Wild Life

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From his basement in Denver’s Central Park neighborhood — in between being dad to two little boys and working on a master’s in counseling at Regis — Tim Spalla saves cheetahs.

He does this — does all three, really — with the passion and intensity he once brought to untangling terror networks. In fact, rescuing infant cheetahs from international wildlife smugglers requires many of the same skills he honed as an Army Ranger and counter-terrorism intelligence specialist.

So deep is his commitment to saving wildlife that it took the birth of his second child to convince him to spend more time at home than hunting bad guys thousands of miles away.

When his first son, Harrison, was born six years ago, Spalla was thrilled. But he wasn’t ready to change his wandering ways. “I missed most of Harry’s first two years living in a stick hut in Africa.”

It took son Teddy’s arrival in 2018 to ground Spalla at home. “I held him in the delivery room, and it hit me: ‘My place is with these boys.’ I didn’t get the message the first time around, but I got it the second time.” Spalla said his wife, Ashley, is grateful that he did.

“I had to find a way to make a difference overseas and not sacrifice my kids getting to have a dad.”

He found that, and in the process, might also have found a way to preserve some of the planet’s most majestic species so they’ll be around when Harry and Teddy are grown.

With his business partner, Tomas Maule, he created the Horn of Africa Conservation Alliance (HOACA) in 2015. The organization, which the National Geographic Society has supported since 2019, is dedicated to rescuing trafficked wildlife and disrupting their illegal sales.

The work starts on the ground where the wildlife poaching begins. Then investigators work their way up the chain, following poachers, seeing where money changes hands, learning where and how the contraband moves from place to place, and eventually discovering the ultimate destination.

Tim Spalla

It’s a lot like what Spalla did in pursuit of the militant Islamist terror group al Shabab, or in tracking Joseph Kony, the Ugandan terrorist who led the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The difference is that now he oversees the tracking operations from his basement.

It was Army intelligence work that first introduced Spalla to wildlife trafficking networks. Tracking the movement of elephant herds offered clues about the LRA’s movements and whereabouts because the group was poaching elephants, in part for their meat, in part to sell ivory to finance their terror activities. He credits his sister, Jess Spalla, who has devoted her career to caring for animals, with instilling in him the compassion that drove him to want to do something about it.

HOACA’s focus now is on disrupting the pipeline that takes infant cheetahs from the Horn of Africa, particularly in Somaliland, across the Gulf of Aden and into Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where they are prized “luxury items.” Cheetah trafficking, as chronicled in the National Geographic Magazine’s September issue, is a large and growing problem in the region.

The government of Somaliland — an unrecognized independent, state within Somalia — has been particularly aggressive in fighting the trade, but it is ineligible for foreign assistance.

“They are incredibly beautiful animals,” Spalla said, adding that is likely why they have become status symbols among the stratospherically rich.

They also have, wrongly, gained a reputation for being tame, said Patricia Tricorache, who has spent more than 15 years working with groups such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund. “They do become habituated more easily and by instinct they prefer flight to fight,” said Tricorache, the illegal wildlife tracking assistant at Colorado State University’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory (NREL).

International cheetah trade has been banned since 1975. Nevertheless, at least 3,600 live cheetahs were sold between 2010 and 2019, according to a study Tricorache published this year.

Tricorache and Spalla agree that fighting corruption and endemic poverty in African countries is keyto saving cheetahs. A farmer might sell one cub for $50 to $100. “If you sell three cubs, that will feed a family of four for a long time. It’s about six months’ pay,” Tricorache said. The same cubs sold as pets can fetch thousands — if they survive being transported to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Typically, an entire litter of cheetah cubs is taken, often while the mother is out hunting. Tricorache estimates that for every 10 cubs taken, seven will not survive the journey.

Working with local populations is crucial to HOACA’s mission, Spalla said. He and Maule have no intention of imposing their wildlife protection will on Somalilanders. “We recruit within the country, and we go in with the philosophy that we’re not going to solve anybody’s issue for them. It has to be grass roots and we have to leverage local government resources.”

That’s not only the right thing to do, it’s pragmatic, because saving cheetahs requires buy-in from those who share the animals’ turf. “We meet them where they are, not where we envision they should be,” Spalla said. “Then we do the education: ‘This is what we see going on and this is how we see it connecting to your livelihood and this is the difference we can make if you’re willing to work with us.’”

The world’s fastest land mammal has not been able to out run human predators; cheetahs have vanished from more than 90 percent of their original habitat. Because so many of the animals live in areas wracked by violence, it is difficult to get a true count of cheetahs in the wild. Official estimates put the number around 7,000 and the species is officially listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, based on more recent surveys, conservation groups are calling for cheetahs to be declared endangered.

Even if they weren’t a favorite of poachers, thriving wouldn’t be easy for cheetahs. The Horn of Africa faces environmental degradation, and the feline carnivores have a habit of killing sheep, which makes them a target of shepherds trying
 to protect their livelihood. Although the Somaliland government has committed to helping to protect wildlife, the country is contending with “climate change, a post-conflict economy and social issues, and there is not a lot of hope for these animals,” Spalla said.

But there has been progress, Tricorache said, noting that some countries in the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, have officially banned private cheetah ownership.

The first stop along the road that took Spalla from the Iowa dairy farm where he grew up to the Horn of Africa, and ultimately to Denver, was the University of Northern Iowa, where he earned degrees in history, anthropology and international relations.

As an undergraduate, he watched the United States military invade Baghdad, knowing an older brother was part of that operation. “It broke my heart that there was nothing I could do to protect him,” Spalla said.

The one thing he could do, he figured, was join the Army, too. So, “pumped up on bravado and patriotism,” he found a recruiting office and signed up.

By 2006, he was an Army Ranger, working in intelligence, conducting everything from battlefield interrogations to forensic evidence collection, to discover not just the identities of those who planted bombs but to track down those who gave the orders for terrorist acts, and those who financed them.

Saving wildlife has another feature in common with stopping terrorism: Both are longshots. But Spalla feels he has to try.

“I do it for my kids. I spent 10 years in Africa and saw these beautiful, powerful creatures.” If someone doesn’t take action, he said, “A lot of them will disappear and my kids won’t have a chance to see them.”

Saving an entire species and being a stay-at-home dad to two young boys would be more than enough to pack into a day for most people. But somehow Spalla works in earning a master’s degree. “I never had a therapist at the (Veterans Affairs) who was a combat veteran. There are a lot of amazing therapists, but nobody who knew what it was like to be there. As people who’ve been in [combat], we pick up on that disconnect between us and them.”

Spalla said bridging that disconnect is nothing short of a calling. This semester, he began an internship working with troubled inmates at the Denver County Jail. After he finishes his master’s at Regis this year, the plan is to begin work on a doctorate in trauma-specific therapy.

Spalla and his family lived in North Carolina when he and business partner Maule first created HOACA. “We built a big operations center and ran it from the house. I was rocking the kid with one hand and working on the computer with the other.” That is, when he was home.

Back then, he still traveled to Africa frequently. “We did some highly visible projects in Kenya with rhinos and elephant poaching in Mozambique.”

When Teddy was born in 2018 and Spalla was determined to run his wildlife-saving operation from home, he decided it also was time to pursue the advanced degrees that would launch his counseling career. As a neonatal intensive care nurse, his wife Ashley could work anywhere. So, the couple decided they wanted to live and raise their kids in Denver, and Spalla applied to graduate programs here.

“I am so fortunate that Regis was the only place that took me. I ended up exactly where I needed to be. I cannot imagine a better program; my professors have changed my life,” he said.

A lot of people may fantasize about thwarting terrorism. Or saving wildlife. Or healing trauma’s wounds. Few people actually make the leap from imagining to doing any of those things.

Spalla isn’t sure what it is in his DNA or his wiring that propelled him to tackle all three. “I seem to find problems that seem impossible to solve and then just throw myself at them. I do fail, I fail all the time. But I’ve always felt my calling in this life is to find the hard problems and do something about it. That is the example I want to set for my kids.”

The work helps him heal as well. “There is a lot of difficult stuff I carry with me on a daily basis. The act of trying to make the world a better place helps me sleep at night.”