Mountain Lions in Oregon: The Biggest Predator You Never See

Carnivores, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Just how likely are you to run into a fierce predator on your hike through a state park or national forest? Most of us assume it’s unlikely. The image that comes to mind is of rainforests or savannas housing tigers, lions and cheetahs. Those are half a world away from us, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

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With a distribution over two continents and the ability to adapt to a variety of climates, the mountain lion could be considered king of the American jungle. This species is the most widely distributed mammal in the Americas, with 30 subspecies and a bundle of common names including the cougar, puma, and panther. Mountain lions are on the bigger end of the smaller cats, weighing around 120-190 lbs. Their tan and reddish fur provide good cover in the trees and rocky mountains of both North and South America, while their classic felid jaws and claws aid in their ambush method of hunting of which there is a 70% success rate. Like most other cat species mountain lions are solitary animals, with the exception of mating and females with cubs.

Worldwide mountain lions are a species of least concern by the IUCN Redlist with an overall estimation of 30,000 individuals, but their numbers are starting to decrease. In fact, they aren’t found in the Eastern United States, after being hunted out in the last 200 years. The Pacific Northwest has a good portion of the United States’ mountain lions, with numbers around a few thousand in each state. They don’t appear to be limited by human activity, but rather by the amount of prey species available. In Oregon, the mountain lion population is estimated at 6,400 as of April 2017.

Each state monitors their populations in slightly different ways, and here the mountain lions fall under the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Their goal is to keep the population above the 1994 level of 3,000 individuals. They also monitor the number of conflict animals in the state, or animals that cause damage to people’s property or person. These animals will be removed if necessary, and if the number of conflicts is too high or the prey species are suffering losses from too many mountain lions ODFW is prepared to adjust the population. In other words they want a stable population of mountain lions, not too many or too few.

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In addition to monitoring the population status ODFW sets hunting regulations for the state. Mountain lions are listed as a big game species in Oregon, and are hunted using the same tag system as other big game. Hunters can take both males and females during the mountain lion season, but mothers with cubs are off limits. In the past it was legal to use hunting hounds to tree a lion, or track and corner a mountain lion in a tree. However, using hounds for hunting a mountain lion is illegal for sport hunters, which has lowered the success rates of mountain lion hunting in the state. There is some speculation that this could have caused an increase in the population, but as of now there is no research to support the theory.

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That’s not to say there is a lack of mountain lion research in Oregon, not by a long shot. There have been over a dozen research publications affiliated with ODFW in the last decade alone. They include subjects like establishing more accurate mountain lion densities and population growth rates, effects of lethal control, kill rates and prey selection, and the effects on population dynamics of elk (one of their prey species). In southwestern Oregon there was a long-term study from 1992-2003 that radio collared and captured mountain lions and gathered data on home ranges, prey interactions, reproduction, and dispersal. All of these pieces of research are important to the whole picture of the mountain lion-how it lives, factors that could affect its survival, and how to best live alongside one of our biggest top predators.

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So the next time you pick up your hiking boots, remember and respect the fact that you may not be as alone as you thought out there. Keep an eye out for tracks, because Oregon’s mountain lions can be seen if you know how to look.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2006. Oregon Cougar Management Plan. ODFW.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2015. Summary of Cougar Research in Oregon. ODFW Wildlife Division.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2015. Summary of Cougar Management in Neighboring States. ODFW Wildlife Division.

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Mistaken Identity – Turtle or Tortoise?

Creature Feature, Uncategorized

What is the difference between a tortoise and a turtle? All tortoises are in fact turtles—that is, they belong to the order Testudines or Chelonia, reptiles having bodies encased in a bony shell—but not all turtles are tortoises. The two have habitual and physical differences: that is, they look and act pretty differently.

Cali the tortoise

Tortoises only live on land, whereas turtles live in, or in association with, water. Turtles also have webbed feet and flipper-like forelimbs for easy swimming, while tortoises have stumpy non-webbed feet for walking on land. Their carapace (the bony shell on their back) also differs between species. Turtles have smooth and flatter carapaces to glide effectively in water, while tortoises have bumpier and more rounded carapaces. Another big difference between the two is their diet: tortoises are generally herbivorous, while turtles are omnivorous.

 

Gussie the Great Horned Owl

Ambassador Days, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Gussie is Wildlife Safari’s resident Great Horned Owl. Her species is common throughout north, central and south America – one of the most widespread species of owl.

These guys get their name from the plumage on their heads that resemble horns, although they are actually just feathers (called plumicorns), not horns at all. These plumicorns are also often mistaken for ears, however, their real ears actually cannot be seen from outside the feathers, and unlike humans, these ears are holes with no outer fleshy part. Unlike most animals, their ears are not symmetrical. Instead, they are slightly off set to create more of a surround sound effect. This allows them to pinpoint where a sound came from – an important skill for a predator that hunts at night from above.

They have an incredibly strong grip, much stronger than a human’s, which makes them extremely effective predators. They catch pretty much everything with their feet and talons, which are razor sharp, and they are so strong they can even catch things that are up to 3 times their size or body weight.

“Gussie likes to act big and bad when shes in her enclosure – but she’s a great training animal,” shares Jennifer Wiles, one of Gussie’s Keepers. She says Gussie is not as tough as she thinks, though. “Once she’s out she can be a little bit of a scardy-owl.”

The reason Gussie is not so tough once outside of her house may be because her eyesight is not the precise, incredible eyesight she once had. Before she came to Wildlife Safari she was in an accident that left her mostly without sight in her left eye. “She can fly but her depth perception is off, so she’ll only fly short distances,” says Jennifer – and that is exactly why Gussie lives at the park. As a predator, she would not be able to hunt and survive in the wild without full vision. “All our birds of prey have been rehabilitated and can’t be released back into the wild because of either eye or wing issues.”

Gussie now has a happy life here at the park with her keepers. Here she acts as an ambassador, helping people learn about owls and their amazing senses.

 

Mistaken Identity: Alligator or crocodile?

Creature Feature, Uncategorized

These ancient reptiles have often been confused with one another because of their similar appearances. Though in the wild, you would rarely naturally see the two species together. The alligator only exists in the United States and China, whereas crocodiles are found across the globe, inhabiting 5 of the 7 continents. They also inhabit two very different niches. Beside location, you can tell the two species apart by the shape of their snout (nose). Alligators have a wider, U shaped snout; while crocodiles have a narrower, V shaped shout. Since crocodiles have that narrow snout, some of their teeth are exposed when their mouth is closed, resulting in a candid croc smile.

American Badger

Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Meet our American Badger, Bandit! When you visit Wildlife Safari you may get a chance to watch this little guy dig in his dig box, or take a morning stroll through the Village. But watch your feet because he is a fast walker! Bandit loves to roam the grounds, listening to the different animals we have at the park.

Bandit the American Badger – Photo courtesy of Jessica Lundquist

Badgers have rounded ears to help them listen for their prey, which are usually hiding underground. They hunt a variety of small mammals, like mice and gophers, along with birds and snakes. They will also eat a few veggies, but most of their diet is made up of meat. They catch their prey by using their long claws to dig into their prey’s burrows. Sometimes, badgers will even work with coyotes! The badger will scare the prey out of the hole, the coyote will catch it, then share the meal together.

Morning stretches – Photo courtesy of Bryanna Bright

American Badgers spend most of their life digging. They love to dig! Their long claws help them to dig out their own burrows or modify an abandoned burrow. These typically only have one entrance and can reach ten meters long and three meters deep. They use their burrows to sleep, eat, and to escape predators. They can dig at amazing speeds by using their front claws to claw into the ground and their back feet work as shovels to scoop and push away the soil. If you want to see this amazing digging power, you can watch Bandit dig in his dig box most mornings at 11:00 am!

Ready for his close up – Photo courtesy of Jessica Lundquist

If you look closely at Bandit, you will notice a white stripe that runs from his nose to the back of his head, like a skunk. The white stripe is a warning to other animals to stay away, because they are dangerous! If a badger is threatened or attacked they become very vocal and will use their sharp teeth and claws to protect themselves. They also have thick, loose skin that makes it hard for a predator to hang onto them and makes it difficult to actually hurt the badger.

You can find American Badgers in the wild from Canada to Mexico. If you ever come across one outside of Wildlife Safari, always make sure to give them lots of space and let them continue on their way!

Violet, the Virginia Opossum

Ambassador Days, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

You may have encountered a face like this in your backyard at night, but Violet here has a special job here at Wildlife Safari. Violet, a Virginia Opossum, is one of the park’s ambassador animals. She visits schools and community events with her keepers to help teach people about wildlife. She also helps tell people about her species; that they are more than just creatures that steal from your trash cans!

Violets curious little face

Virginia opossums are the only marsupial in North America. Their gestation period is only 13 days because their young spend the first 3 months of their life in their mother’s pouch, and the next few months clinging to her back wherever she goes!

Despite popular belief, opossums are incapable of carrying the rabies virus because their body temperature drops too low when they play dead to sustain the virus. They also help reduce the occurrence of Lyme disease – since ticks are a favorite food of theirs.  These little guys will eat about 5,000 ticks in a season, which cuts down your chance of getting one along with any disease they carry!

Nap time for a tired Opossum

Violet was found an orphan at Wildlife Safari and hand-raised by keepers. When she was found she could fit easily in the palm of your hand, but she soon grew up into an active and very agile little girl! “She’s very comfortable around humans and loves to use them as her own personal jungle gym,” says Education Intern Sarah Cutting, who works with Violet everyday.

Violet at only a few weeks old

Because her daytime eyesight is fairly poor, violet mostly explores her environment with her nose, and her mouth!

“Violet enjoys any kind of taste enrichment, from new sorts of bugs to munch on to the occasional tropical fruit, as well as rubber kongs” says Sarah.

Swinging from her house

“Unfortunately, opossums get a bad rap in the public eye,” Sarah tells us.”One of my favorite things about taking Violet on outreaches is how surprised people are by how cute, soft, and clean she is. Violet is a great animal ambassador because she fights opossum stereotypes wherever she goes!”

Carmen the Cockatoo 

Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Meet Carmen! This happy girl is a Moluccan, or Salmon-crested, Cockatoo. Native to Indonesia and Australia, they can live into their 70s, so Carmen is still young at 21 years of age.

Cockatoos have incredibly loud voices, and Carmen definitely uses hers! She enjoys chatting to her keepers, though her ‘talking’ is not quite what you would think; although cockatoos can say words, they are only mimicked sounds rather than words with meaning for them. Carmen enjoys announcing that she is a ‘pretty girl’ to anyone that will listen!

 

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Carmen with keeper Tim – photo courtesy of Tim Dirksen

They live on a diet of fruit, nuts and seeds – cashews are Carmen’s favorite treat! They have terrifically strong beaks designed to crack open nuts or get through tough foods. They use these picks to pick things up and play as well – Carmen LOVES using hers to shred cardboard. “That’s her favorite activity,” says keeper Tim Dirksen. As her primary trainer, Tim spends time with Carmen for her training and enrichment – socialising her and making sure she’s healthy and happy. She can be very picky about who she works with – not every keeper makes into her good graces. Tim, however, is a firm favourite!

Play time for Carmen! - photo courtesy of Tim Dirksen

Play time for Carmen! – photo courtesy of Tim Dirksen

Since cockatoos are very intelligent, they need a lot of attention or they become easily bored. Carmen gets lots of love, toys, and fun things in her day to keep her occupied. “She particularly loves it when people speak or sing in Spanish to her,” Tim tells us.

Carmen lives in the aviary section of the Wildlife Safari Village – come and meet her in person!

Tiger Times

Carnivores, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Riya and Kemala are 4 year old sisters, that came to us 2 years ago from Texas. Sumatran tigers weigh in at about 200 lbs and are the smallest of the 5 subspecies, with Siberian tigers being the largest at 700 lbs. Tigers can live into their teens in captivity, but usually only reach 10 or so in the wild if they are lucky. Sumatran tigers have the most stripes and pigmentation of all subspecies and the largest canines of all big cats.

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Kemala, one of out Sumatran tigers – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Even though tigers are muscular and powerfully built, they can move silently because they are able to fully retract their claws. They aren’t built for speed, like a cheetah, so they must stalk prey closely until they can pounce and knock it down without having to pursue. Tigers hunt by stalking as close as possible and utilizing their sight and hearing. They leap onto their prey and strangle it with a bite to the throat or back of the neck. A carcass is often dragged off and hidden for future meals. They are powerful enough to take down prey twice their size. Tigers are only successful with 5% of their prey. Unlike most cats, tigers are very water oriented. They will chase prey into the water to take advantage of their superior swimming ability.

Riya - Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Riya – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Tiger stripes are like fingerprints, each tiger’s striping is unique. They are nocturnal and have much better night vision than humans. The backs of their ears have white spots that mimic eyes to warn other animals even if they are looking from behind the tiger. Tigers are apex predators in their ecosystem, keeping prey species in check to release plant species from herbivore stresses. Because of the unpredictability of their hunts, tigers tend to gorge whenever they can because they don’t know when their next meal will be.

Relaxing in her hut - Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Relaxing in her hut – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Tigers are solitary except when mating or rearing cubs. They gestate for 3.5 months and have litters of 3-4 cubs. Cubs are born blind and less than 2 lbs, but they are able to kill before their first birthday. They begin hunting at 6 months, but are dependent on mom until they’re 18 months years old. They mature at about 4 years old but half of all cubs don’t survive more than two years. Their major threats are predators, but as they mature, injury during a hunt is also a likely reason for cub mortality.

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The beautiful Kemala checking out her enclosure – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Less than 350 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild, making them critically endangered. Sumatra is the only place where tigers live alongside rhinos, elephants, and orangutans. Human-tiger conflict and fear are the driving factors behind their decline. All 5 subspecies of tigers are endangered, with poaching and traditional medicine being the main culprit. Habitat destruction and fragmentation also contribute to their decline. Tigers need an undisturbed habitat to thrive and as human populations expand, haphazard developments put huge pressures on their habitat from grazing cattle and degrading forests.

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Riya keenly awaits her snacks – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

At Wildlife Safari, we are excited to start renovations on our tiger exhibits. Our facility will be able to help save tigers by initiating a tiger breeding program and having our very first tiger cubs! With so few left in the wild, breeding our Sumatran tigers is more important than ever before. Come meet Riya and Kemala on our tiger encounter and you’ll be helping to protect tigers in the wild.

Lion Pride

Carnivores, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Wildlife Safari’s lions have a peculiar backstory. While our adult females were raised in a zoo pride, our adult males have had a bit of a journey to get to us. Their parents were gifted to the sheik of Qatar as cubs. Unfortunately, they bred too young and the female died in labor. Seeing that they needed special care by people with knowledge of their dietary and health needs (let alone the facilities to house them – lions make terrible house guests!), he gave them to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and they were eventually placed here at Wildlife Safari. Their genes are invaluable because they are the first in their line to breed in captivity – a rarity since we never remove animals from the wild for captive breeding. Our boys were paired with Mtai and Serafina, our two adult females. Since the girls came to us from a mother raised pride setting, they understand natural pride dynamics.

Sisters Serafina and Mtai

Sisters Serafina and Mtai – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions are unique in that they are the only cats that live in a social group. All other cats are solitary. In a pride, there is typically one dominant breeding male lion. But since Tsavo and Enzi didn’t understand this, Mtai is most often the dominant lion in our unique pride. We are fortunate that all four of our adult lions have bred. They paired off nicely with Mtai and Tsavo having a litter of two, Arnold and Sharptooth, while Serafina and Enzi had a litter of four, Upepo, Dunia, Moto, and Maji. Our adults are all 4 years old and our cubs are just approaching their 2nd birthday.

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Play time for the cubs – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions in captivity can live up to 20 years old, but they only reach about 10 in the wild. Males especially live shorter lives because of their aggression and hierarchy. In a pride setting, there’s one dominant breeding male and supporting non-breeding males. The females of the pride are all related, which is thought to help with hunting. Females are responsible for feeding the pride.

Lions are the 2nd largest cat, Siberian tigers are the first. Male lions can weigh up to 550 lbs and females up to 350 lbs. Males have a mane that protects their jugular when they are fighting. Since they will aim for the throat in a fight, it helps to have a thick matt of hair to shield them.  The dark coloration in their mane is directly correlated to their levels of testosterone. More testosterone means a darker mane which attracts more females and warns other males of their “toughness”.

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Adult males Tsavo and Enzi soak up the sunshine – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions are very vocal animals, especially when there is food present. Because they live in such a social setting, their grumbles and growls are a way of telling each other that “no, this is mine”. Lion’s can’t really make any of the noises that we associate with being a “happy cat”, like purring and meowing.

In a pride, it’s the female’s job to hunt and provide food. They tend to stalk prey up to 100 ft and then sprint to catch them, usually tackling and killing with a suffocating bite to the neck. Females are built more slender and agile for stalking and hunting while males are broad and muscular for defending the pride against competing males. Because of the unpredictability of hunts, they tend to gorge whenever they can because they don’t know when their next meal will be. Lions can engorge themselves up to 60 lbs of meat at a time. At Wildlife Safari, we break up that amount into more manageable portions along with two fast days to allow their gut bacteria to balance out.

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Curious cubs – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions are nocturnal and sleep up to 19 hours a day. They can breed year round and females start cycling when they are 18 months to 2 years old. However, like many species, this cycling starts before their bodies are fully grown, so  it is unsafe for them to breed for a while. It is very difficult to tell when a female is pregnant without doing an ultrasound or an x-ray.

Lions are altruistic, meaning females in a pride may take care of cubs that aren’t hers, they also tend to sync their cycle and give birth at the same time. So females are usually all lactating at the same time and can nurse all the cubs in the pride.

All lions are born with spots called “rosettes” that fade as they grow older. These are not true spots, like those in cheetahs and tigers. So if you were to shave a cub, the spots would not grow back. Whereas if you shaved a cheetah or tiger, their patterns would still show on their skin. Female cubs stay within the pride for the rest of their lives while male cubs are usually kicked out by the dominant male by the time they are 2. They then form a “bachelor band” until they are large enough to take over another pride.

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The young boys, Arnold and Upepo, lounging around – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Lions are listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because they are declining alarmingly in the areas between protected National Parks. As human population expands and causes overgrazing and prey decline, lions will turn to livestock as a food source. This puts them in conflict with farmers, who may set traps in an attempt to keep their livestock safe. Although lions reproduce relatively quickly, the killing outstrips the lions’ ability to replenish their numbers.

Our lions are ambassadors for their species that help teach the public about lion conservation and human conflict with wildlife. If you’d like to meet our lion pride up close, we have private encounters every day. Although lions are able to tolerate high temperatures, our cubs actually love the cool Oregon winter weather. Come watch them play!

Pancake

Ambassador Days, Cheetahs, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Wildlife Safari’s ambassador cheetah, Pancake, and her companion dog, Dayo, have been together since they were six weeks of age. Pancake was born as a single cub and her mom, like all cheetah mothers, could not produce milk for just one cub. In the wild, cheetahs often abandon small litters because the costs of raising a small litter typically exceed the benefits. Sometimes, a mother will have a small litter and still try to raise them, but the small litter will not stimulate the mother’s milk glands enough to produce milk.

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Wildlife Safari’s youngest Ambassador cheetah, Pancake – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Since Pancake’s mother couldn’t raise her, her keepers stepped in to rescue her. We hand-raised her to become an ambassador for her species. This route is a course of last resort – we will only ever step in and hand raise if it comes down to the life of the cub. One of the chief drawbacks to humans raising a cub is that it cannot acquire the natural instincts its mother would impart upon it. For example, if Pancake were to be introduced to a male cheetah, she would not know what to do. Although hand raising a cub is an incredible and unique experience, it is better in the long run to have a mother-raised cheetah so it can enter the breeding population and diversify the cheetah gene pool.

Dayo, Pancake's companion, looking regal - Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Dayo, Pancake’s companion, looking regal – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Still, ambassadors play an invaluable role in allowing the public to develop personal ties to wildlife. Since Pancake is hand-raised and leash trained, we can take her off site to events and outreaches. Cheetahs in the wild are a concept that is hard to envision, but seeing Pancake’s adorable face and hearing her purr makes the plight of her species very real. She performs a special role for cheetah conservation by captivating the public and informing them about cheetahs in the wild.

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Pancake – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Cheetahs are the only large carnivores we have free contact with here at Wildlife Safari. That means we can actually go into the same enclosure with our cheetahs. This is because cheetahs are flight-responsive animals. If anything stresses or scares them, they run away instead of fighting back. With lions, tigers, and bears, there is always a barrier between us and the animal (in what is referred to as “protected contact”).

Cheetah cubs are born just under a pound, and have a mantle that imitates the appearance of a honey badger. Mothers move their cubs every few days and chirp to them in mimicry of birds to ward off predators. Cubs stay with their mom until around age two. Females will then separate to start their own families, while males may live together for the remainder of their lives in what are referred to as “coalitions.”

Pancake and Dayo - Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

Pancake and Dayo – Photo courtesy of Mandy Ho

At Wildlife Safari, we are proud to say that we are among the top two cheetah breeding facilities in the world, with over 200 cubs born since we began our mission. Wildlife Safari’s expansive property allows our cheetahs privacy, which is important for this high stress species Enrichment for cheetahs comes from new sights, smells, places, and other cheetahs. We frequently rotate our cheetahs into different enclosures so they can experience these exciting new things.

 

Cheetah Traits

A typical adult cheetah weighs anywhere from 70 to 120 pounds and has a lifespan of 9 years in the wild and 10 to 15 in captivity. We actually had the oldest cheetah on record here at Wildlife Safari that lived to be a whopping 18 years old! At almost age two, Pancake weighs about 50 pounds, and will stay on the lower end of that scale because she was not afforded the benefits of mom’s milk early in life. Dayo, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, was donated to us and chosen to be Pancake’s companion because Ridgebacks typically have body masses and lifespans similar to cheetahs.

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One of Wildlife Safari’s newest cheetah cubs

In the wild, cheetahs can go from 0 to 70 miles per hour in under three seconds. However, they can only run at maximum speed for about 30 seconds, any longer and their body would overheat, causing brain damage. Accordingly, a cheetah’s hunt lasts about a minute. Because cheetahs in captivity do not have to hunt for their food, they lack the muscle capacity to reach 70 mile-per-hour speeds. While Pancake is definitely a fast runner, she could not reach those top speeds – which is good for Dayo, or he’d never be able to keep up!

Cheetahs can produce approximately 30 different vocalizations, some of which can be heard miles away. Most of their sounds mimic small cats or birds, a vocal camouflage. There is a fine line between purring and roaring. Every cat the size of a cheetah or cougar or smaller will purr, and any larger cat will roar. Cats do one or the other, not both.

Everything on a cheetah’s body is built for speed. They don’t have large jaws or muscles like lions and tigers. Cheetahs can run quite fast, but if they are confronted by any predator, they must flee. Any injury means potentially becoming unable to run at top speeds and subsequent starvation.

Unlike lions and tigers, cheetahs hunt during the day. Their distinctive black tear lines help refract the sun’s glare from their eyes. Lions and tigers have white pigmentation under their eyes for attracting moonlight, in order to enhance nocturnal vision. Cheetahs have what is commonly called “binocular vision.” They can see clearly up to three miles away, but if they look at their feet, their vision is blurry.

Mom and cubs eating dinner

Mom and cubs eating dinner

Cheetah’s have adapted perfectly to reaching their top speeds. They have enlarged nasal passageways that allow for more airflow to help maintain high running speed. They have an enlarged heart, lungs, and arteries that help deliver oxygen to muscles. They also have semi-retractable claws that provide traction when they run. Their long tails function as a rudder or counter balance to their body weight, especially when making tight turns. Thomson’s gazelles, the second-fastest land animal and the most common prey of cheetahs, can run 65 miles per hour; they know they are unable to outrun a cheetah. Instead they try to weave and dodge to get away. A cheetah’s tail helps it change directions quickly, without having to stop and regroup, in order to take down a gazelle. Cubs will also follow their mother’s long tail in tall grasses.

They have on average 3,000 “true” spots (i.e., spots which go all the way down to the skin) that help cheetahs hunt prey and hide from predators by blending into their habitats. Cheetahs dissipate heat from their spots, which have longer, less densely packed fur. After reaching top speeds and taking down prey, a cheetah must wait about half an hour for their body temperature to cool down before eating. This results in about half of their kills being stolen by larger predators.

 

Conservation

 

With approximately 10,000 living in the wild today, cheetahs are classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Habitat loss, poaching, and hunting largely drive this phenomenon. Cheetah populations are also dwindling in part due to a common, unfortunate misconception. Since cheetahs hunt in the day, they are more visible to farmers that have lost livestock in the night to predation. This predation is usually from lions, because cheetahs are too small to take down livestock and can’t digest fat, so their prey has to be much leaner. Unfortunately, cheetahs will get blamed and hunted for these losses.

Programs in South Africa and Botswana are using dogs and raising them alongside livestock to protect the herd. If a cheetah is near, the dog will bark and scare the cheetah off. This is helping cheetahs stay away from farmlands and helping farmers protect their livestock. These guard dogs strongly bond to the herd and even put their lives in danger to protect the group. This relieves farmers from having to engage wild cheetahs and possibly shooting an endangered species.

Curious cub

Curious cub

As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Wildlife Safari takes part in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) to help breed endangered animals. SSP looks at the genetics of each individual and monitors breeding and placement to enhance species survival. This is especially important for cheetahs because thousands of years ago, a mass extinction event caused populations to be cut off from each other, leading to a ‘genetic bottleneck’. All cheetahs are so genetically similar that there must be careful breeding to have a healthy captive population. The short term plan of SSP is to create a stable captive population as a “backup” if wild populations continue to decline. The SSP long term plan is to research the possibility of releasing captive cheetah genetics back into wild population using artificial insemination.

At Wildlife Safari, we are proud to do our part in helping wild cheetahs. A part of every encounter is donated to help save endangered wild animals. Stop by Wildlife Safari and have your photo taken with Pancake, or sign up for one of our many encounters, and you’ll be helping save wild cheetahs!