By Nicole Pajer
When you look into the cheetah habitat in the San Diego Zoo, you’ll see a cheetah…and a dog. No it wasn’t an accident and the dog didn’t sneak in there. This was done intentionally as part of the zoo’s Animal Ambassador program.
The San Diego Zoo’s “Animal Ambassadors” are a special group of animals that are trained to travel to off-site events and participate in presentations. These exotic zoo inhabitants live off the main exhibit zoo areas where they pal around with domesticated friends. The program has paired animals such as timber wolves with New Guinea singing dogs together and is most famous for it’s cheetah/dog parings.
The science behind dog and cheetah pairing is something that the San Diego Zoo first been experimenting with 30 years ago when zoologists began to notice the calming effects that dogs had on cheetahs. About four years ago, the zoo kicked off their first official pairing by introducing a shelter rescue dog, Hopper, to a three-month old cheetah named Amara. The two have been inseparable ever since.
The pairing process occurs with the matching of a three-month-old cheetah and a six-month-old dog. Zoologists look for shelter dogs that have a good disposition and a naturally calm demeanor when selecting cheetah companions. The first step is to very slowly make an introduction, allowing the dog and cheetah to look at and smell each other through a partition in adjacent habitats. Next, they are given the opportunity for brief supervised visits where handlers allow them to sniff and investigate each other. “Pretty soon, when someone throws a ball, they both go after it and when the people go home for the night, the cheetah gets to cuddle up to his big ball of fur friend and use him like a pillow,” says senior animal trainer, Carlee Westbrook. The dog keeps the cheetah calm and relaxed and the cheetah provides companionship for the dog. It’s a win-win situation.
Each animal pairing situation is different and it can take anywhere from one week to three months for the dogs and cheetahs to become comfortable with each other. Once a relationship is established, they do everything except for eat with one another since, according to Westbrook, they don’t eat the same things and the dog would probably push the cat aside to scarf down it’s food.
Dog/cheetah pairings are a specific bond that takes time to solidify. If a dog passes away, zookeepers cannot introduce a new dog to a cheetah. They simply would have to work to keep the cheetah calm and attended to as it lives out the remainder of its life.
There are currently four different dog and cheetah companions living together as part of the Animal Ambassador program:
Karoo, a female cheetah lives in a habitat with Sven Olof, a male golden retriever. Kubali, a female cheetah shares her space with Bear, a male chow mix. Bakari, a male cheetah and his female husky mix friend Miley live together. Taraji, the zoo’s youngest female cheetah and Duke, a male Antolian Shepherd have the same residence.
When visitors attend the San Diego Zoo, they will have the opportunity to witness the dogs and cheetahs playing and interacting together in a new exhibit called the Animal Ambassador Area, “AAA Pen” for short. The program offers a unique experience for visitors to become educated on the importance of protecting cheetahs in the wild and the opportunity to witness a special bond between cheetah and dog.