Five Cheetah cubs have been receiving critical care in the Cincinnati Zoo’s nursery since they were born on March 8. The cubs were born via C-section, to mom Willow, at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Cheetah Breeding Facility.
Unfortunately, their mother has passed away. Zoo vets were hopeful that the five-year-old Cheetah would make a full recovery following surgery, but Willow remained lethargic and recently lost her appetite.
“Cheetahs are a fragile species and this difficult birth proved to be too much for her to pull through," said Thane Maynard, Director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. “Willow was able to contribute to the survival of her species by producing five Cheetah cubs. Without the C-section, we likely would have lost both the mom and the cubs.”
Nursery staff have been bottle-feeding the premature cubs every three hours and closely monitoring their weight. Australian Shepherd “Blakely,” the Zoo’s resident nursery companion and former nanny to several Zoo babies, has been called into action to provide snuggling, comfort and a body to climb.
“They really turned a corner this weekend. They opened their eyes, had good appetites and, most importantly, they pooped!” said Head Nursery Keeper Dawn Strasser of the cubs. “It’s important to keep their digestive system moving. We’ve been massaging their bellies and giving them opportunities to exercise as much as possible.”
Blakely will have his paws full with this assignment. “His first job is to let the cubs climb on him, which they did as soon as they were put together. They need the exercise to build muscle tone and get their guts moving,” said Strasser, who supervises daily climbing sessions and other interactions with Blakely.
As the cubs grow, Blakely’s role in their development will shift from climbable companion and hairy warm body to teacher and role model. He taught his last student, a baby Takin named Dale, to jump up on rocks and to keep his head butts in the gentle range. Blakely’s first charge, a single Cheetah cub named Savanna, learned the difference between a playful bite and the start of a fight from Blakely.
The cubs (3 boys and 2 girls) will remain in the nursery for at least 8-12 weeks. After that, they will be hand-raised and trained to be Cheetah Ambassadors. Zoo visitors may be able to view the cubs through the nursery windows, but some feedings and exams will take place behind the scenes.
Since Cheetah breeding is most successful (in both the wild and in zoo settings) when Cheetahs have multiple mates to choose from, the cheetah SSP has set up several Regional Cheetah Breeding Facilities in zoos across the U.S. for the purpose of breeding genetically important animals. The Cincinnati Zoo is one of nine AZA-accredited institutions that participate in a cheetah Breeding Center Coalition (BCC). Working closely with the Cheetah Species Survival Plan (SSP), the BCC’s goal is to create a sustainable Cheetah population that will prevent extinction of the world’s fastest land animal.
The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatusis) a large member of the family Felidae and is native to Africa and parts of Iran. It is the only extant member of the genus Acinonyx. Aside from its distinctive coat pattern, the Cheetah is well known for its athletic prowess. It can run faster than any other land animal and has been clocked at speeds of 68 to 75 mph (110 to 120 km/h). The Cheetah also has the ability to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (96 km/h) in three seconds.
Female Cheetahs reach sexual maturity in twenty to twenty-four months. Males reach maturity at around twelve months, but they do not usually mate until at least three years old. Females are not monogamous and are known to have cubs with many different mates.
Litters, of up to nine cubs, result after a gestation period of ninety to ninety-eight days, although the average litter size is four. Cubs are born with a downy underlying fur on their necks, called a mantle, extending to mid-back. The mantle gives them a mane or Mohawk-type appearance, but this fur is shed as the Cheetah matures.
Females are solitary, except when raising cubs, and tend to avoid each other, though some mother/daughter pairs have been known to remain together for small periods of time. When cubs reach about 18 months of age, the mother leaves them, and they form a sibling group that will stay together for another six months. At about two years, the female siblings leave the group, and the young males remain together for life. Life span, in the wild, is up to twelve years, and they have lived up to twenty years, in captivity.
The Cheetah is classified as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Subspecies in Iran (A. j. venaticus) and northwest Africa (A. j. heckii) are listed as “Critically Endangered”. They face various threats, in the wild, including: loss of habitat and prey, conflict with humans, illegal pet trade, competition with/predation by other carnivores, and a gene pool with low variability.
No matter the official classification, Cheetahs are endangered, and their population worldwide has shrunk from about 100,000 in 1900--- to an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 Cheetahs today.