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Category — Cheetah Days

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

Little Spots in the Big Apple

Last week, we took cheetah cub Savanna to The Today Show in New York City to promote the Zoo’s recent partnership with and appearance in National Geographic Magazine.  While our PR department worked out the details for our travel, the trainers in the Cat Ambassador Program were responsible for making sure Savanna would be safe, comfortable, and content during her travels to New York.  It was quite the journey, filled with good people, great stories, and an exciting opportunity to show off the Cincinnati Zoo’s cheetah program.

So how do we prepare for such a big trip?  Like everything, we start at the beginning.  We train all our ambassadors from a very young age to be comfortable and confident in any situation and Savanna is no exception.  Her training began when she was only weeks old and will continue throughout her life.  Though the country only saw Savanna for four minutes on the The Today Show couch, she has been trained for the last four months to make sure she is a superstar when the time comes.

Our first challenge was getting from Cincinnati to New York.  Cheetahs are very delicate animals and Savanna is quite young, so we had to fly her in a private plane so that she could be in the main cabin with us.  Thankfully, we have some great friends at the Cincinnati Zoo and our food & retail partner, SSA, was generous enough to allow us to accompany them to and from New York in their private plane.    Like all the Zoo animals, Savanna has been trained to be transported in a crate and she slept the entire flight, even through the rough Nor’easter turbulence that met us as we approached New York City!

A van was waiting at the LaGuardia Airport to transport us to the Renaissance Hotel, where The Today Show houses many of their guests with animals.  Hotel workers greeted us with friendly smiles and curious questions but it was clear they were used to four legged guests.  Once we arrived in our room, we let Savanna out to stretch her legs.   Cheetahs are very visual animals, they love to look around and see new things, and our view did not disappoint Savanna!  She immediately went over to the window and took in the famous sights of Times Square.

Once she was done with the view, Savanna explored the rest of the room and quickly found her favorite spot, the bed closest to the window.  Savanna has been taught that rough-housing is only allowed with her puppy buddy, Max and her toys, so we were not worried about her biting on or trying to eat the bedding or the pillows.  We did bring along some of her favorite toys so she could have some rough-housing on her trip but mostly she was interested in resting and watching the snow fall.

While in New York City, we took advantage of the opportunity to see some good friends.  Judy McLane, star of Mamma Mia and longtime Cincinnati Zoo supporter, came by before her Broadway performance to meet Savanna.  Judy is an animal lover and conservation supporter, she is one of the Broadway stars that regularly performs during our Angel Fund Fundraiser, Angels of Music.  She has met the other Cincinnati Zoo cheetah ambassadors and was excited to see the newest member of the family.

After her visitor, it was time for Savanna’s dinner.  Each zoo animal’s diet is monitored by a Nutritionist, and Savanna is no exception.  Her special diet of raw meat was weighed out before we left Cincinnati and packed in separate containers for each of her feedings, with a little extra in case we ran into an emergency (like snow!).  Diets were carried in a portable refrigerated cooler that we take on all our long animal trips.  To avoid a mess in the hotel room, we fed Savanna in the tub, so we could wash and sanitize any mess she may make.  Yes, we even brought our own cleaning supplies!

Everyone got a good nights sleep and we got up early Thursday morning to head over to the NBC studios.  Our hotel was not far from the studios, so we simply walked over, rolling Savanna in her crate.  Once we arrived, we let Savanna out to walk around, check out the building and get some energy out before her big debut.  After about 30 minutes we were called into the studio for a teaser, which is a short segment to let the viewers know what stories are coming next.  Cheetahs naturally like to sit up high and  in the wild they find the highest things they can stand on, like a fallen tree or a termite mound.  So, it was only natural for Savanna to jump up on the couch to check out the studio.

After the teaser we had a few more minutes so we let Savanna explore. We checked out some of the behind the scenes areas of the show and snapped a couple of pictures with some of the men and women that work behind the scenes.  Soon enough we got called back to the studio for our segment.

Once again, Savanna wanted to be on the couch.  The hosts arranged themselves around where Savanna wanted to sit and less than a minute into the segment, she flopped over and made herself right at home.  Despite the lights, cameras, and dozens of eyes watching her, Savanna lay comfortably and confidently on The Today Show couch as Cincinnati Zoo Director, Thane Maynard, chatted with the hosts about our conservation work at the Cincinnati Zoo and our collaboration with National Geographic Magazine.  After the segment, The Today Show staff were very complimentary of Savanna, saying she was one of the best behaved animals they have ever had on the show!  Savanna took pictures with Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie before they had to quickly run off to their next segment.

Savanna was loaded back into her crate and we started to head back to our hotel room when we ran into rapper Ice-T and his model and designer wife Coco, stars of the reality show Ice Loves Coco.  Coco is an animal lover so an impromptu meet and greet was in order.  Ice-T was generous enough to snap a quick picture with trainer Linda (that’s me!) and Savanna before he and Coco headed into the studio to shoot their Today Show segment.

After all the excitement, Savanna was worn out.  We returned to the hotel room and she was able to get a cat nap for a few hours before packing up to head home.  We once again loaded her into her crate, drove to the airport and caught our flight home.  During our brief lay over in Pittsburgh to pick up passengers, Savanna was able to explore the plane, and the great view of the airport.  Once everyone was loaded and ready to go, Savanna went back into her crate to nap during the rest of the flight.  We arrived back in Cincinnati and made the trip back home to the Zoo.  Savanna’s puppy Max did not travel with her to New York so he was very excited to see his cheetah again and they played for a few hours before they cuddled together for bedtime.

All in all, our trip to New York City withSavanna was a big hit!  Despite the threat of a nasty storm, we made the journey safely and seamlessly.  Savanna was a great ambassador throughout the entire adventure, and we were able to share our conservation message and passion for wild animals with a broad national audience.  We are so lucky to have great friends and supporters, and we hope that we made some new friends through this journey!

Want to learn and see more?

View The Today Show segment.

Learn more about our amazing collaboration with The National Geographic Magazine.

Get the November digital issue of National Geographic Magazine.



November 13, 2012   1 Comment

Teaming Up With National Geographic

Our cheetahs are running machines!  A few weeks ago, we ran our cheetahs for National Geographic Magazine photographers for a fast-paced photo shoot.  The photographers got some great shots!  Ken Geiger, the magazine’s Deputy Director of Photography, posted a spectacular photo of Bravo.  Follow this link to check it out:


August 1, 2012   1 Comment