Bakka is a male South African cheetah and Miley is his female husky-mix domestic dog companion. This unique pair lives at Backstage Pass at the San Diego Zoo. Bakka is only a year old but has many adventures under his collar already. He began life in South Africa, where he was hand raised for the purpose of becoming an animal ambassador in the name of conservation. At six months of age, he flew to America, where he lived on a ranch in Northern California. His incredibly friendly demeanor made him a great candidate for employment at our Zoo, and after a successful interview, he became a member of our animals stars at the Zoo’s Backstage Pass program. But in order to keep him company, we needed to find him a suitable roommate. Why not a dog? Seriously, why not?
Most dogs are brave, smart, and, more importantly, very friendly with people. But not just any dog would do. We needed one with personality, composure, and pizzazz. A simple test was given to auditioners: walk them by barking dogs and watch to see how they react. If they ignore the commotion with grace and style, they pass. If they engage in it, then they probably aren’t what we were looking for. Miley scored a “10” in all categories.
Now I’m sure you are wondering: How were we going to introduce a one-year-old exotic male cheetah to a 2-year-old female domestic dog? Won’t he look at her as if she’s his next meal? We are trained professionals, so don’t try this at home! The San Diego Zoo has always paired dogs with cheetahs (see The Cheetah and the Golden Retriever). In the beginning, we kept these animals in enclosures that were next to each other, and we allowed contact between the two while they were with one of their trainers, leashes and collars in tow. We encouraged relaxed, calm behavior. We gradually moved to allowing the dog off leash and encouraged relaxed, calm behavior.
You are now probably wondering who will be the leader in this odd coupling? If you chose the dog, you are absolutely right. So when Miley took the lead, in fact took the leash that was attached to Bakka the cheetah in her mouth and began walking him around the pen, we all applauded and laughed. Miley certainly had pizzazz! Today, if you happen to peek over the hedge at Backstage Pass or even better, purchase a ticket to enjoy this 1½-hour animal encounter, you will see Miley and Bakka working and walking together. Job well done, you two!
Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read about another animal member of the Backstage Pass team, Sicilian Donkey Sophia.