By: Cathryn Hilker, Founder of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program
As so many cheetahs before her, Sara came to live on our Mason farm when she was 5 weeks old. We intended to raise her with an Anatolian shepherd dog so she could have a companion for herself but also a companion who could speak to the program of wildlife management in Namibia where these dogs are widely used for predator control. Captive cheetah are often raised with a dog, as they make excellent companions, but not always. As soon as this little cheetah named Sara saw our little Anatolian puppy the cat attacked the dog with such a ferocious attitude that I had to separate them. Their relationship became even worse over the next several days until I sent the puppy back and got a much bigger and older Anatolian dog. This change worked well and Sara and Alexa where lifelong companions. They did school shows, summer shows, tv appearances and much more until Alexa retired, leaving Sara to continue alone. Upstairs she went, downstairs, elevators, moving stairs. She did all that and more, never failing to do her part.
The joy of running is in the heart and the ancient memory of every cheetah. Sara was no different. At home in her first few weeks we only did short runs in her fenced in yard but the day came when I wanted to see how much Sara could do. I was there with her when the joy and the play of running suddenly turned serious for her. It was a Reds baseball cap that triggered her natural instinct to run with utter resolution. To chase, to catch, to hold. I could hardly get the cap away from her. Then she knew what running meant to the cheetah. It made her break her own record for speed, when the National Geographic filmed her, at age 11, running 61 mph. 100 meters in 5.95 seconds.
She will be remembered by thousands of school children who heard her loud purr or heard her nails clicking on the table top where she stayed during the program. My memories are imprinted in my heart and mind of a tiny brave little cheetah who grew up and turned into the elegant animal that the mature cheetah is. The claw marks from her tiny little claws when she was a cub remain on my bedspread to this day and the hole she chewed through my zoo jacket and the awkward job I did of sewing it up will remain there for the rest of my life.
We will miss Sara’s eyes, fixed on our eyes, always asking “what next”? Indeed Sara, what next, in your giant shadow of grace other cheetahs will follow your lead and our race to educate and tell your story so that your species can always be, waiting to answer “what next”.