Breaking the Cheetah Curse – Part II

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This is the second part of a three-piece feature on the idiosyncrasies of the cheetah–and the myriad struggles zoos face when attempting to mate these majestic felines in captivity. Part One is here; the final installment will be posted tomorrow.

Cheetahs exude elegance. With a more slender frame than lions and tigers, the sleek hunters are built to run fast—70 miles per hour fast—and look good doing it. Prized for their beauty and hunting prowess, owning cheetahs was a symbol of wealth and power in places like Egypt, India, and China. Records of collecting cheetahs date back to 3000 BC. But even back then mating cheetahs was recognized as a near impossible task.

The first record of a successful cheetah mating in captivity did not occur until the 1600s at the home of ostentatious cheetah collector Akbar the Great. A famous Indian mogul, he was purported to have owned over 1,000 cheetahs and used them as hunting companions. The second instance occurred around 300 years later at the Philadelphia Zoo in 1957. Both matings were “accidental.”

Photo by Janice Sveda, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Admittedly historical cheetah collectors and zoos were not trying too hard to mate cheetahs, as wild cheetahs were seemingly abundant and easily obtainable. This relaxed breeding attitude made its own small dent in wild populations: Between 1829, when the first known cheetah was showcased in a zoo, and 1994, over 1,567 wild-caught cheetahs were transferred to some 373 facilities. Until the 1960s, most of those captive cats died within a year.

Everything changed in 1973. The United States passed the Endangered Species Act, the result of an international agreement to protect animals in danger of extinction like the cheetah. This move effectively ended the commercial cat trade overnight, says Steve Bircher, curator of mammals and carnivores at the St. Louis Zoo and director for the Center for Cheetah Conservation in Africa. Cheetahs could still travel across borders for research purposes, but the process was heavily regulated by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Most wild-caught cheetahs exported to zoos around the world came from Namibia. As a result, the wild populations there plummeted. When the Endangered Species Act was passed, the Namibian government decided to end its export of cheetahs categorically to all countries, says Bircher.

Except for a “gift of ten cheetahs” given to the United States in 2002 from Namibia’s President Sam Nujoma, no cheetahs have legally left the African country in over forty years, explained Laurie Marker, director of the Namibian-based nonprofit Cheetah Conservation Fund. During recent decades, Namibia’s cheetah population has rebounded slightly and now the county hosts the largest wild population with approximately 3,500 cats.

Without easy access to cheetahs, zoos were forced to redefine themselves. They shed their prodigal past and confronted the question that had nagged animal keepers for centuries, “Why are cheetahs so hard to mate in captivity?” A wave of research followed and zoos started working together. Leading the collaboration was the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which developed the first long-term cheetah species survival plan (SSP) in 1984. The plan, which is updated annually, includes a cheetah census, as well as target cheetah population numbers, breeding strategies, and research goals.

Cheetahs were not the first animal, nor the last, to be recognized by the AZA as candidates for a species survival plan. Today there are hundreds of different SSPs for animals of all kinds, including reptiles, birds, and many mammals. But the 1980s efforts to thoroughly study and tailor captive cheetah breeding strategies paved the way for more species-specialized zoo management practices.

Observations of wild cheetahs in their natural habitat, open savannahs, revealed that they have a unique social structure. Lions live in large families called prides. Tigers and leopards are mostly solitary. Cheetahs are somewhere in the middle: female cheetahs live alone, except during child rearing, and males tend to live together in small packs, called coalitions.

The two sexes only interact to breed, and even then females are only interested if they are cycling, or in heat. Thus, the initial zoo strategy of bunking female and male cheetahs together defied the cats’ very nature.

While some researchers started watching cheetahs from afar, another group took an opposite approach and starting collecting blood, urine, and stool samples. Written into the cheetah’s genes, researchers stumbled upon the cat’s dark history. Around 10,000 years ago, cheetahs nearly went extinct. An estimated 10-20 individuals survived, the ancestors of all living cheetahs today. Consequently, current “cheetahs have almost zero percent of genetic variability,” says Steve Bircher. They are “all like brothers and sisters.”

Could the lack of genetic diversity having a lingering effect? Studies of male cheetah sperm showed startlingly low sperm counts; about one-tenth the normal counts of lions, tigers, and domestic cats, according to Bircher. This was initially thought to explain low captive birth rates until it was realized that wild Namibian males with similarly low sperm counts reproduce just fine.

“Lack of genetic variability is not what has hampered the cheetah ability to breed,” says Bircher. “Quite simply, it’s how we managed cheetahs.”

***

After Ally’s brief encounter with Caprivi, her body started changing. Hormone levels skyrocketed, and at meal times she gorged herself. Still, it took two months to definitively confirm that she was pregnant. By that point, she’d already moved to the facility’s maternity ward – a much larger pen with full surveillance.

Then, on the morning of April 22, 2012, Ally stopped eating, a sure sign that she was about to give birth. Keeper Lacey Braun stayed overnight, but Ally showed no change. The next morning, at 9:30 am, a boy cub was born. It was a huge victory for the National Zoo – but for the cheetah staff, the work wasn’t over yet.

Similarly to what had happened to her, Ally disappointingly abandoned her cub. “We see a lot of maternal neglect in this species, especially with first-time mothers. This was her first pregnancy,” Adrienne Crosier says.

When Braun retrieved the newborn, it had stopped breathing. Alone with the cub, she frantically pressed his chess to get the lungs pumping air again. Again and again she tried, until finally he stirred. With a rush of relief, she immediately started on the hand-rearing process. With a little baby bottle, she fed him kitten formula, the same kind available at any pet store.

To the zookeepers’ surprise, Ally resumed normal non-pregnant behavior almost immediately. “Based on Ally’s body condition and weight gain, we really thought there were multiple cubs in the litter,” says Crosier. The team anxiously watched and waited all day until it became clear Ally would not be going back into labor. With the cubs and her own life at stake, the caretakers finally intervened and moved Ally to the on-site animal hospital.

An x-ray revealed three cubs still in utero. An emergency C-section, a risky operation, was the only option. “There were about ten of us there. We had three teams of two,” says Crosier. There was one team for each cub. “The first cub had a heart beat after the surgery, but it took two hours to get him breathing easily,” says Crosier. To everyone’s relief, the first cub survived. Unfortunately the second and third cubs died.  

A father on a mission, Caprivi was brought into the hospital to donate plasma, nutrient rich blood, to the cubs. This material is normally passed to cubs through nursing, but Ally was in no condition to help. Due to the operation, describes Crosier, “Ally lost a lot of blood. She was pretty close to losing her life as it was on the table.”

After that night at the hospital, the family split. Ally remained hospitalized for a week, eventually returning to her independent life; Caprivi joined his brothers; and the two cubs spent their first three weeks in a clean, isolated hospital room under intensive supervision.

 On May 18, 2012, nearly four months after Ally’s fence introduction with Caprivi, the precious cubs made the near 70 mile drive to Washington D.C., their current home. There the cats were named Carmelita and Justin after the 2012 American Olympic sprinters Carmelita Jeeter and Justin Gatlin, and placed on exhibit over the summer.

 

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