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Category — Cheetah Days

Sara. Remembrance of a life well lived.

By: Cathryn Hilker, Founder of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program


Cathryn and Sara in 2000

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.


Sara and her companion Lexi

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.


photo by Jill Halpin

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”.

January 22, 2016   38 Comments

Meet our Cheetahs: Celebrating International Cheetah Day

Today, on International Cheetah Day, we celebrate the fastest animal on land by introducing you to our ambassador cheetahs and how they help spread awareness about cheetah conservation.

Our cheetah ambassadors work with their trainers at the Cat Ambassador Program (CAP)educating 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.

At 14 years old, Sara is our most experienced ambassador and still enjoys running during shows. In fact, she is the “fastest cheetah in captivity” as she was clocked running 100 meters in 5.95 seconds last summer during a National Geographic photo shoot. Watch the behind-the-scenes video here.

Sara (Photo: Mark Frolick)

Sara (Photo: Mark Frolick)

Born at the DeWildt Breeding Center in South Africa in 2004, Bravo and Chance came to us when they were six months old.  They remain a coalition here, as brother cheetahs often stick together in the wild, and are our only cheetahs housed together.  They spend more time in our Africa exhibit yard than the other cheetahs.

Bravo and Chance

Bravo and Chance

Tommy T was born at the Zoo’s off-site Cheetah Breeding Facility in 2008 and is named after Tom Tenhundfeld, the lead keeper at the facility. He was raised with Pow Wow (the dog), and was featured in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Magazine. He even made the cover!

Tommy T

Tommy T

Tommy T on the cover of National Geographic

Tommy T on the cover of National Geographic

Nia Faye was also born at our Breeding Facility in 2009. We affectionately call her our “wild child”.  She took a lot of work, but she is a great ambassador and is rivaling Sara in speed.

Nia Faye

Nia Faye

Born in 2012, Savanna is our youngest ambassador.  She was the cheetah featured with Zoo Director, Thane Maynard, on the Today Show to promote our partnership with National Geographic Magazine. Watch the video here.



Savanna on Today Show

Savanna on Today Show

Supporting Cheetah Conservation

In addition to spreading awareness, the CAP also collects donations for The Angel Fund to support cheetah conservation. For 12 years, 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. Over the years, the Zoo and The Angel Fund has supported and participated in many cheetah conservation field projects, including but not limited to the following programs.

  • Cheetah Outreach is a community-based education program based in South Africa that conducts school presentations with ambassador cheetahs as well as teacher workshops. Cheetah Outreach also breeds Anatolian shepherd dogs and places them on South African farms to guard livestock in an effort to reduce conflict between farmers and predators.
  • The Ruaha Carnivore Project works with local communities to help develop effective conservation strategies for large carnivores in Tanzania. The mission is being achieved through targeted research and monitoring, mitigation of threats, mentorship, training and community outreach.
  • Cheetah Conservation Botswana aims to preserve the nation’s cheetah population through scientific research, community outreach and education, working with rural communities to promote coexistence with Botswana’s rich diversity of predator species.

A Leader in Cheetah Breeding

With inspiration and support from The Angel Fund, the Zoo also has become a leader in captive cheetah breeding. Since 2002, 41 cubs have been produced at the Zoo’s off-site Cheetah Breeding Facility in Clermont County. The Zoo is one of nine AZA-accredited institutions that participate in a cheetah Breeding Center Coalition (BCC). Working closely with the Cheetah Species Survival Plan, the BCC’s goal is to create a sustainable cheetah population that will prevent extinction of the world’s fastest land animal.

One of the many litters of cheetah cubs born at the Zoo's Breeding Facility (Photo: Dave Jenike)

One of the many litters of cheetah cubs born at the Zoo’s Breeding Facility (Photo: Dave Jenike)

You Can Help

Want to help us save cheetahs? Consider donating to The Angel Fund!

December 4, 2014   1 Comment

Snowflakes and spots

In the last week we have had an unexpected amount of snow at the Cincinnati Zoo.  Though it can be tough to work outside in snowy conditions (lots of frozen locks and shoveling!), it does give the animals something new in their environment. Some animals naturally love the snow.  Our snow monkeys, polar bears and red pandas have had a blast playing in the snow in the last week.  Others, like the cheetahs, are not animals you would expect to find in the snow. However, they are curious and energetic creatures and a little snow won’t stop playtime in the show yard.  Our youngest cheetah Savanna and her dog companion Max were caught on camera enjoying a game of chase in the snow last week.


If you have not seen the video click here to watch Savanna and Max play in the snow.

The video featuring Savanna and Max has generated two questions among our curious zoo fans- do cheetahs like the snow and is it safe for the cheetah to play with a domestic dog?

Some cat species like tigers and snow leopards live in snowy climates, but cheetahs are native to the African savanna, where they would not encounter snow naturally.  All of the cheetahs in the Cat Ambassador Program were born in captivity, and they have spent their whole lives at the Cincinnati Zoo.  Seasonal changes are a part of their world and just like people some of them like the snow more than others!

Sara, our 13 year old female, is not a fan of anything that leads to wet paws.  She will walk in the snow and she will tolerate the snow to spend time in the show yard but her patience for wet paws is short and she usually makes her trips outside brief.  She prefers to stay inside on her heated floors and in her dry warm bed.  All our cheetahs have inside and outside access so they get to choose how much time they want to be in or out.  It is up to them if they want to brave the elements or not.  The 9 year old brothers Bravo and Chance and 5 year old male Tommy T don’t seem to mind the snow.  Their priority as adult males is to patrol and mark their “territory” and to scope out what is going on around the show yard and a little snow won’t stop them.  Nia, our 4 year old female tends to spend the most time in the snow, she is an all weather girl.  Nia is our “wild child” and she has a lot of energy so she can be found year round romping in the show yard, even in the rain and snow!  Savanna, our 1.5 year old female is also not picky about weather.  Being young means she has a lot of energy as well so she enjoys running around, regardless of the elements. Since she is still living with her dog Max, she always has a good buddy to join her in a game of chase.

Which leads to our second question, is it safe for the cheetah to be with a domestic dog?  Believe it or not, Savanna is our 4th cheetah/dog pair in the Cat Ambassador Program and the practice of having an ambassador cheetah with a domestic dog is a common practice in zoos across the United States.  Sara had her dog Alexa, Tommy T had Pow Wow growing up and Nia had a dog named Cali.  We only pair a cheetah with a dog when they do not have siblings.  The cheetah brothers Bravo and Chance have each other so they did not need a dog.

Sara and Lexi playing

Sara and her dog Alexa playing

10 Cheetah 1081 C

Tommy T and Pow Wow on a walk

Nia and Cali asleep in sun 11 2009

Nia and her puppy buddy Cali napping in the sun

Cheetahs are always raised in a litter of 2 or more and just like every animal (humans included!) play is very important to their development.  Play builds coordination, strong muscles, allows animals to learn the social rules of their species and to practice skills that they need as adults, such as how to chase prey successfully.  While our cheetahs do not need to learn to hunt, they still need an outlet for their physical and psychological desire to chase.  As trainers, we seek to enrich our animals as much as possible but we can not be their playmate or running buddy.  Since they are ambassador animals, the cheetahs will be around people their whole life and they should not view people as playmates or prey to be chased.  We joke in our Cheetah Encounter Show that cheetahs are “dog like” but there is a lot of truth behind the joke.  Cheetahs are built like a large sleek dog and if introduced at a young age, they will regard a dog as a playmate and accept it just as they would a sibling.

We have two types of dogs that we use for cheetah companions.  Sometimes we use an Anatolian shepherd dog, a guard dog.  This allows us to tell the conservation story of the work we support in Africa.  Tommy T’s dog companion Pow Wow is an Anatolian shepherd.  Click here for a video of their first introduction and hear Cathryn Hilker describe the importance of the dog.  We have also used black lab mixes that we found at local animal shelters. We look for dogs that have an easy going personality, that are friendly toward people and that also have a lot of energy to be able to run and play with a cheetah.Cali and Max are black lab mixes that we found at different animal shelters and they have also been great cheetah playmates.  After about a year and a half to two years, the cheetah is no longer interested in playing as much and no longer needs her dog playmate.  They will always be friendly with each other, but just like human siblings, the cheetah wants his/her own room and space after a certain age.  We keep the Anatolian shepherd dogs to continue to share our conservation message but we adopt out the black lab mixes when the cheetah is ready to have their own room.  Cali lives with a former cat trainer and Max will live with one of our keepers once Savanna is all grown up.

The cheetah dogs are considered part of the zoo collection, they receive the same high quality care we give to every animal at the zoo and we make sure that their relationship with the cheetah stays positive and fun for them too.  Just like our cheetahs, they are pretty spoiled!


Savanna and Max during one of their first playtime sessions.


December 17, 2013   1 Comment