Category — Enrichment
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
Cat Ambassador Program
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.
July 8, 2016 6 Comments
If you follow the Zoo blog, you’ve likely read posts written by some of current Zoo Academy students and are somewhat familiar with the program. This year, we are celebrating a milestone as the 40th class of Zoo Academy graduates prepares to walk across the Cintas Center stage and receive their diplomas on May 24.
The Cincinnati Zoo Academy has been a part of the public school system in Cincinnati since 1975. In 1995, the program underwent a substantial change from a strictly vocational program with an emphasis on natural resources and wildlife management to a four year college preparatory program where the students earn vocational degrees by working with zookeepers for two hours a day. During the 2008 – 2009 school year, we became a Tech Prep program with articulation agreements with UC Blue Ash and Cincinnati State. Students spend their ninth and tenth grade years at Hughes High School. During their eleventh and twelfth grade years, home base for the Zoo Academy is located on the first floor of the Education Center on Zoo grounds. The students spend several hours a day working alongside keepers, educators and other staff in labs throughout the Zoo.
This year’s graduates follow in the footsteps of an esteemed group of alumni. Many graduates have gone on to establish careers in environmental or zoological fields and some have actually been hired on as staff here at the Zoo, including Rickey Kinley, who has worked at the Zoo for 22 years and is currently a keeper in the aviculture department. Here Rickey shares his story in his own words:
“I started my life as an underprivileged kid. We were very poor. I can remember being fascinated by nature and animals as far back as when I was three years old watching a ladybug on my window sill. At about the third grade, I had the epiphany that books held the information about the animals that I was so interested in. I became a bookworm, but only with books about animals. This curiosity developed further on to my teenage years when a freshman year science teacher mentioned to me about a high school called the Zoo School. As a teenager, this school seemed too good to be true. I applied, was accepted, and started school at the beginning of my junior year.
It was quite amazing to see on a daily basis all of the Cincinnati Zoo All-stars: Cathryn Hilker (founder of Cat Ambassador Program), Mike Dulaney (current Curator of Mammals), Milan Busching (former insect keeper), and of course, Thane Maynard (current Zoo Director). These were people that I had regularly seen and idolized on the TV show “Zoo Zoo Zoo.” Every single day I felt like I needed to pinch myself to make sure that it was a real high school.
Like every teenager, I was never quite sure what, when, or where life would take me or what decisions I should be making. The Zoo School gave me focus, direction, and mentoring. My very first lab rotation was in Wildlife Canyon with folks like Randy Pairan (current keeper) who taught me about the babirusa named Oscar that was more like a dog than a pig. During the Cat House lab, I was allowed to ride in the vet van next to an anesthetized lion on the way to the vet hospital for a root canal.
In the Bird House, Casey Nastold (former keeper) taught me how to hand-feed a variety of parrots, including baby macaws, eclectus parrots, African grey parrots, cockatoos, and the list goes on. Way back in 1992, the Bird House used to remove the eggshells from each egg before we smashed them for diets. I mentioned to Casey one day how in one of my books I read that many bird breeders smash the eggs with the shell on to provide grit and calcium for the birds. Casey decided that it made sense, the change was made and that is how we do our eggs still to this day. Looking back it still amazes me that she, in her managerial position, listened to the idea of a teenager. It was extraordinary that she judged the concept on the merit of the idea and not from whose mouth it came.
I met Mary Abbott (current keeper) during my rotation in the Children’s Zoo. In this department lived a turkey vulture named Greta that only liked Mary. Actually, she only liked women. Any woman could pick this bird up like a baby, but men were never treated so kindly. Even though Greta was partial to women in general, I could tell that this vulture was a great judge of character because Mary was one of the nicest people I met as a student.
I want to help others understand how great of an impact that a program like this can have on a person. Two things seemed impossible to me as a youngster with few opportunities: 1) to one day become a zookeeper and 2) to own my own business. I have now been at the Zoo for 22 years and I have been a business owner for 13 years.”
Learn more about the Zoo Academy and hear inspiring stories from other graduates here.
May 22, 2015 1 Comment
Meet Minnow, the Cincinnati Zoo’s first and only fishing cat ambassador. Minnow helps spread awareness about fishing cats at the Zoo, and she has inspired her trainer, Linda Castenada, to support research and conservation of the endangered fishing cat in the wild.
The fishing cat is a medium-sized cat from the wetlands of Southeast Asia that feeds on rodents, birds, frogs, fish and other aquatic species. Good swimmers, fishing cats have been observed to dive into water after fish as well as to scoop them out with their paws.
During the Cat Ambassador Program’s summer show at the Zoo (called the Cheetah Encounter), Minnow shows off her expert hunting and fishing skills. As far as we know, she is the only current fishing cat ambassador working on stage in an AZA-accredited zoo. Fishing cats are shy and secretive by nature, which makes it challenging to get them comfortable in front of an audience. Linda, who has worked as the Coordinator and Lead Trainer with the Cat Ambassador Program since 2007, was up for the challenge. Since the age of four when she got her first pet cat, Suzi, Linda has always been a cat person.
With Minnow, it took a lot of patience and paying attention her natural behavior to condition her to display her hunting skills successfully in front of an audience. Following a very set routine is one of the keys to maintaining her comfort. And rewarding her with her favorite fishy treats!
After several years of working with Minnow, Linda decided she wanted to do more to support fishing cats in the wild where the conversion of natural wetlands for aquaculture and the persecution of fishing cats for raiding fish and shrimp farms threaten their survival. Linda recently took on a new role as the Education Advisor to the Fishing Cat Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to conserve species through research, breeding, education and conservation. Her mission is to increase awareness and raise funds for fishing cat conservation. To this end, Linda established the Fishing Cat Fund as well as a Fishing Cat SSP page on Facebook.
She also secured support from the Cincinnati Zoo’s 2014 Internal Conservation Grants Fund for the Fishing Cat Conservancy’s program to conserve the fishing cat and its mangrove habitat around the Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary in India. Through the use of questionnaires, camera-traps, and in-field tracking with local communities, the Fishing Cat Conservancy and the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society documents fishing cats in the region and involves local people in conservation education and awareness programs about fishing cats and their habitat.
This summer, I encourage you to catch Minnow in action during a Cheetah Encounter show and learn more about wild cats and their conservation around the globe.
February 18, 2015 5 Comments