Cheetahs are known to be the fastest mammals in the world. However, a little known fact about them is that they are also scaredy-cats. In fact they are so fearful that they do not breed easily and are facing extinction because of it. Many zoos are trying something new and introducing dogs to the large cats to help calm and sooth them. The companion dogs are being paired up with cheetahs to be playmates and to help provide the big cats with guidance and support.
Grisham, vice president of animal collections at the St. Louis Zoo and species survival plan coordinator for cheetahs in North America said "it's a love story of one species helping another species survive." Janet Rose-Hinostroza, animal training supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the top U.S. breeder of cheetahs in captivity says "it is all about comforting and reassuring the cheetah." This may seem like an unlikely pairing but I can tell you first hand that cheetahs can be very timid.
When I was a teen I went to Wildlife Safari with my family and found the cheetah to be my favorite big cat. I was lucky to get to have my photo taken with one. The cats name was Tamra and the first thing I was told when I entered her area was to talk slow and calm because she could scare easily. As I got closer and sat down next to her I could feel her heart beating very fast and she was breathing very quickly. The poor thing was terrified, and this is what she did every day and having her photo taken with a human was nothing new to her. After a few moments she relaxed and sort of leaned up against me. It was an amazing experience.
Rose-Hinostroza said "in this relationship, the dog is dominant, but we look for dogs that want to be a buddy, the dog always has the cat's back, but it's never the other way around. Dogs worry about their cats. They protect their cats." If you have both dogs and cats in your home, you may see this behavior as well.
The dogs used for this program come in all sizes. At the Safari Park zoo, the smallest is Hopper, a male mixed breed dog who weighs about 40 pounds. He has been paired with Amara, the toughest female cheetah at their location.
"The dogs are the bosses in these relationships," Rose-Hinostroza said. "If they ate together there would be one really fat dog and a really skinny cheetah." It’s a funny thought to imagine a dog stealing the food from a big cat. No one really knows when the business of pairing of cheetahs and dogs started, but the San Diego Zoo was given a pair of cheetahs back in 1981 under the condition they be given dogs because they were used to them. With a bright look into the future we hope that this strange pairing will help the big cats repopulate.
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