The San Diego Zoo received its first cheetah, named Bong, in 1933, a gift from famed animal adventurers Martin and Osa Johnson. They had made him a pet, taking him for walks in New York’s Central Park, and our Zoo staff did the same for him when he arrived in San Diego. Our member magazine, ZOONOOZ, reported that Bong “was very tame and friendly, did not resent being touched by strangers, but he was stubborn when out on a leash, and if he took a sudden notion to run, you simply ran with him or let go, for there was no holding him back.”
As we had had no luck in successfully breeding cheetahs, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park brought in 10 wild-caught South African cheetahs (5 males and 5 females) from southwest Africa to be the core of a new breeding group in 1970 with a grant from the William H. Donner Foundation. Two five-acre enclosures were provided to give the cats plenty of room to wander, as we initiated a research project on their reproductive behavior in a zoo environment. We were rewarded with the first birth of cheetahs in our collection: a little male named Juba, born on November 22, 1970. In 1975, the Safari Park’s cheetah exhibit opened to the public. As of April 2016, we have had 157 cheetah births.
Today, cheetahs selected to be trained as Zoo and Safari Park ambassadors are paired with a domestic dog. Why? Dogs are naturally comfortable with people, even those they don’t know. Cheetahs are quite a bit more cautious and wary of new situations; having a dog buddy who can show them that everything is okay—and even fun—helps the cat feel comfortable and relaxed. The dog’s body language communicates that there’s nothing to fear, and that relaxes and calms the flight tendencies of the cheetah. We introduce a dog buddy when the cheetah is still a cub and naturally playful. By spending time together they get to know each other and become buddies.
Our first cheetah/dog pairing was Arusha, a male cheetah, and golden retriever Anna, in 1980. The pair was inseparable until Anna’s death 13 years later. Today, you can usually see one of our cheetah ambassadors, along with his or her dog buddy, during our Backstage Pass program or other special events at the Zoo.
At the Safari Park, some of our cheetahs can be seen on exhibit in our African Outpost while several more live in our off-exhibit cheetah breeding facility. Some of our cheetahs are trained to participate in the Park’s Cheetah Run experience. This is the only place in the United States where you can see a cheetah run outside of an exhibit. Shiley’s Cheetah Run, located near Lion Camp, is a unique, jaw-dropping experience for our guests.
During Cheetah Run, the spotted sprinter races on a straight 330-foot-long track that allows the cheetah to really stretch its legs and reach an astounding speed: 0 to 70 miles per hour in just 4 seconds while chasing a mechanical lure attached to its favorite toy. If you're close enough, you may feel the wind as the cheetah passes by. Cheetah Run is made possible through the generosity of local philanthropist Darlene Shiley and is named in honor of Shiley, one of the participating cheetahs.
Once widespread throughout Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and into central India, cheetahs have disappeared from huge areas of their historic range. Cheetahs hunt by day, which means tourists taking safari rides into cheetah habitat can affect their daily routine. Their habitat is open savanna, the most likely areas to be occupied by humans. There are around 12,000 cheetahs left, down from as many as 100,000 just 100 years ago. Ranchers sometimes shoot them because the cats feed on livestock.
Wildlife parks in Africa help protect some of the cheetahs as their habitat shrinks. Captive propagation at zoos will play an important role for keeping cheetahs in the world. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has been working to solve the unique problems that cheetahs have breeding in captivity. It has one of the most successful cheetah breeding programs in the world, with 157 cheetahs born here to date, and is considered a top organization for successful cheetah management.
Help for cheetahs
In Namibia, prickly thornbush has been taking over farms and grasslands, injuring the cats’ eyes and causing them to prey on easier-to-catch livestock, much to the farmers’ dismay. The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) sent wood chippers to chop up the brush to make it easier for cheetahs to hunt. The chipped thornbush is turned into blocks and sold as fuel. The Fund also introduced a very successful guard dog program in Namibia, using Anatolian shepherds to protect livestock. These working dogs are fiercely protective of the animals in their charge, and the cheetahs are not about to argue. Providing the dogs free of charge to households and educating the local people about the value of their native wildlife has helped cheetah populations recover in Namibia. Laurie Marker, Ph.D., who founded CCF in 1990, received San Diego Zoo Global’s prestigious conservation medal in 2008 for her work with these cats.
Cheetah Breeding Coalition
San Diego Zoo Global is a member of the national cheetah Breeding Center Coalition (BCC). The Coalition’s nine member facilities are breeding cheetahs with the goal of creating a sustainable cheetah population. As a leading partner, we are working closely with the other BCC members to ensure that cheetah numbers increase significantly over the next decade, ultimately resulting in a sustainable “safety net” population. Read more about it here.
What you can do
You can join conservation organizations that protect big cats and African habitat, including the Cheetah Conservation Fund and Africats. You can encourage people not to wear fur coats. While it's hard for Americans to help cheetahs directly, when you make your voice heard on environmental issues, you can help the Earth as a whole.
Visiting the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park helps support our studies of a disease affecting cheetahs. Feline herpesvirus can cause respiratory disease and skin ulcers in cheetahs. To prevent this, our researchers are studying the risk factors that cause this infection in captive cheetahs and creating a database of infected individuals, including management and husbandry practices from zoos across North America. We can then recommend changes in the care of cheetahs to reduce the virus risk for this species.
You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.