whether he had ongoing doubts about the matter—or facts from the private autopsy that he preferred not to share—can never be known, but it is perhaps telling that Gandar-Dower voluntarily reiterated his humane policies in every interview he gave for the next nine months.

Sir Frederick Messer
Sir Frederick Messer

In late June of 1937, the ten remaining cheetahs completed their quarantine, and began training on the greyhound tracks at Harringay Stadium. Still looking for support among the political class, Gandar-Dower invited Air Commodore Alfred Critchley, a former Conservative member of Parliament and founder of the Greyhound Racing Association, to participate in the closed proceedings. Many people at the time still believed greyhounds to be the fastest animal in the world, so he also invited a handful of reporters to measure their speed and generate positive publicity. The journalists confirmed for their readers an acceleration of standstill to 50 miles per hour in just 2 seconds, as well as the generally docile nature of the cats. “Even a full-grown cheetah, properly trained, can be relied upon not to turn savage suddenly,” Gandar-Dower was quoted as saying. “A cheetah trained from a cub becomes as tame and affectionate as a dog.”

This was only a slight overgeneralization, but a risky one. Around this same time, a cat named Sita badly slashed Hooku’s new assistant trainer on his first day of work, according to the veterinarian Howard Sumpter. “The speed of the strike is such that one doesn’t see the leg move,” Sumpter said, “only the flurry of dust as the leg returns to the ground.” He also recalled a trip to a televised interview—one of the earliest in existence, as the BBC had only launched its television service in 1936—in which the cheetahs nearly escaped from their covered trailer in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. The prospect of wild cats loose in a crowded town square was apparently so distressing that Sumpter and Ali spent the rest of the ride lying flat atop the moving vehicle, holding the roof down with their body weight. Another trainer admitted only decades later that, at some point, two of the cheetahs had to be shot after brutally attacking a handler.

But the assertions of domesticity did hold mostly true, and onlookers generally described the behavior of the cheetahs as indifference with a crafty streak. The rabbit attached to the electric hare was always killed in advance, as Gandar-Dower had promised, but had to be extremely fresh to entice the cheetahs. If another cheetah looked likely to win, they gave up quickly, but if the bait went past a turn without a pursuer, the cheetahs were clever enough to cut across the middle of the track. In December of that year, the cheetahs raced for the first time against greyhounds in front of a packed crowd at Romford Stadium, and seemed completely unperturbed by dogs, humans, and even large camera flashbulbs, save for a few domineering swats at a greyhound who got too feisty. Pongo, the tamest of the cheetahs, even allowed children to reach down from the stands and pet him, though another named Helen reportedly spat at a race announcer who tried the same.

Pongo with children
Pongo with children

Gandar-Dower was careful to remind audiences that his show was a “spectacle,” not a circus act. “The performing animal is made to carry out unexpected or amusing actions to which it is not naturally suited,” he explained. “The cheetahs do no tricks; they are simply and naturally themselves.” If the cheetahs didn’t want to run, they simply didn’t—and even when they did, each tired out after only a few hundred yards. In her first race at Romford, Helen covered 265 yards in 15.86 seconds, easily surpassing the top recorded greyhound speed of 16.01 seconds. But when the track was extended to 355 yards, another cheetah named Luis failed to break the existing greyhound record. The sprints were unquestionably impressive, but their brevity was what had allowed the cheetahs to be captured and brought to England in the first place.

According to most modern-day retellings, this is where the story ended: a fun idea that didn’t really pan out and was shelved after just one or two attempts. A 2009 book on British historical curiosities claimed that the cheetahs were baited with “a piece of rag,” and “simply wandered around looking for something to eat” instead of racing as encouraged. But newspaper accounts from 1937 tell a different, wholly enthusiastic version of events, and Romford’s stadium managers considered their first two appearances so successful that the cheetahs officially moved into the on-site kennels for future races. Their popularity led one pundit to whimsically predict the end of not only greyhound racing, but Western society at large. “Once admit the cheetah’s superiority over the greyhound, and what is to prevent a return to ancient Egyptian values, which made a dog only a dog, but a cat divine?”

The cheetahs’ sudden disappearance from modern historical accounts most likely stems from the relative disappearance of Gandar-Dower himself, who stepped back from hands-on operations shortly after their first public race—though not before registering a new private company called “Cheetah Racing, Ltd.,” listing himself as permanent director and offering capital of £200 (roughly $17,600 in 2018) in £1 shares. Gandar-Dower’s personal narrative had played a large role in the cheetahs’ marketing up to this point, and perhaps historians found a wistful denouement easier than dressing Indiana Jones in a business suit. But for the cheetahs themselves, the adventure had only just begun.

Artist's impression of a race
Artist's impression of a race

Like Gandar-Dower, Hooku was not content with any one thrill for long, and the two men had always planned to find a permanent trainer once the cheetahs were sufficiently settled. Hooku’s assistant, Don Stewart, had improved considerably since his first run-in with Sita’s claws, but the cheetahs made it clear that he was a tolerated nuisance at best. To be fair, this applied to most people, animals, and objects they came across. With eyesight twice as sharp as the average human and a bite force three times as strong, the cheetahs were only as subordinate as they chose to be—consent of the governed was paramount.

But when they did capitulate, it was wholeheartedly. A few months after Stewart began laboriously ingratiating himself with the cheetahs, Gandar-Dower happened to meet a young Australian named Ruby Henderson. Most women of the day were expected to be homemakers, but women like Henderson—smart, confident, and relatively wealthy—were often encouraged to earn a formal education and spend time traveling abroad, if only to find a higher class of husband to settle down with. Henderson liked dogs but had a particular loathing for cats, which may have been the conversation starter that inspired Gandar-Dower to prove her wrong. He took her on a tour of the kennels, and the cheetahs immediately swarmed her with nuzzling and purring. Both Gandar-Dower and Hooku had heard rumors that cheetahs preferred women, but neither had ever tested the theory.

Henderson, for her part, was equally smitten. She cancelled the American leg of her trip, rented a flat in London, and told her parents not to expect her back at her father’s accounting firm: she was going to be a professional cheetah trainer.

Ruby Henderson
Ruby Henderson

By the time the cheetahs raced at Romford, Henderson was firmly in charge of the show, though British news sources only mentioned the cheetahs’ “woman trainer” in passing, if at all. Australian reporters saw things differently, and the daily paper of record in Melbourne, The Argus, ran a two-page profile on Henderson more than a week before the cheetahs’ official debut:

“The cheetahs begin work with Miss Henderson about 11 o’clock every morning. They are let out of their kennels then, their collars are put on, and they are brushed and combed. Then they get some chopped raw beef, which is their first meal for the day, followed by bits of rabbit whenever they finish a piece of work. Often an inspector from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals goes down to Staines. On his last visit cheetahs and greyhounds were all together in one big paddock. Miss Henderson was rather pleased about the unrehearsed object lesson.”

Another lengthy biography ran in The Adelaide Advertiser a month later:

“Walking into Romford Stadium, where they are accommodated for their first racing season, one is surprised to hear a variety of sounds—the mixed noises of a menagerie. Perhaps, one thinks, cheetahs have monkeys for stable companions, as do racehorses, and even birds. But it is feeding time, and Miss Henderson and Mr. Stewart have come from a table in a far corner, with a small dish of meat. Miss Henderson holds open the trap door of a small wire and wood cage while her companion stands ready to open the door of the sleeping quarters. “Luis, Luis, Luis,” calls the girl, very softly… Each animal changes cages in the same way until all are ready for their meal. And then you find that there are no monkeys, birds, or dogs. That is Maurice giving vent to short barks, while Helen puts up her pretty kitten face to the wire and plaintively mews. Gussie moans quietly to himself, and Michael sadly wails. Pongo is the only one led out on collar and chain, but as feeding time is rather a dangerous time to be within paw-reach, a piece of meat is thrown to him first. When he bounds after it, a wooden tray of his larger portion is flung down, and human hands are hastily withdrawn.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that the British journalists celebrating Gandar-Dower’s audacious enterprise were all men, while the Australians who acknowledged Henderson’s hands-on care were both women. But none disputed the magnificence of the cheetahs, who continued to perform regularly at Romford and make guest appearances at other stadiums throughout the winter of 1937. In some ways, however, they were too good. A close match provides more drama than a blowout, and watching a cheetah beat a greyhound by 40 yards or more was, perversely, a bit of a letdown. Even giving the greyhounds a head start couldn’t fully erase the nagging sense that the cheetahs were rubbing their opponents’ snouts in it. So in April of 1938, Henderson and Stewart came up with a new opponent for the cheetahs to race: motorcycles.

The stunt they envisioned would be a relatively safe one, since speedway motorcycles in the 1930s could reliably travel 90 miles per hour—well above the cheetahs’ maximum of 70. But not everyone found the numbers so convincing, and there was always the chance that a stalled motor could bring its deliciously meaty operator to a halt mid-race. Legendary speed champion “Bluey” Wilkinson (a nickname traditionally given to redheads in Australia) was one of several who received a telegram asking “Will you race a cheetah for £5?,” to which he quipped in return, “No, I’ll let him have it.” Other rejections quickly followed. These men were no strangers to peril—Wilkinson became world champion that year despite wearing a full-shoulder plaster cast over his recently snapped collarbone—but cheetahs were apparently a bridge too far. No professional racers would agree to participate.

Eric Chitty
Eric Chitty

Undeterred, Don Stewart began practicing for the role himself. His previous job with a traveling carnival had involved motorcycle tricks inside a vertical rotunda known as the Wall of Death, so he knew how to ride, but pure speed was never his forte, and his first attempt at team racing with the Nottingham Wasps several years earlier had been his last. Fortunately, a demonstration was all that was necessary. A middling racer named Eric Chitty—who had only recently returned to the arena from a broken collarbone of his own—watched Stewart with wary interest as he circled the track at West Ham Speedway alongside various cheetahs. Both men were Canadian immigrants, which may have spurred Chitty’s sense of pride, but the more likely motivator was that Chitty’s career was on the bubble. After an initial rejection from the team, consistently moderate performance, and nearly a year off due to injury, he needed the publicity more than the cheetahs did. With just days to go before the race, Stewart finally convinced Chitty that the cheetahs wouldn’t confuse his hide for the rabbit’s, and he agreed to ride in Stewart’s place.

Crowds loved the matchup of beast vs. machine, and Chitty’s confidence increased so much that he went on to win two major speed championships later that year. Not long after, Gandar-Dower used his connections to convince famed BBC announcer John Snagge to deliver live commentary on a series of motorcycle and greyhound races at Harringay in May of 1938. The combined radio and television broadcast reached far outside of London, and the signal boost enabled Henderson and Stewart to take their show on the road. They spent the summer of 1938 touring county fairs and agricultural expos all across the countryside, from Ashby to Warwickshire. (Gandar-Dower, meanwhile, stayed home to compete at Wimbledon, then headed back to Africa for more adventures.) It wasn’t long before the cheetahs were practically old news, with one county circular noting only that “Sheep dog trials and cheetah racing will be special features. It is expected that Gallant Roy, the one-eyed wonder of the sheepdog world, will come from Scotland.”

Societal pressures, on the other hand, didn’t lose their novelty so quickly. After just over a year with her beloved cheetahs, Ruby Henderson became Ruby Fenton, and hung up her collars and leashes in favor of family life. Don Stewart moved on as well, and the cheetahs were sold to a family of animal trainers led by circus veteran Jack Harvey. Once again, whether by human or feline decree, practical care of the cheetahs was put in the hands of a young woman—this time Miss Ellen “Nellie” Harvey, Jack’s 18-year-old daughter.

Nellie Harvey with Pongo
Nellie Harvey with Pongo

Unlike Henderson, Nellie Harvey had been exposed to wild animals practically from birth. At age 5, she was playing with chimpanzees, and by 8 she could playfully wrestle a small bear. As with all trainers, accidents happened—Nellie could count the bad days by the scars covering her arms and legs—but nothing could sour her affection for creatures great and small. The Harveys had also spent generations honing their sense of showmanship, so they renamed the herd the Royal Racing Cheetahs and expanded public appearances outside of the regular racing season. Sometimes they were part of a traveling menagerie, which Nellie would help advertise by parading Pongo around town and even into restaurants on his leash. Other encounters were more intimate, such as when she gave a dramatic oral history (and presumably a detailed description) of her furry companion at a concert for the blind. And instead of simply racing a cheetah alongside a motorcycle for speed, the Harveys somehow convinced daredevil Frank Varey to attach the dead rabbit to the back of his own motorcycle, playing a deadly game of keep-away in front of 30,000 spectators at Belle Vue track in Manchester.

By the summer of 1939, festival season had returned, and the cheetahs were once again booked for a series of provincial races. Some of their audience were adorned with jewels, like the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, but the main crowds began to take on a distinctly khaki monochrome as Britain swelled its military ranks in anticipation of war. The Air Raid Precautions Department had been staffed since 1935 as leaders nervously watched Hitler’s rise to power, and by the end of 1938, almost 700,000 civilians had enrolled. On 25 May 1939, the cheetahs raced before their first adoring crowd of the summer at the Shropshire and West Midland Show; less than 24 hours later, Parliament enacted the Military Training Act of 1939, calling for six months of involuntary conscription for all eligible men ages 20-21. When war was finally declared in September, the Royal Racing Cheetahs were performing at a gig in France, but within a week, Nellie herself was back in England, working in a munitions factory.

Cheetahs with Soldiers at Aldershot Show
Cheetahs with Soldiers at Aldershot Show

Alas, a nation at war had no time for frivolous entertainment, and little patience for animals of any kind. Kennels filled with soldiers’ dogs, just as they had two decades earlier, and zookeepers carried rifles in case bombs damaged the enclosures. During the Blitz, the rifles were replaced by Tommy guns in the hands of soldiers, who preemptively put down hundreds of exotic animals nationwide, most especially big cats and bears. The bongos who originally traveled to England with the cheetahs died of natural causes before the war broke out, which was perhaps the luckier outcome, because those who escaped the initial slaughter often died of starvation or neglect. Untrained workers supplanted anyone strong enough to fight, and food became so scarce that the London Zoo made a public plea for acorns collected off the ground. A lioness and her cubs froze to death in Manchester due to intermittent gas supplies, while a roof fell from lack of maintenance and crushed a giraffe. Sea lions, penguins, and even birds died from stomach ulcers caused by their makeshift diets, and a 1,500-pound bison succumbed to shrapnel wounds. Humans, in the end, proved to be much more dangerous than the beasts they had marveled at.

It’s possible, however, that a few cheetahs dodged fate: only five of them appeared in their last wartime race at White City Speedway in May of 1940, and the rest may have been sold to wealthy individuals. American actress Phyllis Gordon famously acquired a pet cheetah in London in late 1939, as did a foreign noblewoman named Countess Elvira de Flogny, and the timing makes it plausible that one or both were former racing cheetahs. One can even hopefully speculate that some were smuggled into more stable areas of Axis occupation—Jack Harvey always liked to claim that their act was especially popular among Europeans, because German animal trainers were purportedly cowards who used “a long stick in one hand and a chair in the other.” But whether they exited over borders or into the ground, it is a near certainty that none remained in England past 1941.

Of course, the cheetahs’ human acquaintances met with plenty of their own wartime suffering. Both Ruby Henderson’s brother and speedway racer Bluey Wilkinson joined the Royal Australian Air Force, and promptly died in accidents outside of combat. Sir Frederick Messer survived the Blitz, but had to relocate with his fellow MPs after the House of Commons did not. One of the Australians who had written about Henderson, Betty Wilson, ended up reporting directly from the Dachau concentration camp after her news editor declared he was “unable to find any suitable male journalists,” while BBC commentator John Snagge exchanged crowd sizes for casualty numbers in a new program called War Report.

Phyllis Gordon and her pet cheetah
Phyllis Gordon and her pet cheetah

Gandar-Dower, meanwhile, became a war correspondent at British Headquarters in Nairobi, writing lengthy firsthand accounts of the Abyssinian and Madagascar campaigns before Japanese torpedoes sank his unit’s ship near the Maldivian coast. Though he was later listed among the drowned, Gandar-Dower had famously leapt from the deck of an earlier mission with his typewriter in his arms, and a friend in London scoffed at the possibility of his death, saying “he will turn up again as he always does.” Gandar-Dower’s estate eventually oversaw the disposition of his personal plane to a friend and a generous sum of £1,000 to his chauffeur, but it did not include any cheetahs.

As for Nellie, she resurfaced about halfway through the war with a new, scaled-back circus show involving a trained terrier and a single lion named Mushie. The will of the nation couldn’t be sustained forever on patriotism alone, and by 1942, a number of entertainment venues had tentatively re-opened their doors, limping along as best they could without wasting vital resources. London’s many greyhound venues remained almost entirely intact—though an unexploded bomb was excavated at Wembley Stadium as recently as 2015—but no one ever attempted to bring back the spectacle of cheetah racing, even after merchant ships resumed the transport of animals to restock the nation’s zoos. Today’s growing trend against animal exploitation makes buying a ticket to an in-person race even more unlikely in the future, but the vicarious thrill persists: in 2018, the Formula E racing series pitted an electric car against a cheetah as part of their overall message of environmental conservation. Thus, the most modern of modern sports lives on.