THE END

KAREN AERTS

1969-2007 She lived with spina bifida and a love for animals, especially the cheetah cubs at a zoo in Belgium

NANCY MACDONALD March 12 2007
THE END

KAREN AERTS

1969-2007 She lived with spina bifida and a love for animals, especially the cheetah cubs at a zoo in Belgium

NANCY MACDONALD March 12 2007

KAREN AERTS

1969-2007 She lived with spina bifida and a love for animals, especially the cheetah cubs at a zoo in Belgium

THE END

Karen Aerts was born on Dec. 1, 1969, in Geel, a small town in Belgium's Dutch-speaking, northernmost province of Antwerp. She was the only child of Lisette Aerts, an accountant, and Willy Aerts, a high-school principal, and raised in Mol, 50 km northeast of Brussels, the Belgian capital.

“Karen didn’t have an easy childhood,” says her friend Renate Kerkhofs. She was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect that left her spine malformed. Doctors believed Karen would never walk. She did, after repeated surgeries to her spinal cord, although she could not move quickly, or with ease. Then, at 18, while still a student at St. Dimpnalyceum School, where her father was principal, Karen was hit by a motorcycle. Although she recovered, the accident left her more incapacitated. Still, she was optimistic and selfreliant, and rarely spoke about her disability, even to Renate, her closest friend. “She wasn’t the complaining kind of person,” Renate says, and “never asked for help, unless she really didn’t have any other choice.”

At 21, Karen enrolled in the Sint-Maria Institute in Antwerp.

For two years, she lived in the institute’s student residences, and studied graphic design. After graduating in 1992, she took night courses to further specialize, through the state-run Flemish Public Employment Service. After a six-month stint working in Lon-

don with Salamander Books, Karen returned to Belgium and took a job in digital media. A full-time schedule, however, proved too strenuous. Since 1997, Karen worked part-time, in the mornings, for RG Visualia, a publishing house in the city of Antwerp, where, in 1998, she bought a cozy, first-floor apartment in the rough neighbourhood that surrounds the train station.

After breaking off a long-term relationship in 1992, Karen remained single, yet she was rarely alone. Of her friends, Karen was closest to Renate, whom she had met at college. Renate remembers standing in a Sint-Maria doorway, before her first class began. She felt like running home. “I was kind of a grunge type, and to me, everybody in the class looked the same: very good and sweet, not the kind of people that would try anything off the beaten track in life.” Then she saw Karen. An art-school eccentric, Renate says Karen differed from her peers, in her opinions and her behaviour. “We weren’t the

‘get married and have babies’ kind of girls,” Renate says. Karen dressed all in black, had a tattoo and a nose ring, and was crazy about British new wave musician Adam Ant, whom she saw perform twice, while living in the U.K.

Since childhood, Karen also had a deep love for animals, and shared her Antwerp apartment with chinchillas, and several cats and dogs. The first animal she adopted was a black kitten. “She was

walking down the street in Antwerp,” says Renate, “when she saw a sad-looking kitten all by himself in a pet shop. She couldn’t resist, and bought him. But she felt a bit betrayed: the next day another kitten was sitting alone in the same cage.”

For several years, Karen was a regular visitor to the Olmense Zoo, in the nearby municipality of Balen, where she hoped to become a volunteer guide. Karen started visiting Olmense more frequently in the summer of2005 when a litter of five cheetah cubs was born. Of the cubs, Karen’s favourite was a male named Fabo. “She was crazy about Fabo,” says Renate. The cub would lean his head on Karen’s lap or run in circles around her legs. Once, Karen fell asleep in Fabo’s cage, which the zoo staff permitted her to enter.

Six months ago, Karen called Renate in a panic to tell her the Olmense Zoo planned to sell Fabo to an institution in France. Karen

decided to adopt Fabo under a zoo program, and paid the equivalent of $12,000 to cover his food and medical care. “It was worth the money,” Renate says. “After all, she would enjoy his company for years.” Two weeks later, however, Fabo died. Karen continued visiting Fabo’s siblings every Sunday, and eventually grew close to a male named Bongo.

On Sunday, Feb. 11, Karen was sitting in the cafeteria with several volunteers after the zoo had closed to visitors at 6 p.m. Leaving the group, Karen entered the cheetah enclosure alone, and was mauled to death there by Bongo, one of two cats inside. It is not known what, if anything, triggered his attack. Although they are social, male cheetahs are territorial and Bongo is nearing sexual maturity. He will not be euthanized. “Karen loved animals,” said zoo spokesman Jan Libot. “Unfortunately, the cheetahs betrayed her trust.”

BY NANCY MACDONALD