When I was invited to join Cat Ambassador Program (CAP) trainer Lauren K. on one of her overnight shifts with Donni the five-month-old cheetah cub and his puppy companion, Moose, I accepted without hesitation! As part of Donni’s training to become a Cincinnati Zoo cat ambassador, four full-time CAP trainers are caring for the cub and his chocolate lab buddy 24/7 and take turns spending the night with the playful pair on a fold-out futon in the cat facility’s kitchen. I was excited to witness the evening routine and prepared not to get much sleep!
Arrival (5 p.m.) – I meet up with Lauren who explains that these overnights are a critical part of raising ambassador cheetahs, as they can be very delicate cats. However, it’s also one of the best parts of the job! A normal day in the life of a CAP team member is fulfilling, but forming a bond with a young cheetah like this takes rewarding to another level!
The dynamic duo will be ready to stay through the night on their own soon, but for now, the trainers are working on creating an unbreakable bond that will last a lifetime. As Donni learns to trust his trainers, Moose teaches him social behaviors and provides comfort and companionship (similar to the role Blakely (the Australian shepherd) plays in the Zoo’s Nursery). The two will keep each other company for the next few years as Donni grows up to be an ambassador for his wild counterparts. Moose will help us educate visitors about how dogs are used for conservation across Africa.
Van Training: Lauren says first on the list is to order dinner (Meatball Kitchen… great vegetarian options too!) and hop in the van with Donni to go pick it up! The CAP travels to schools all over the tri-state, so it’s important for him to be at ease in the van. He doesn’t mind the van and will lay or sit down, and even stand on his back legs and put his front paws up so he can see out of the window. Donni, and all cheetahs taken off Zoo grounds, are put in a spacious crate in the back of the van for their riding safety. The walk to the van also provides a great opportunity for practice walking on a leash.
Dinner Time: While we pick up our food, and drive around Clifton, Donni relaxes in the back. It will be his turn to eat when we get back to the Zoo. This growing cub eats four times a day, at 8am, 12pm, 5:30pm and 10pm. His meaty meals consist of a raw beef diet and treat meat used for training. He eats 22 oz a day (Tommy, a full grown male cheetah at the Zoo eats 3 pounds a day). He’ll also get a chicken foot for extra calcium and to help him learn to rip and tear food. Training sessions go along with Donni’s feedings. He’s learning to sit and to respond to recall cues now. Eventually he’ll learn behaviors that will make medical procedures and exams easier to perform.
Play time: After Donni eats, Lauren puts him with Moose in their small outdoor yard for a play session. We take our food outside and watch the two run around the yard (hopefully burning off some energy!).
Socialization: Visitors are another part of the nightly routine to get Donni and Moose used to strangers. They will see thousands of new faces in their lifetime through school and education programs and socialization when they are young is important so they are used to being around people they don’t know and are comfortable and well-adjusted when they are adult cheetahs out at programs. Tonight’s visitor is Katie B. from Amelia (best friend perk). While she is helping with socialization, she learns about the Cat Ambassador Program and the hard work that goes into raising a cheetah ambassador.
Reinforcing Good Behavior: After visiting time is over, it is treat time for the boys! Donni receives a chicken foot and Moose gets a dog bone.
Nap time: After playing, visiting with Katie and receiving treats, the two are ready for a brief nap. As you can see, Donni is the dominant of the two and even takes all of the toys for himself during nap time!
Movie & Paperwork: While the boys nap, Lauren fills out a comprehensive log detailing everything that Donni & Moose have been doing this evening. Each night, the trainer on duty will document food intake and activities to make sure they are progressing as they should be. I watched “Duma,” a movie about cheetahs, while Lauren did paperwork.
Moose Training: After a short nap, it’s time for Moose’s training session. Each night, the keepers work on behaviors, each unique to the trainer. Lauren is working on high five, down, roll over, and circle around. She describes Moose as very smart and eager to learn! The trainers use a clicker to bridge the gap between the good behavior and the reward. When it’s clicked, he knows he did the right behavior and that food is coming. Between the four trainers, Moose has learned ten behaviors in a very short time!
After his training session, it’s time for leash practice. We do a quick walk to the van and back. Moose gets distracted by a bug.
Playtime Part II: When we return from the walk, Donni is well rested and ready to play again! Do these two ever tire out?
Donni Training: It’s time for another training session with Donni. He’s learning behaviors that will make vet check ups in the future less stressful and more comfortable for him. If a vet needs to draw blood, give a vaccine or trim his dew claw, he’ll be familiar with being touched in the indicated areas and will even offer a paw for certain procedures.
Bedtime: It’s finally time for bed, but Donni and Moose get a burst of energy before settling down. Moose heads to the mat Lauren laid out for him, and Donni kindly hogs the futon.
I squeezed my way onto the futon with Donni as Lauren finished up her log for the night. The feeling of of having a cheetah cub stretch it’s long, lean legs over you and fall asleep against you is something I will never forget. Cheetahs are endangered, and their population worldwide has shrunk from about 100,000 in 1900 to an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 cheetahs today. I feel lucky to be able to share this night with such an important ambassador.
Lights are out and it’s time to sleep! However, a small futon, a cheetah cub, a big puppy, two humans and a lot of excitement makes it hard to fall asleep! I finally doze off for a few hours and wake up feeling like someone is staring at me. I open my eyes and find I’m nose-to-nose with Moose who is sitting on the floor staring at me. Apparently he wants to play. He digs around in his toy box and pulls out toys. When he goes over to Donni at the foot of the futon and starts licking him, Lauren tries to get him to go to bed. He jumped up and laid in my arms. Having a puppy on one side of you and a cheetah cub curled up in the crook of your legs is the happiest feeling ever. I didn’t even mind that I wouldn’t get any sleep!
The noises overnight at the Cat Ambassador Program make me realize again the importance of having a comforting person around in these first few months. You can hear other small nocturnal cats playing with enrichment items and even Sir Francis Bacon running around in the middle of the night.
So until Donni and Moose are used to these random noises in the night, it’s important for a trainer to be nearby to comfort them! However, besides Moose’s 3am invitation to play, Donni seemed to snooze the night away.
Morning: 6am came early and it was time to get up and get moving again for the day. Lauren had just enough time to clean up before the next trainer arrived and run home before returning for her 8am shift. I’ve witnessed the dedication Cincinnati Zoo keepers have for their animals, but this is truly special.
The Enquirer is following Donni as he grows up and trains to be part of CAP. Keep up with Donni’s story on Cincinnati.com
The Cat Ambassador Program (CAP) educates more than 150,000 people a year about the importance of cheetahs and other wild cat predators. From April to October, Zoo guests can witness cheetahs running and other wild cats performing natural behaviors during Cheetah Encounter shows. During the school year, CAP staff introduces students to cheetahs and small wild cats during assembly programs. The CAP also collects donations for The Angel Fund to support cheetah conservation. Cat Ambassador Program founder Cathryn Hilker and a cheetah named Angel worked together to educate people about cheetahs. Established in Angel’s memory in 1992, The Angel Fund raises funds to support a variety of cheetah conservation projects committed to saving cheetahs both in captivity and in the wild.