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Slumber Party at the Zoo with a Cheetah Cub, a Puppy and a Trainer

Donni the cheetah cub and Moose the lab puppy

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!

Trainer Lauren & Donni

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.

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Donni has plenty of extra room to lay down, walk or sit in the van crate

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Cat Ambassador Program van. Here Comes the Zoo!

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.

Lauren prepares Donni's dinner

Lauren prepares Donni’s dinner

Donni eating a raw meat diet during a training session

Donni eating a raw meat diet during a training session


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.donni

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!

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High Five from Moose

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.

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Look closely! It’s Moose and 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.

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Donni 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.

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Donni goes to join Moose on the mat. Spoon!

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Four in the futon!

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.

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Sir Francis Bacon, the red river hog, sound asleep

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.

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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

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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

There’s Something Abuzz at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

Guest blogger: Cole Soldo, Sustainability Intern

The Cincinnati Zoo is a haven for innovative techniques in conservation, education and research, advocating for and performing wildlife conservation in all corners of the globe. Whether it is strategically breeding red pandas to develop a self-sustaining captive population or facilitating the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sloths in Costa Rica, we support conservation efforts in areas where wildlife needs our help. We do tremendous and impactful conservation work throughout the world, yet there’s one area where we could have even greater impact. Home.

One night on the way home from work, I listened to Zoo Director, Thane Maynard, on his 90-Second Naturalist radio program. He was discussing the environmental impacts of logging in Malaysia. Maynard was struck with grief and helplessness as he realized that, despite wanting to help improve the environmental situation in that part of the world, it simply wasn’t feasible for him to do so.

So he and Zoo staff got to thinking…how could they help improve the world right here in Cincinnati, Ohio? What could they do to address a local issue and have an initiative readily accessible for residents in the community?

The answer lay in pollinators, more specifically, creating refuges for local pollinators such as bees, butterflies, bats, hummingbirds and an assortment of other insects that feed on flower nectar and carry pollen from plant to plant.

Honeybees (Photo: JP Goguen)

Honeybees (Photo: JP Goguen)

Why are pollinators important? Well, pollinators such as honeybees contribute to one out of every three bites of food we take! Pollination leads to the production of fruits that we eat and seeds that will create more plants. They are extremely important, but often they are overlooked and underappreciated. And on top of that, they’re also in trouble.

You may or may not be familiar with the woes plaguing our pollinators, but the truth is that, at least for bees all around the world, their populations are in critical decline. The rapid and detrimental decline of bee populations was first documented in 2006, and has come to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder, (CCD). CCD has been identified as a result of a possible combination of parasites, bacterial diseases, viruses, pesticide use, shrinking habitat and nutritional deficits. Recent years have seen losses of an average of 33% of colonies.

Sounds disheartening, complex and out of control, right? Well, the answer to that is…sort of. But the last three reasons mentioned for CCD? We can do something about those, and, in fact, the Zoo has been working hard to combat these issues and give our winged friends some help.

Within the last month, Zoo staff, folks from the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District and eager volunteers helped establish 13 honey bee hives at the Zoo’s EcOhio Farm to help restore native pollinator populations. They also planted pollinator gardens to restore habitat and proper nutrients for the colonies.

Zoo staff build bee hive boxes

Zoo staff build bee hive boxes

ecohio farm logoThese hives are managed by Pollen Nation, a group of Zoo staff who have dedicated themselves to learning the way of the honeybee, so to speak. They are a collection of dedicated individuals who recognize the rapid loss of these valuable species and are moving ahead to do what they can to help preserve them.pollen nation logo

Pollen Nation education table

Pollen Nation education table

You can come learn about the value and importance of these incredible creatures during your next visit to the Zoo. Come to the Pollination Station near the World of the Insect. Here you can learn about the process of pollination, participate in discussions about which animals are considered pollinators and understand why pollination is important to both the ecosystem and to our food production! On Thursdays, stick around for our Bee Chats at 2 pm. Presenters discuss the beehives we have on Zoo grounds and talk about different conservation methods such as building mason bee houses and what to plant in your own pollinator gardens. Also, stop by the Go Green Garden for fun pollination-themed activities and games as well as participation in the nationwide citizen-science initiative, BeeSpotter!bee spotter

Get ready, Cincinnati! Let’s #BringBackTheBees!

June 13, 2016   3 Comments

How to Keep Your Zoo Visit Alive After You Get Home

Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Education Intern

Visiting the Zoo can leave you feeling refreshed, happy, and enlightened. Tap into that energy and think about how you can keep that excitement going for yourself and your family once you go back home. It can be a simple everyday act or a lifestyle change. Give these ideas a try and share your own suggestions in the comments.

Share what you learned. Don’t just share your photos on Facebook; share something more. Sit down with your family while the visit is still fresh in your minds and try to recall a “fun fact” about an animal. Then share that in a post. For example, share a picture you took of a giraffe with something like “Amazing — a giraffe has the same number of vertebrae in its neck as a person!” If you have a child in Zoo Troop and you’re sharing photos from class, remember to use the hashtag #cincyzootroop.

Capturing a moment to share on Facebook (Photo: Dr. ChengLun Na)

Capturing a moment to share on Facebook (Photo: Dr. ChengLun Na)

Learn more. Connect with the Zoo on social media and follow the Zoo blog to keep up with what’s going on with our animals, exhibits, events and conservation efforts. We are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Google+.

Appreciate the “wild” side of your pets. If you have a family dog, remind your kids that their pooch is related to the Mexican grey wolves you saw in Wolf Woods. Make similar connections for cats, birds or fish. Kids learn to respect nature when they see it reflected in their everyday lives.

Mexican grey wolf (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Mexican grey wolf (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Recycle and compost. You and your family have the power to keep the planet healthy for all animals… including humans! Curbside recycling has made reducing your trash a no-brainer. This website lets you search by ZIP code to find facilities to recycle items that can’t be put in your bin. Arguably even easier than recycling is composting. Here’s one source of information on how to do it. By disposing of food or yard waste in this responsible way, you’ll reduce the amount of greenhouse gases coming from landfills.

A.D.O.P.T. a Zoo animal. For as little as $30, you and your family can symbolically adopt anything from a meerkat to a manatee. You’ll get a color photo and fact sheet about the animal, plus additional benefits at higher giving levels. Your children will learn not only about animals, but about philanthropy and the great feeling you get when you give back.

Encourage backyard research. You can’t visit the Zoo every day, but if you have a backyard or a nearby park, there’s probably plenty of wildlife there doing its thing. Let your kids explore, on their own, or with you. They might identify birds, spot tadpoles in a creek, look for deer tracks, or learn to imitate an owl. Think of your surroundings as your own mini-zoo.

Volunteer. The Zoo offers volunteer opportunities for ages 13 and up, in a variety of roles that fit your talents. Likewise, park districts, nature centers, and museums need and appreciate the contributions of people like you. Start Googling and see what you discover close to home.

We love our volunteers! (Photo: DJJAM)

We love our volunteers! (Photo: DJJAM)

Thanks for visiting the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. We hope you’ll take a little piece of the Zoo with you wherever you are!

April 5, 2016   1 Comment