Inside the Matchmaking Service for Cheetahs
Even from 10 feet away, Pancake's purr is loud. The 4-year-old feline is taking her daily morning walk around the fenced-in cheetah section of Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon. I trail behind her with Mikaely Riley, one of her keepers, and holding Pancake's leash is another keeper, Maddy, who has a small white bucket attached to her belt. The buffer zone around Pancake is required: She may be one of Wildlife Safari's cheetah "ambassadors," encountering the public daily in educational sessions and photo-ops, but she's still a cheetah—75 pounds of muscle, claws, teeth, and speed. Maddy periodically reaches into the white bucket, grabs a chunk of raw steak, and throws it to Pancake.
"Just like you put in your stir fry," Riley says.
Pancake was born alone—a single cub, with no brothers or sisters, and her mother abandoned her. In the wild, that would've been a death sentence. But this lucky orphan was born far from the African savannah, at the most successful cheetah-breeding program in the world outside of Africa. At Wildlife Safari—a drive-through animal park located on 600 acres in southwest Oregon that is home to 80 species and hundreds of animals, many of which roam free—the cheetah keepers hand-raised her, tenderly bottle-feeding her milk, affectionate snuggles, and chunks of raw meat. When she was 6 weeks old, they got her a companion: a Rhodesian ridgeback puppy named Dayo, who had been born the same day as she was. As Pancake passes by their joint enclosure, Dayo whines at her. They spend virtually every moment of their lives together. But Pancake is into her walk, and there are a lot of other big cats to see.
She spots a Sumatran tiger in another enclosure and whine-growls, her tail curled between her legs. She's not scared, Riley explains—she's annoyed. "'Hey, that is in my space,'" Riley says. "You can see she’s not running away. If Pancake was scared, she’d run." The tiger barely deigns to acknowledge her, regally indifferent.
Cheetahs have been endangered for decades. Since the early 20th century, the population has declined about 90 percent, from about 100,000 animals to less than 10,000. (One recent study estimates there are just 7100 animals still in the wild.) Its range has been reduced by an equivalent percentage. Cheetahs once roamed nearly all of Africa and much of Asia, but now they're limited to a handful of countries in south and eastern Africa, and in Iran, where the population is thought to be 50. Habitat loss, poaching, and hunting by farmers protecting their livestock continue to reduce their numbers.
That's why cheetah-breeding programs like Wildlife Safari's are so important. Since the 1970s, 214 cubs have been born in Winston. They've found homes in zoos all over North America. There's a good chance that if you've seen a cheetah at a zoo in the United States sometime in the past 40 years, it may have been born at, bred in, or passed through Wildlife Safari.
Two years after cheetahs landed on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's endangered list in 1970, and a year before the Endangered Species Act of 1973 banned their trade, Frank Hart opened Wildlife Safari. Hart was a married California native and father of four daughters who worked in real estate. After repeatedly witnessing poaching on safaris in Africa in the 1960s, he was inspired to create a conservation refuge. "By my third trip, I knew the animals were in trouble," he told the Associated Press in 2003, four years before his death. "The poaching was terrible. It came to a point where you'd be lucky to find these animals in the zoo."
His wife, Barbara, thought the enterprise would be interesting but short-lived: "This was fun, something different and exciting. And of course we always considered it temporary," she said.
Cheetahs were the first animals to arrive at Wildlife Safari, and were soon joined by 30 other species. A year later, in 1973, the first cheetah cub was born.
Today there are 18 cheetahs at Wildlife Safari. The youngest are a pair of cubs that just turned a year old. Cubs stay with their mothers for 18 to 24 months. After that, sisters strike out solo for the rest of their lives, whether in the wild or in a zoo. Brothers stay together for their entire lives, forming incredibly strong bonds called "coalitions." Sometimes unrelated males will form coalitions, too. By pairing the female orphan Pancake with Dayo, the keepers came up with an arrangement that wouldn't be seen in the wild. On the other hand, in the wild, she would've been left to die.
The cats spend most of their daily five hours of consciousness in their large enclosures, sniffing, walking around, and doing enrichment activities like playing ball, solving puzzle toys, or chasing a large slab of meat rapidly yanked by keepers along a wire-pulley system for 300 feet. (Why so little time awake? Because while cheetahs may be the fastest land animals on Earth, they are also one of the planet's sleepiest; like other big cats, they rest about 19 hours a day.) They rotate among the many cheetah enclosures pretty frequently to keep things interesting; exploring new smells and sights is exciting for them.
For a cheetah, Pancake is petite, but she's about average when it comes to her bony frame, which is "just perfect," says Riley. Cheetahs are built to flee, not fight, and a lean weight keeps them fleet of foot. Cheetahs may look fierce—and I recommend you don't mess with one—but if any feline deserves the name Scaredy Cat, it's the cheetah. In the wild, lions take up to half of the kills cheetahs make, and even large birds can scare them off. "They're just not willing to pick a fight," Riley says. "If they get hurt, they can't run, and if they can't run, they can't eat, so it's better for them to give up their food and run away."
Cheetahs mostly hunt antelope and gazelles, but they'll go after a hare or smaller livestock if food is limited. Here, they get one meal a day—dinner—after the keepers have cleaned their pens.
The cheetahs get daily walks on the roads that border the cheetah compound—a fenced-in collection of large enclosures visitors can drive next to see the cats. Each one regularly gets to run free in this space. The keepers close the main gates to the compound, open one enclosure, and let out a single cat, who then visits all the other cat enclosures, sniffing through the fence. They're also taken on strolls through nature trails in the nearby hills, where many additional cheetah pens are located. It's from these hills that the cats can see herds of animals they might spot on the African savannah, among them elephants, brindled wildebeests, Damara zebras, and scimitar-horned oryxes, which are extinct in the wild.
"It's a very calming position for them to be in, just sitting up on the hill and looking out on everything that's around," Riley says. "We think that's why we've had such success with our breeding programs."
Pancake's day is a little different. Because she's one of three ambassador cheetahs at Wildlife Safari—the other two are a pair of 5-year-old siblings named Khayam and Mchumba—she is involved in daily contact with the visitors to Wildlife Safari, who can take a picture near her after learning about cheetah conservation and biology. She often travels for outreach events, including a Boy Scout sock fundraiser held in December 2016 in a K-Mart in nearby Roseburg.
The first cheetah reportedly born in captivity made an appearance in India in the court of the 17th-century Moghul Emperor Akbar, who hunted with cheetahs the way European royals hunted with dogs. (Imported from Persia, the practice continued in India well into the 20th century.) Cheetah comes from the Hindu word chita ("spotted").
Akbar was reportedly surprised by the cub's birth. His surprise itself seems surprising; he was said to have kept as many as 1000 cheetahs, so it seems reasonable to assume some would mate.
But Akbar was more insightful about cheetahs than he may have realized. It is notoriously difficult to get cheetahs to breed in captivity. (In the wild they seem to do well enough; it's loss of habitat and prey that have ruined their populations.)
The cheetah made its first zoo appearance in London in 1829, but the animal died within a year. Nearly 50 years later, cheetahs first came to America as exhibition animals in New York City's Central Park Zoo, where they debuted in 1871. By 1954, 139 cheetahs were exhibited in 47 facilities in Europe and North America. Captivity apparently did not sit well with the cheetahs, because most did not live more than one year, and no new cheetahs were born.
Much of cheetah reproductive biology remains puzzling and unknown. But judging from what we do know, their biology doesn't make breeding a sure bet for them.
Some 10,000–12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, cheetahs nearly became extinct; some estimate that as few as a dozen cheetahs survived the climate change that killed off so many other large animal species. The legacy of that population bottleneck lives in their genes today. Compared to other big cats, cheetahs have far less genetic diversity, and they're more susceptible to a host of diseases.
Male cheetahs have poor-quality semen, with a low sperm count and an unusually high number of deformed sperm. Female cheetahs have a rare kind of estrus. It's spontaneous and unpredictable, with no known regular cycle. "They can go into estrus for one day and then be done, and then go into estrus four days later," Riley says.
A few things can trigger a cheetah to start ovulating, according to Riley. One is hearing a male call. Another is a big geographical move. In the wild, female cheetahs have larger ranges than males, so one theory is that a cheetah might go into estrus when she enters a new territory to increase the chances that a male might sniff out her hormonal changes. "Apart from that, it's just what their body wants to do, I guess," Riley says.
A cheetah pregnancy can't be detected by a hormonal test, as ours can. The only way to determine a cheetah pregnancy is to do an ultrasound or x-ray after 51 days—more than halfway through the gestation period of 90–95 days. That's a long time for impatient biologists to wait before confirming a pregnancy is even there.
And then there's parenting. Cheetahs aren't known for their stellar parenting skills, and there's a great deal of individual variety among mothers. Some dote; others are middling to indifferent; and still others seem to be completely overwhelmed and stressed out by their cubs—a feeling many new human parents can sympathize with. Fathers aren't around at all.
And even potentially caring cheetah moms are likely to walk away from a lone cub because their bodies can't produce milk unless they have multiple offspring.
On top of all of that, when it comes to mating, cheetahs are exceptionally choosy animals. They won't breed with just any old cheetah they happen to encounter. Compatibility matters.
So how does cheetah mating go down at Wildlife Safari? Cheetahs like to sniff and be sniffed. They leave scent markers with feces and urine, and rub their bodies against surfaces, "making everything smelly," Riley says. If the keepers suspect a female cheetah is ovulating—which is difficult to know since they rarely exhibit behavioral indicators, but sometimes they spray urine, and they can test feces and urine for traces of estradiol, a hormone produced during ovulation—they remove her from her pen and put a male cheetah in there and let him sniff around. (Mirroring life in the wild, male and female cheetahs at Wildlife Safari only come together to mate.)
The highly sensitive male cheetah nose is generally the most reliable tool cheetah keepers have to know whether a female is ovulating. "If he's interested—if he smells those estrus hormones in her—he will start calling to her," Riley describes. "They do this hilarious call—it's called a stutter-bark, because that's exactly what it sounds like. It's really loud. You can hear them clear across the park."
She continues, "If he's reacting really strongly, we'll put her in the pen next door or along the fence line so they can talk to each other and see if they're going to get along." A positive sign is if she stutter-barks back. "If she's getting what we call flirty—she'll act all slinky, she'll roll around on the grass, she'll flick her tail a lot—we'll take that as a good sign. If they look really happy and they look like they're going to like each other, then we put into the same pen, and then we watch, and hope for the magic to happen."
The male will follow the female, calling after her, and at a certain point she'll carefully lay down in front of him, and he'll mount her.
Like all cats large or small, cheetahs have barbed penises. "It can't be comfortable," Riley says. "If there's yelling at the end, that's actually a good sign, because that means it's gotten where it needs to go."
If the cheetahs get along especially well, they might spend the night together and have several breeding sessions, which increases the chance of conception.
But sometimes the magic doesn't happen at all. In that case, "we put them back home and call it a day," Riley says. "And we try the next day with someone else."
When it comes to making cheetah cubs, the cats have some help. Cheetah matchmakers have been quietly working behind the scenes for decades at zoos and breeding centers across North America to increase cheetah populations. The biologists behind the matchmaking don't call it that, of course. They call it a Species Survival Plan (SSP).
An SSP is a cooperative effort by member institutions of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting body for the top zoos and aquariums in the United States and eight other countries. (Only 10 percent of the animal facilities in the U.S. that the FDA licenses have animal welfare standards high enough to be part of the AZA.) The goal of an SSP is to increase genetic diversity and manage the demographic and long-term sustainability of specific species. More than 500 animals have SSPs, which are managed cooperatively by the 230 member institutions.
Founded in 1984, the cheetah SSP looks after 340 cheetahs spread across 57 institutions; they're a mix of zoos, holding facilities, and dedicated breeding centers closed to the public, of which there are about a half-dozen, Dan Brands, the general curator of animals at Wildlife Safari, tells Mental Floss.
Some have a single cheetah. Others have many more. The biggest population is currently in Florida's White Oak Conservation, which as of early September had 31 cheetahs.
Breeding centers like White Oak and Wildlife Safari are important because zoos often simply can't give cheetahs the space they need to accommodate their selective mating practices. "Your typical zoo doesn't have 10 acres to dedicate to a breeding program that's quite this space intensive," Brands says. "Breeding facilities have an ample amount of space that's able to offer that mate selection that's healthy for these animals."
One zoo that has seen a lot of cheetah cubs is Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), located in Washington, D.C. Right now there are 13 males and 15 females, 10 of them cubs. SCBI's resident cheetah expert is Adrienne Crosier, who, for the past four years, has been the project leader of the cheetah SSP, coordinating cheetah-breeding efforts across the 57 member institutions. The group holds conference calls eight times a year and one annual planning meeting, this year being held in Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Texas in October.
The breeding centers also have in-person meetings, Brands says. "We sit down at a table and say, ‘OK, here's where we're at, here are our goals, and how do we meet the needs of the SSP? What's working? What's not working? How can we improve upon what we're doing?' That communication is just invaluable."
The overarching goal of the SSP is simple: make more cheetahs. (More formally, it's to "develop a self-sustaining North American population" of cheetahs, Crosier says.) But the matchmaking services needed to reach this goal are far more complex. The trick is not only to match cheetahs in a way that will increase the population's overall genetic diversity, but also to pair up cheetahs that will actually like each other, at least for the times it takes to mate.
On these conference calls, the zoologists have long talks about individual cheetahs: their personalities, their behaviors and tendencies, their likes and dislikes, how previous mating attempts have gone, and any problems or issues. The zoologists have this information at hand because each facility keeps a detailed history of every single cat's life.
"We try very carefully to match temperaments, so if we're working with a zoo that has cheetahs housed kind of close to lions and there's also a train going by every day, we want to find some cheetahs that are extremely mellow and are used to lots of different experiences so they do well in that kind of environment," Crosier tells Mental Floss.
If there's a good match, a cat's keepers take it by van or plane to the new facility. "The SSP arranges wherever they will go for the good of the species," Riley says. "For example, if we have a ton of females that are coming of age, then we send them out to a facility that has a ton of males but doesn't have any great females. And we’ll kind of shuffle around like that. And in the same way, we'll have other facilities send in other females or males [to us] depending on who we have and who's related to who, so that we have a really great, genetically variant population."
Each cat's biography is included in what might be considered the cheetah breeders' matchmaking bible: the International Cheetah Studbook [PDF]. The global managed cheetah community reports cheetah metrics to the studbook, Crosier says.
Compiled annually by the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund, the studbook is a global tally of every known cheetah in captivity on the planet. Each cat is assigned a unique four-digit number. Associated with that number is an animal's entire personal and family history: sex, name, date and place of birth; previous owners and dates of transfer of ownership; cubs they've had and who they mated with; and the names, studbook numbers, date of birth and origins of both mom and dad, if they're known.
In 2015, the most recent report year, there were 1762 cheetahs in captivity worldwide, in 283 known facilities in 48 countries. (There are likely a small number of cheetahs being illegally held, but for obvious reasons, they aren't being reported.)
Despite all these efforts at matchmaking, there's often a subset of the 340 cheetahs in the North American population that simply don't seem to be interested in making more cheetahs. Some females won't mate, and some males show no interest. "So for those animals in our population that either can't or won't breed naturally, we're attempting to develop reliable assisted-breeding techniques," Crosier says.
Some techniques are similar to those used in human fertility clinics, including artificial insemination. "In human medicine, artificial insemination is timed, so that the female receives hormone injections at the right time," Crosier says. "The doctors know exactly when to put the sperm into her reproductive tract to have a successful insemination. We are attempting to do those same things in cheetahs."
Crosier's own research focuses on cheetah reproductive efficiency. "We study physiological traits, fertility issues, cryopreservation in males, ova quality in females, and pregnancy establishment," she says. One of her recent studies looked into the hormonal manipulation of cheetah ovarian cycles. They slipped into the cheetahs' food a short-term supplement of the hormone progestogen, which helped improve the ovary's response to an injection of altrenogest (a synthetic progestin commonly used in horse breeding). The technique also decreased the cats' level of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with stress. A relaxed, non-stressed cheetah has a far better shot at successful reproduction.
At SCBI, they have a recent example of this truth: Six months ago, a mellow-by-nature cheetah named Hope gave birth to five cubs. Born at SCBI herself in 2013, Hope got pregnant during her first-ever encounter with a male. "She has been an absolutely amazing mom," Crosier says. "Just really easygoing." Her cubs are as chill as she is, which, according to Crosier, makes sense: “If mom is really nervous, that will translate to the cubs."
Back at Wildlife Safari, Dayo eagerly awaits Pancake's return to their enclosure. Like brother cheetahs, Pancake and Dayo will spend the rest of their lives in a coalition; unlike the others, she's female and her brother is a dog. As they age, the two will stay relatively the same size, making it easier for them to wrestle, chase, and play without seriously injuring each other. Considering that Rhodesian ridgebacks and cheetahs in captivity have about the same life expectancy (into their teens as opposed to seven to nine years in the wild), they probably have about another decade of companionship ahead.
Riley suggests I take a photo with Pancake. Maddy gently leads her towards me on the leash. Pancake sits in front of me, her tail a spotted C curling in the grass, eyeing me up in profile, her mouth hanging gently open as she gathers the scent of a new human in her world. This close, her purr sounds like powerful motor. I stay still: Pancake may be bony, but she still has teeth and claws the size of switchblades. Riley takes my phone and snaps some photos of us.
Another keeper pulls up in a pickup truck, and they put a crate on the ground. Riley opens the crate door. They are going to put Pancake into the crate and drive her back to Dayo. Surprised, I ask why they don't just walk her back. After all, she's intimately connected to the keepers who hand-raised her. If any cat were going to follow human marching orders, it would be Pancake. She loves when the keepers talk to her, and she shows her affection by grooming them. (Cheetahs don't groom for hygiene.) She'll give them little kisses on their hands or rub up against their legs. That's when they know they can reach down and touch her.
Despite that bond, if Pancake were to decide she'd rather not walk back but instead linger outside, taking in the fresh scents, they'd have to wait too, Riley says. They have their methods to encourage the cats to behave in certain ways, but in the end, they're still wild animals—even Pancake.
Nevertheless, she slowly lopes inside the crate. Riley closes the door. The keepers load the crate onto the truck.
Riley says they haven't decided yet whether they'll try to breed Pancake. Her affection for humans—and one dog—is established, but she's as choosy as any other cheetah, so it's unclear at this point whether she'd even be interested in mating. While the cat's unusual family structure may be settled, her potential love life remains a question mark.