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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

Happy Penguin Awareness Day!

To celebrate everyone’s favorite feathered friends, let me introduce you to all five species of penguins that call the Cincinnati Zoo home:

Penguin-cheat-sheetThe areas highlighted in yellow on the range maps show where each of these penguin species is found in the wild. As you can see, while all of our penguins hail from the Southern Hemisphere, not all of them live in cold, harsh climates. In fact, three out of the five species we have prefer the warmer weather of Africa, South America, and Australia/New Zealand. Believe it or not, there is even a tropical species that lives on the Equator; the Galapagos penguin (though we don’t exhibit that species at the Zoo).

You might think that climate change wouldn’t be a big problem for the warm weather penguins since they are already used to the heat. It’s true that the Antarctic species suffer directly from melting ice and the die-off of krill, their primary prey, but the African penguin may be in bigger trouble. Even though it lives in a warmer climate and doesn’t live on ice, the African penguin still relies on a cold ocean current to bring its favorite fish, sardines and anchovies, within reach. As the ocean temperature rises, the cold stream moves farther away from the islands off Africa where the penguins live and makes it more difficult to find enough food.

Add to that the threats of oil spills and guano collection, which disturbs natural nest sites, and you can see why the African penguin population has declined more than 60% in the past 30 years. That’s one reason why zoos are coming together to strengthen their efforts to save the African penguin.

African penguin (Photo: Mathias Appel)

African penguin (Photo: Mathias Appel)

The African penguin is one of 10 wildlife species the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) has committed to saving through the AZA SAFE initiative. Through AZA SAFE, AZA and its members will convene scientists and stakeholders to identify the threats, develop action plans, raise new resources and engage the public in saving the selected species.

A Conservation Action Plan is currently under development for the African penguin  and will focus on the following actions:

  • Develop appropriate types and numbers of artificial nests for all colonies; facilitate long-term monitoring to assess success.
  • Expand monitoring of resident and reintroduced penguin inter-colony movement, nest site fidelity, and survival.
  • Expand monitoring of penguin foraging and other movement patterns in the marine environment.
  • Measure baseline environmental and animal-absorbed contaminant levels and conduct long-term monitoring to assess changes as oil drilling increases.
  • Strengthen disaster response and penguin rescue and rehabilitation capabilities across all colonies.


In the last three years alone, 20 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums contributed about $95,000 to African penguin conservation efforts, but we need to do more. That requires us to partner with organizations on the ground saving penguins in the field. One such organization is SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), which the Cincinnati Zoo supports with funds raised from our Saving Species and VIPenguin Experience programs.

SANCCOB is a leading marine organization that has treated more than 90 000 oiled, ill, injured or abandoned African penguins and other threatened seabirds since being established in 1968. SANCCOB is an internationally recognized leader in oiled wildlife response, rehabilitation and chick-rearing; contributes to research which benefits seabirds; trains people to care for the birds and educates the public to appreciate this unique heritage. Independent research confirms that the wild African population is 19% higher directly due to SANCCOB’s efforts, and we are proud to work with them. Learn more about the great work they’re doing in this video.

SANCCOB releases rehabilitated penguins (Photo: SANCCOB)

SANCCOB releases rehabilitated penguins (Photo: SANCCOB)


January 20, 2016   No Comments

Meet the King Penguins of the #BestParadeInAmerica


Every day at 11am and 2:30pm during Penguin Days, presented by FirstEnergy, you will find the zoo’s Aviculture Department leading the way during the Best Parade in America, the Penguin Parade!  Our colony of King Penguins walk between the Wings of Wonder bird house and the entrance of the Children’s Zoo where they spend the day outside enjoying the winter weather.  One common question that we get at almost every parade is “What are their names?”  Here is a handy dandy list to help you out identifying each member of our colony the next time you are walking with us:

Kyoto - red - 2


-Kyoto-  Red.  You can usually find Kyoto leading the group at each parade.  He also marches to the beat of his own drum, especially when we walk near fresh snow or by the entrance to the Basecamp Café.  Maybe he is a fan of green restaurants, since it is the greenest restaurant in the land.

charlemagne - yellow


-Charlemagne- Yellow.  Charlemagne may be the youngest, but is by far the largest King in our colony.  You can usually find him trying to keep up with his older brother Kyoto in the front of the parade.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

-Martin Luther- Purple.  Luther usually stays to the middle of the group during the parade.  In my opinion, he is the best looking King out of the bunch.



-BB- Green.  The only female of our group, you can find her bringing up the rear of the parade.  She has successfully reared quite a few King chicks while here at the zoo, Kyoto and Charlemagne being two of them.



-Larry- Blue.  While Luther might be the best looking King, Larry is definitely the most regal-looking.  Watch him during the parade, and you will probably see him holding his chest out proudly and possibly even vocalize during the route.  Larry and BB have incubated a few chicks together, see above; watch them while outside to see if they are performing any courtship behaviors.  You can usually find Larry in the middle of the group as well.



-Burger- Orange.  On rare occasions, you will find the elder statesman of the colony, Burger, out with the rest of the group.  It doesn’t happen too often, but he usually decides to go on parade at least once per season, and likes to hang near the back of the parade.

Hopefully this list makes it a little easier for you to identify the birds during the Best Parade in America.  Test your knowledge every day through the month of February at 11am and 230pm, as long as the temperature is below 50 degrees.  The weather might be cold, but Penguin Days is a great way to get outside and enjoy the season while seeing some amazing animals while you are at it. Follow #BestParadeInAmerica and @cincinnatizoo on Twitter for updates!






January 13, 2016   3 Comments