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.