Have You Met?

On this unseasonably warm (for Denver) February day, the welcome at the lovely Cherry Hills abode of Marsha and Emmett Duemke was even warmer. The home is a comfortable sanctuary filled with “one-of-a-kind” items, mostly originating from Africa. All pieces have special meaning and are a symbol of Marsha and Emmett’s love of animals and their commitment to protecting them.

Wildlife conservationists, Marsha and Emmett, are wild about each other; and you might want to bet that this devoted couple have pretty much been attached at the hip since their first meeting in South Africa in 1970. They were married in 1973 on St. Patrick’s Day and have been a tour d’force for charitable causes ever since.

In 1999, Marsha discovered the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Center website, and their lives were forever changed. Marsha and Emmett enthusiastically make a yearly pilgrimage to the De Wildt Center in Pretoria, South Africa, and along with the friends they take with them, believe it’s a magical place like no other.

The De Wildt Center, a nonprofit organization, has provided care, support, education, and advocacy to endangered species such as cheetahs, wild dogs, hyenas, birds, and vultures - to name a few. The Duemke’s are dedicated to their partnership with De Wildt and believe they can make a difference in preserving the existence rights of these beautiful creatures and to help keep them around for future generations to see and enjoy.

As Marsha and Emmett talk about their adventures in Africa, you can almost feel as if you are there. The connection we all have to different cultures becomes real, and you are ready to start planning your own trip to this wondrous land.

How did you guys meet? Marsha: In Africa in 1970 on a trip with eight members of my family. Emmett was a single guy and traveling alone, and he kind of buddied up with us. I was near his age, and that’s how it all started.

What is your favorite vacation spot together? Of course, South Africa.

Tell us about your love for cheetahs? Marsha: I actually did research several years ago on cheetahs, because I became more and more interested in them. We’d been to Africa several times, and I’ve been in love with animals, especially big cats, since I was a child. Then, I mainly loved tigers. It’s been cheetahs ever since I’ve been to Africa.

How did discovering the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Center change your life? Marsha: When Emmett gave me a 25th anniversary trip to Africa, I got very interested in why I wasn’t seeing more cheetahs. I found out there weren’t too many of them around. I just fell into it by doing some research on the computer and found a website on De Wildt. They had an adoption program that they had just started, and I was actually the first person in the world to go ahead and adopt a cheetah.

I realized by looking at the map that we go very near the De Wildt Preserve when we go to South Africa, I got a hold of them and went for a tour and we’ve been hooked ever since. We’re personally involved with them and are really good friends with the Director, Vanessa Bouwer. She comes to the United States each year to talk with Cheetah and Wildlife conservationists and she stays a week with us. She loves to go to rodeos and sees the sites here, and we love going to Africa and seeing their beautiful sites. I put a fundraiser together for De Wildt here in Colorado every year.

We’ve been going back to De Wildt every year, and we take friends over with us to see the preserve and the center.

Why are cheetahs becoming endangered? You have to go back into cheetah history. Years and years ago, there was some kind of climactic problem where they got into a bottleneck and only a few cheetahs were left. Just like the Florida Panthers, they have a bottleneck problem where they go into a small population, and there is a lot of inter-breeding, and there are only a few now in the populations. That’s what De Wildt does for endangered animals; they breed them to survive.

De Wildt breeds the endangered cheetahs and puts them back into the wild. The organization collects cheetahs from farmers in the areas who get paid to trap them in trapping cages instead of killing them. There are more male cheetahs obviously than female cheetahs – which is one of the problems. One in five cheetahs is a female, so it’s hard for them to get a breeding population.

What other charitable organizations are you both involved with? Marsha: In addition to De Wildt, we support the Denver Zoo (the cheetahs and African wild dogs), Families First, Harrison Memorial Animal Hospital (I'm on their Board), Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Rocky Mountain MS (Emmett is on their Board), Samaritan Institute (Emmett is on the Board), Children's Hospital, Barbara Davis Diabetes, AMC Cancer Research, American Kidney Foundation, Art Reach (Emmett was previously a Board-member).

Emmett: We both stay involved in different projects for nonprofits. I’m working with the Multiple Sclerosis Society and am on their Board. With MS, there is so much you can do to improve your life with proper nutrition and the right medications these days.

I’m also working with the Samaritan Institute with two new mental health programs: 1) The Lilly Family has given us a tremendous grant to train ministers to do various types of counseling to help families since the government is getting more and more out of mental health. So much is laid on ministers, and they don’t always have the proper training or background to help. Many people only have their clergy to turn to, so the Samaritan Institute is setting up programs for ministers to get trained in mental health and get the proper resources they need. 2) The Samaritan Institute has set up a whole network of counseling in the States. So often you only have assistance available in a major city, and this program will provide help all over the State. Counseling is made available to all different religious groups.

In a world filled with so many causes how can people best decide which ones to support? Marsha: Whatever happens to be their passion. De Wildt happened to fall into my lap with me doing the research on cheetahs and realizing we could get to them; they were accessible. There are a lot of good causes out there; one person can make a difference no matter what they choose to support.

Emmett: We enjoy introducing Africa and De Wildt to as many people as we can – mainly so that it will benefit Africa’s tourism and the people. When you go to Africa, you find that a piece of you is there. Marsha: It’s magic over there, it’s just so beautiful – the big red sunsets, the gorgeous sunrises, wonderful animals, and the people are so friendly and always glad to tell you all about themselves. There are cell phones in use everywhere!

Wow, cell phones in remote parts of Africa? Emmett: Oh yes, there are cells everywhere. When we visit the largest park there, Krueger National Park, we are very seldom out of cell phone range. Our experiences in South Africa and other parts of Southern Africa though have been far superior to many of the poorer parts of Africa. Our minister here has taken on a tremendous challenge in the Congo of feeding the hungry in that area - even with all of the political problems he has to deal with.

What else can we do to help the endangered species of the world? Marsha: There isn’t too much we can do about the habitat because man is living on so much of it, but they are releasing the cheetahs and endangered wild dogs and vultures in new areas where people have given land. There’s about a million acres of free land now for these animals just in South Africa now. Emmett: One of the biggest assistance we can give them is by funding De Wildt’s research. They have gotten some good help from Howard Buffet, son of Warren Buffet.

How can we get young people to care more and be aware of these issues? Marsha: There are education programs that are available to the schools and De Wildt is encouraging schools to raise money from the entire school to adopt a cheetah for the school. You are sent updates on these cheetahs to see how much good you are doing. Emmett: You can also get involved here locally with the Denver Zoo. They have some great programs. We personally have helped them bring in a cheetah and wild dogs that are here now at the zoo. Marsha: Vanessa from De Wildt will be here for the fundraiser on July 22nd and we will have two live cheetahs with us. The event will again be held at the Select Hotel at Parker Road and E-470. Our friends, the Pippin family, own the hotel and have given us some great support, and Vanessa will explain what just a donation of $25 can do for the organization.

What can we do to improve our image in the world? Marsha: We’ve been over to Africa, they love Americans and in many places in Europe, they really do like Americans. Emmett: Our journalists and what they sometimes write-up is one-sided. Many times they only talk about the bad side. In our travels, we haven’t seen the “Ugly American” side as far as foreigners looking at us. They seem to appreciate Americans in many places. Marsha: We love to get out in the villages and talk to the people. They usually are super friendly, and they are not greedy, and they know we are there visiting because we want to be there.

How do you guys complement each other? Marsha: I put up with him; he puts up with me! (Laughter).

What’s a typical day for the both of you? Emmett: We get up, exercise in the morning, work on various projects. Marsha: I’m online doing a lot of emailing to friends here and in Africa helping with our various causes.

What is your favorite place in your house? Marsha: For Emmett, it’s the great room where he watches sports. For me, it’s the living room and my library where I watch all of my programs.

What are your favorite TV shows? Marsha: Lost and anything cheetah oriented, I have them already programmed. Emmett: All the “CSI” shows.

If your house were up for sale and a prospective buyer did a walk-through, what would your home tell them about you? Marsha:That we love animals and Africa!

What is your advice for a happy marriage? Emmett: Compromise. Marsha: No relationship is always 50/50 – it’s 60/40 – 30/70 – 20/80 – 90/10 – it’s going to be back and forth.

If there is a movie about your life, and you get to pick who will play the both of you, who would you pick? Marsha: Since so many people have said that Emmett looks like Bill Clinton, it would have to probably be him. For me, the one person that comes to mind – because she’s a Texan, and I have a cheetah video with her– is Holly Hunter.

You both have done so much; what is something both of you would still like to do? Marsha: I’m still going to stay active in helping with my cheetahs – they will still need our help. We will still keep traveling and helping out; that’s so important.

What would you like to leave behind for future generations? Marsha: My love for cheetahs. My son Earle and I are going to De Wildt and actually work there. My younger son, Neal, is also involved in helping out. I want to put my money where my mouth is – not just raise money – but to go over there and help them. When I have gone there before, I do things with and for them, but it’s not the same thing staying three to four days as going over there for two to three weeks and really getting involved with the cheetahs and working directly with them. That’s what I really want to pass on.