A Keeper of Cats

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An adult cheetah strolls the grounds of our off-exhibit cheetah breeding facility.

One of the best things about my job as a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global is that I get to meet the most interesting, committed, hard working animal people around! Case in point: researching an article about cheetahs at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. As it turns out, there are many dimensions to San Diego Zoo Global’s care of these vulnerable cats, and behind-the-scenes breeding programs are vital to the survival of this species.

On a warm, spring morning I met up with Lead Keeper Eileen Neff at the off-exhibit breeding area a few miles east of the Safari Park entrance. Eileen has worked at the Safari Park for 11 years and transferred to this “back area” three years ago. There are six male and eight female cheetahs, each with its own spacious pen; siblings sometimes share a pen. The cheetahs get to change pens frequently, which serves as enrichment while also giving each cat the opportunity to hang out in the “favorite” enclosure that provides the best vantage point of the other cats.

There is also a three-acre pen that has a lure, which the cheetahs happily chase. “We keep the males and females separated so that when they do get together, it’s more ‘fun’ for them,” Eileen explained. “And changing living quarters gives them new scents to explore.” As she talks about the cheetahs, it’s clear Eileen understands her individual charges intimately, down to personality traits and food preferences. “We present their food on a ‘feed pad’ since they typically will not eat meat off the ground if there’s dirt on it. They can be quite finicky at times.”

Notoriously difficult to breed in managed-care settings, researchers are working hard to tease out the “tricks” to successful breeding. For instance, a bioacoustic project found that playing the male stutterbark call to females helps get them in the mood for love. This has been a valuable jump-start to the program. “After the stutterbarks are played, the cats are moved around. If a female likes the male that is investigating her pen, she saunters and swishes by her chosen one,” Eileen explained. “We’ve had 135 cheetah cubs born here over the past few decades, which has been hugely beneficial in loosening up the genetic bottleneck with cheetahs. Collaborative efforts among zoos to move cats around to maximize genetic diversity has really helped the species.”

Listen to a male’s stutterbark [audio:http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/sounds/cheetah_stutterbark.mp3]

Why are some cheetah cubs hand raised? Eileen explained that female cheetahs need to maximize their reproductive potential, so when they just have a single cub, it is not worth their while to invest resources and raise it for two years before they can go into heat again. So females often abandon a singleton and try again for a litter. “Fortunately, the neonate staff here is extremely talented at raising cheetah cubs,” she said. “The hand-raised cubs make excellent cheetah ambassadors, and they often go on to successful breeding. Of course, mother-reared cubs are our preference, but it doesn’t always happen that way.”

When it is suspected that a female cheetah is “due,” the keepers install cameras around her pen in the hopes of capturing the birth on film. They even put a camera inside a shelter resembling a large doghouse, where you’d think a cheetah would want to give birth. Interestingly, the females often have their cubs in the grass. “It’s great that we have this off-exhibit space where it’s quiet, and we can control the environment to some degree so the cats can relax. They feel secure enough to have their cubs in the grass.”

A cheetah came over to the fence where we were standing and rubbed against it, purring loudly. “This cheetah was a singleton and hand raised,” she said. “Mother-raised cheetahs don’t usually purr for keepers like these guys do.” The svelte, spotted cat was rumbling with bliss at the sight of Eileen. “We’re proud of our successful cheetah breeding here and proud to have a cub on grounds, but we always strive for a litter.” As I scribbled that pearl of insight down, the cheetah continued its purr fest, and I’m certain we were all totally loving life at that moment.

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Happy Gorilla Birthday, Frank!

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