By Connie Yeager
Post staff reporter
Bruce Springsteen isn’t the only creature who was “Born to Run.”
“The whole point of this is that we want to share with people the thrill of what cheetahs do in the wild,” Cathryn Hilker said as workers at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden added finishing touches to the new Cheetah Encounter compound.
Although “the youngsters run for the fun of it,” the survival of adult cheetahs, an endangered species, is dependent on their speed and their ability to catch their prey in the wild, she said. “Their whole body responds to running – their heart, ears, eyes, their whole muscular structure is designed to do what they do, and they’re perfect.”
The Cheetah Encounter, opening Friday as centerpiece of the zoo’s Summer Safari celebration, will provide visitors with a thrilling, bleacher-front view of cheetahs on the hunt. The demonstration, presented at 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Fridays through Tuesdays through Sept. 3, “is the only one of its kind in the country, maybe the world,” said Hilker. “And it all came out of a bird trainer’s mind.”
Hilker was referring to Gary Dentzler, the zoo’s bird show manager and head bird trainer, who provided the inspirational spark for the Cheetah Encounter.
When Dentzler had an opportunity to see cheetahs run on Hilker’s Mason farm, “it blew me away,” he said. “One time I put my ear to the ground to hear them run.”
The genesis of the exhibit came just six months ago, as Dentzler eyed a space on zoo grounds that was then a parking lot, tucked near the vehicle exit on Dury Avenue. “I came up here on a cold day and just started pacing it…this is 100 yards long, and in my mind I started visualizing things.” He shared that vision with Hilker, who is founder and director of the zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program, and interim zoo director Thane Maynard at the zoo’s Christmas party, showing them the space he had in mind. “We’re pacing, and they’re getting more and more excited.”
A week later, he was asked to make a model and, with the help of his 18-year-old daughter, “by 2:30 in the morning we had this model done.”
Model in hand, they secured funding for the entire exhibit from a longtime friend and supporter of Hilker and her work with cheetahs, Kris Kalnow, and her husband Cal.
“Kris helped me start the Cat Ambassador Program,” Hilker said. “You talk about wind beneath my wings, beneath this exhibit. … She’s always here saying ‘Yes.’ “
Hilker and Dentzler are long-term zoo veterans. She’s been there 43 years, starting out as a volunteer heading the speakers bureau and eventually becoming an employee. He’s been with the zoo for 40 years, hired right after high school and returning after a stint in the Navy.
Hilker began the Cat Ambassador Program in 1980 with Angel, an African cheetah, and they became a fixture in schools and other programs throughout Greater Cincinnati. The zoo’s conservation fund is named for Angel.
The Cheetah Encounter will feature four of the zoo’s current cheetahs, and Hilker described them as the individual personalities they are.
“My one little female, Sarah (who’s 6), was raised on our farm, and she learned to run in our field. She learned the freedom of running in an Ohio field, and I think this is pretty darn neat.
“Now she’s going to illustrate it here. She runs with the determination of a female who needs to feed her young.”
Then there are two 3-year-old brothers, Bravo and Chance. “They illustrate the hunting coalition of a brother team. It’s the only time cheetahs stay together in the wild, and it’s a brilliant strategy for survival,” Hilker said.
Finally, there’s Moya, who’s almost 9 years old, “the elder statesman,” said Hilker. (Cheetahs live about 11 years – less in the wild, Hilker explained.) “He’s the most handsome cheetah I’ve ever seen,” she said. “He illustrates the symmetrical beauty of the male cheetah. I want the audience to thrill to that kind of performance as I do.”
Hilker noted that the show is a work in progress.
The cheetahs’ “prey” will be lures such as a ball of frayed rags, “fun to bite and grab,” she said. “If they don’t have fun they’re not going to do this.
“The runs will be varied – not just a straight line. That was Gary’s brilliance,” she added.
“Up here (in the bleachers), the audience is going to see agility as well as speed, and stalking techniques. They’ll have room to maneuver,” Hilker said. “That’s the way it would be in the wild.”
“When these kids come up here and see that cheetah run, they’ll remember it their entire lives, and they’ll do something about it,” Dentzler said. In the 1950s, he explained, because of Shamu, “everyone knows about killer whales” and their plight for survival. “Hopefully this is a launching point for cheetahs.”
Noting their superior running skills – cheetahs have been clocked in the wild at over 50 miles per hour, and can go from 0 to 60 in 3.4 seconds – “They’re hugely fast in short distances,” Hilker said. “You (humans) can’t do anything our cats do, but you can think. And you can make a difference – that’s the message of our program.”
Hilker will be working along with three other trainers, and other cats will also become a part of the show as it progresses.
“Basically cheetahs and their relatives,” Dentzler said. That would include servals, Hilker said, “who have keen listening behaviors with their big ears, and they’re excellent jumpers.”
“What we even hope to get here is a whole African show,” Dentzler added.
The show will also feature Anatolian shepherd dogs, to illustrate the connection a program the Angel Fund helps support in Namibia that provides farmers with such guard dogs for their livestock herds. “If the farmer knows they’re safe, he’ll stop trapping cheetahs,” Hilker said. “The population, for the first time in 20 years, has stabilized. The wild numbers are drastically low, but consistent, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000.
“This program has made available 28,000 acres of land in Namibia, part of a huge conservation effort…it’s the keystone of these animals’ survival.”
In addition to the Cheetah Encounter, Summer Safari will feature the 26th year of Dentzler’s “Great American Wings of Wonder Bird Show,” which will be performed at 1 and 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays; and a new Meet-A-Zookeeper program, which will involve more than a dozen daily feeding and other encounters throughout the zoo.
The bird show will feature 24 species, including mammals and reptiles, as well as “birds from around the world exhibiting natural behaviors,” Dentzler said. “Many birds will fly right over the spectators’ heads.”
Among the more unusual will be a black-footed penguin, “who literally flies through the water,” and a 6-foot-tall emu, “the third largest bird in the world.
“There will also be many species of hawks,” he added, “and new to the show is one of the fastest creatures on Earth, Lanner falcons native to Africa.”
Dentzler described his show as “kind of a comedy type of adventure,” noting that humor helps to get a message across.
The Meet-A-Zookeeper programs – 18 stations in all, although not every one is open every day – “is trying to incorporate the people who work with the animals on a daily basis,” Dentzler explained. “They all know these animals inside and out – not just the species, but the individual animals.”
Visitor feedback has shown that “the No. 1 thing they love beside the bird shows are keeper encounters,” said Chad Yelton, the zoo’s media and events director. “We’re hoping that zoo members will visit a few each week. It’s a good reason to join the zoo.”
It’s also a great place to see many labors of love.
“People think we live a glamorous life,” said Dentzler, “but it’s not all glamour.”
“But boy, is it fun!” chimed in Hilker.
GOING ON SAFARI
The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden’s Summer Safari celebration begins Friday and continues through Sept. 3:
Events: Cheetah Encounter, 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Friday-Tuesday. Great American Wings of Wonder Bird Show, 1 and 3 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Meet-A-Zookeeper programs, including penguin feeding, manatees, Sumatran rhinos, insects, nursery, bear feeding, Mexican wolves, wild dogs, black rhinos, elephants, reptiles, gorilla feeding, primates, lemurs, red pandas, most daily (see Web site). Reptile feeding, elephant bath, alligator feeding, manatee divers, cat feeding, select days (see Web site). All included in zoo admission.
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. $12.95, $10.95/62 and older, $7.95 ages 2-12; free under age 2. Parking: $6.50. (513) 281-4700; www.cincinnatizoo.org.