December 04, 2018

Happy International Cheetah Day! The Saint Louis Zoo is celebrating the magnificence of the cheetah, raising awareness of the threats cheetahs face in the wild and educating about amazing conservation efforts to #SaveTheCheetah! Thank you for your incredible support as we work to care for and conserve cheetahs.

This post kicks off the International Cheetah Day Keeper Facebook Takeover. I chose to share this photo of two brothers scanning their lush habitat because it has always reminded me of what a privilege it is to care for the animals here at our Zoo.

Fewer than 8,000 cheetahs remain in the wild. Conservation efforts include the Cheetah Species Survival Plan (SSP), which is a cooperative population management and breeding program to ensure a long-term, healthy population of cheetahs in North American Zoos. Our Zoo actively participates in the Cheetah SSP. It is an important component of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute's Center for the Conservation of Carnivores in Africa. Our conservation work, as well as the work of our many partners, is critical to ensuring the cheetah’s race will be one of survival, not extinction.

You can learn more here: -Carrie Felsher, Carnivore Keeper. (Photo by Roger Brandt Jr.)

In the wild, a cheetah mother usually gives birth to three to five cubs, and typically, not all survive to adulthood. Bingwa, which in African Swahili means “champion,” has been an exemplary mother and provider to her eight cubs since their birth in November 2017. She’s the first cheetah to produce and rear her own litter of eight cubs at a zoo—a truly remarkable feat! Bingwa had at least 10 teats that were being used by the cubs while they were still nursing, aiding them to reach adulthood. When cheetah cubs are little, they have a strip of fur on their necks called a mantle, which helps them to camouflage in long grass and hide from predators. In the wild, their biggest threats are lions, spotted hyenas, painted dogs and leopards, depending on their location. –Jackie McGarrahan, Carnivore Keeper

By now everyone in St. Louis is familiar with “The Bingwa Bunch!” Our eight cheetah cubs just celebrated their first birthday on November 26. Bingwa is the proud mother of five girls (Nne, Saba, Sita, Nane and Moja) and three boys (Tano, Mbili and Tatu). Their names are the Swahili words for the numbers one through eight.

The first weights we got on the cubs, when they were about three weeks old, averaged to about 2 pounds each. Now the cubs weigh around 64 to 84 pounds. The smallest cubs are Tano and Nne. It is normal to have a wide range of growth in such a large litter, but each cub is growing at a healthy weight for that individual. When they were first born, they nursed and grew rapidly on Bingwa’s milk. (Yes, she nursed all eight of them! Supermom!) Now the family eats about 26 pounds of meat each day, which continues to increase as the cubs grow.

Each cub has a unique personality—some are more curious, bold, shy or laid back than the others. Still, one year later, they remain VERY hard for their keepers to tell apart because they are all quite active and, of course, they all have hair of gold, like their mother (though no curls). They will stay with mom for the first year and a half to two years of their life, so you can still visit them in River’s Edge. They are typically most active first thing in the morning or at the end of the day. –Carolyn Kelly, Carnivore Keeper

Say hello to Sadie, a female cheetah that calls the Saint Louis Zoo home. Sadie is currently the Zoo’s eldest cheetah at 13 years old, but don’t let her age fool you! Sadie is a healthy cheetah with a vibrant personality. The median life expectancy of cheetahs is 11.6 years. In the wild, cheetahs face threats such as loss of habitat due to human settlement and agriculture, persecution as livestock predators, and the illegal wildlife pet trade.

At the Saint Louis Zoo, all our cheetahs receive the best care, and in Sadie’s case, a little extra care from her keepers. In 2007 she was found to have abnormal thoracic and lumbar vertebrae during a quarantine examination. In 2015 veterinary staff learned these previous issues decreased her flexibility and ability to groom the rear half of her body. Our team worked together to train Sadie so that she would allow keepers to safely groom her unreachable areas daily, a practice that is still done today to promote her best care and welfare. - Heather Ward, Carnivore Keeper

Suseli the cheetah is the type of animal that is very distinguishable by his behavior. As keepers, we get the incredible opportunity to develop unique relationships with the animals in our care. Even if the animals are hard to tell apart by physical characteristics, we can often tell who is who simply by their behavior and personality. Cheetahs are naturally a “flight response” type of animal. They naturally want to flee from anything that could be perceived as a threat, whether that’s new people, new animals, a helicopter or even the scent of another predator. Suseli, however, has always had a unique relationship with his keepers. He is always interested in what we are doing and loves to get up in our business, which is somewhat atypical for cats in general. He is well known for following us around and being very vocal, more so than any of our other cheetahs. It’s because of this outgoing personality that makes Suseli one of my favorite animals. It’s nice to be given attention and talked to when you work by yourself all day, even if it’s from a cheetah. - Nate Aalund, Carnivore Keeper

Cheetahs are an amazing species to see in the wild, and I have the incredible position to see and work with them daily here at the Saint Louis Zoo. Out of all the cheetahs I get to work with, there is one that sticks out from everyone else, and his name is Jason (I call him J-boy). Jason is one of those cheetahs that you just cannot take your eyes off of, from his piercing eyes to his excited reaction when it’s “whole prey day,” which stimulates cheetahs’ natural feeding strategies. Jason is known for his constant purring—yes, purring! He does it when he is walking around, watching other cheetahs or when he’s just relaxing. Cheetahs cannot roar like the other big cats. A cheetah’s hyoid bone in the larynx is completely ossified (rigid), whereas this structure in the roaring big cats is incompletely ossified (flexible). Happy International Cheetah Day! – Travis Shields, Carnivore Keeper (photo by Christopher Carter).

Joey, who just celebrated his ninth birthday, came to us from the White Oak Conservation Center in 2012. Joey can often be seen resting and purring with his lifelong fence-friend, Suseli. These two males moved together to the Saint Louis Zoo on recommendations from the Cheetah SSP. Although they are not a brother coalition, they definitely enjoy living side by side as they spend time together on shared fence lines.

Coalition formation by cheetah males is remarkable because it is a naturally occurring social situation in an otherwise solitary species (lions are the only truly social big cats). The coalition is a lifelong, beneficial bond between brothers as they defend a territory, hunt and search for mates together. Prior to this coalition formation, cheetah mothers rear their young with fierce dedication for up to two years, which includes teaching her young the skills necessary for survival. When the time comes, she will leave the sibling group, and the youngsters will continue living together until the female cubs disperse. The young males then stay together for life as a coalition. Male coalitions range between two to five members and may even allow an unrelated male to gradually integrate into the coalition. Approximately 60 percent of wild male cheetahs live as lifelong coalitions. In zoos, we normally follow this natural behavior and cheetah brothers live together as coalitions.-Jeff Wilson, Carnivore Keeper (photo by Christopher Carter).

Kamaria is a striking female cheetah with dark amber eyes. She was born in 2005 at the Cincinnati Zoo, then in 2007 moved to The Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio, on a recommendation from the Cheetah SSP. At The Wilds, she met a mate and became a mother, rearing a litter successfully. The Saint Louis Zoo welcomed Kamaria in 2015. She instantly became a favorite of our Zoo photographers as she is a very elegant cheetah and her eyes certainly captivate all.

She enjoys a range of enrichment, including large piles of dried grasses, Jolly balls, boomer balls, bedding from other animals and varieties of olfactory enrichment (applying scents around an exhibit). She also enjoys chasing moving objects. Enrichment is part of daily animal care. We keepers research the natural behaviors of the animals in our care so we can provide effective enrichment items and activities, which give the animals opportunities to express a range of natural behaviors. Enrichment ensures the animals live in interesting, comforting, stimulating and changing environments. –Carrie Felsher, Carnivore Keeper (photos by Megan Turner).