Living in zoos, many animals can feel that their wild instincts are at odds with their controlled environments. And staff at San Diego Zoo noticed that life in captivity was having a particularly conspicuous effect on their cheetahs. So, they came up with the cutest cure for the creatures’ anxiety.
Over the course of many years, San Diego Zoo in California has taken a pioneering approach to rearing animals. For instance, it was one of the first zoos to introduce cageless, open-air animal enclosures. The zoo is also one of the few organizations to successfully breed giant pandas.
Known for its progressive attitude, San Diego Zoo has earned countless awards since opening its gates in 1916. The establishment’s conservation efforts, programs and exhibits have all received praise over the years, cementing its status as a world-class zoo.
Given this reputation, the facility works hard to ensure the welfare of its animals. However, one species at the zoo had a particularly tough time adjusting to life in captivity. It appeared that the cheetahs there were suffering from anxiety.
In facts, it isn’t unusual for cheetahs in zoos to struggle with their surroundings. The species is the fastest land animal on the planet. And, with their long legs and slender bodies, the creatures specialize in flight rather than fight.
With this in mind, cheetahs are constantly on edge. They use their high-set eyes to survey their surroundings for threats and are always at the ready to burst into action. And with the ability to run at speeds up to 75 mile per hour, there’s no underestimating the power that cheetahs have at their disposal.
In the wild, this hyper-awareness of their surroundings can be lifesaving for cheetahs. However, zoos separate animals from their predators. As a result, they present very little opportunity for cheetahs to burn off their pent-up energy.
Noticing the effect that their environment was having on the cheetahs, staff at San Diego Zoo decided to take action. So, in 1980 the zoo gave one male cheetah named Arusha a very special gift. It was a Golden Retriever called Anna.
The idea was to give Arusha a constant furry companion who could show him that there was nothing to worry about in his surroundings. And, amazingly, the zoo’s new approach paid off. The pair were inseparable for 13 years, until Anna sadly passed away.
Since then, San Diego Zoo has paired all its cheetah ambassadors with a puppy. “Dogs are naturally comfortable with people, even those they don’t know,” a statement on the zoo’s website explained.
In contrast, Cheetahs are not so confident. “Cheetahs are quite a bit more cautious and wary of new situations,” the statement continued. “Having a dog buddy to show them that everything is okay – and even fun – helps the cat feel comfortable and relaxed.”
By following their canine companions’ lead, cheetahs slowly learn to control their anxieties. ”The dog’s body language communicates that there’s nothing to fear, which relaxes and calms the cheetah’s flight tendencies,” the zoo revealed.
Furthermore, not only do the dogs ease the cheetahs’ nerves, but they also provide vital friendship. On the whole, cheetahs tend to be sociable creatures. As a result, they often live together in groups known as coalitions.
So, while life in captivity may otherwise prove to be quite a lonely experience, paired cheetahs find lifelong friends in their dogs. “We introduce a puppy buddy when the cheetah is still a cub and naturally playful,” the zoo explained. “By spending time together, they get to know each other and become buddies.”
Due to the success of San Diego’s cheetah and dog pairings, many other zoos have followed suit. Kumbali, a cheetah at Virginia’s Metro Richmond Zoo, is one of many of his species to now benefit from this special bond.
When he was born, Kumbali’s mom struggled to feed her litter of three. As a result, zoo staff had to hand-feed him using bottled milk. With their help, the little cheetah began to thrive. They couldn’t give him the one thing he needed most, however – a fellow furry companion.
That’s when Kago stepped in. Rescue organization The Art of Paws saved the Labrador mix from a high-kill shelter in Alabama. It then donated him to the zoo, which gradually introduced him to his new buddy Kumbali.
And just like Arusha and Anna before them, the pair soon grew to be the best of friends. Since then, as with many cheetah and dog pairings, the twosome have won plenty of fans online. Consequently, those at Metro Richmond Zoo couldn’t have been prouder of what they’d achieved.
“This symbiotic relationship would never happen in the wild,” the zoo said in a statement. “However, we believe the positive outcomes outweigh any negative. As the two grow up together, they create a bond that becomes almost inseparable, sibling-like.”
With their adorable pals, many hope that cheetahs will thrive in captivity, which could aid conservation efforts. “The dog has a calming influence because the cheetah will take behavioral cues from the dog,” the statement explained. “Learning not to fear his surroundings, but instead embracing them with confidence.”