Author: Zahra Hirji

Breaking the Cheetah Curse – Part III

This is final installment of a three-part series about the idiosyncrasies of the cheetah–and the myriad struggles zoos face when attempting to mate these majestic felines in captivity. Part 2 can be read here; Part 1 is here.

Compared to other big cats, cheetahs are high maintenance. Captive cheetahs are prone to stress. They need space to run around and prefer privacy. Males need opportunities to live with other males; females need space to live alone. Attentive animal keepers need to correctly identify when a female is heat and then walk through male introductions. If a given male does not work out, ideally other eligible bachelors will be on hand.

It can be taxing for zoos to juggle specific cheetah mating demands along with those of other animals. But large, private off-site facilities, or “breeding centers,” offer a solution.

“You can look at the numbers over the last 25-30 years and the facilities that have by far had the best success are the ones that are keeping the larger numbers of cheetahs,” says Steve Bircher.

Cheetah cubs Carmelita and Justin, shortly after their May 2012 birth. Photo by Adrienne Crosier, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

A handful of centers were initially built in the 1980s. Only in the last ten years have new centers cropped up, including the Smithsonian-run one in Virginia. The centers are spread out across the United States, from Florida to California. They range in size from 1,800 acres to 10,000 acres, and house between 12 to 30 cats.
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Breaking the Cheetah Curse – Part II

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.
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Breaking the Cheetah Curse – Part I

This is three-piece story about the idiosyncrasies of the cheetah–and the myriad struggles zoos face when attempting to mate these majestic felines in captivity.

A pair of cheetah cubs, a brother and sister named Justin and Carmelita, has charmed Smithsonian National Zoo visitors in Washington D.C. since their public debut in July 2012. The eleven-month old cats have shed their baby fuzz for sleek orange fur patterned with black spots. Yet despite their adult stature, the cats still act like rambunctious youngsters, chasing each other around their pen and playfully wrestling.

This is all good for now – but in a year’s time these young cats will be taken off exhibit, just like their parents before them, and started down parallel paths to confront their destiny as genetically robust cheetahs, sired to save their species from extinction.

Ally, the proud mother of new cheetah cubs. Photo courtesy of Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

The world has undergone a massive cheetah drain over the last century largely due to loss of natural habitats and conflicts with humans. Wild cheetah populations have plunged 90 percent, from around 100,000 cheetahs in the early 1900s to roughly 10,000 today. The situation is further complicated by low genetic variability among the species. Saving the cheetahs from extinctions means not only increasing numbers, but also ensuring the new population is genetically healthy.

In recent decades, zoos like the Smithsonian have taken on this challenge.
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