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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!