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 her dog Alexa playing
Tommy T and Pow Wow on a walk
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.