Wildlife Safari has one of the most successful cheetah breeding programs in the world, with 190 cheetahs born at the park. Meet Number 190! His name is Kitwana (Swahili for ‘pledged to live’) and he was born last month. Unfortunately, his mother wasn’t producing milk for him. When it became clear that the mother cheetah was not going to be able to care for him, keepers stepped in to hand raise him.
For the next 3 weeks or so, Kitwana’s keepers bottle fed him every 2-4 hours, including night feedings, which meant lots of zoo sleepovers! After watching him grow in size, ability, and personality, Kitwana was moved to another facility so that he could have brothers and sisters to grow up with. He found his new home at Cincinnati Zoo when there was a litter born not long after him that also needed to be hand raised.
Sarah Roy, Carnivore and Cheetah Supervisor talks about how arrangements were made for Kitwana (nicknamed Kit) to go to his new home. “We work closely with the 7 other breeding centers in North America and were able to pin point another litter,” she says. “That way he could have litter mates and grow up in a social setting.”
Cross-fostering, as it is called when they place a cub with another litter in this way, has been successful in the past. Sometimes cross-fostering is possible with a mother raised litter, but can also be done with a litter of cubs being hand raised, like in Kitwana’s case.
If it is not successful for Kitwana, then he may become an ambassador instead, going out into the community with his keepers to teach people about cheetahs. “Ambassadors are, in a way, just as important as breeding cheetahs,” says Roy. “The ambassadors are out there meeting people and kids everywhere, spreading the word of how cool cheetahs are and why we need to save them.”
Keepers work closely with their animals, but there is an even stronger bond formed in a hand raising situation. But keepers know what it takes to work in conservation, and there are times when you need to say goodbye to an animal to see it goe where it is needed. Whether it needs to go somewhere to grow up happier, or leave to join another breeding program, it can be a bitter sweet feeling for the staff involved. Roy has worked in the cheetah breeding program and is very used to situations Kitwana’s. “It’s hard, he’s the sweetest little boy, but I think looking at the big picture we’re happy to see them go to a good situation that will help the cheetah program as a whole.”