National Zoo hopes new cheetahs will mean new cubs

May 31, 2007 – 11:54am

Ira Mellman, WTOP Radio

WASHINGTON – Three cheetah brothers named after characters in the Harry Potter novels have been brought in to help bolster the National Zoo’s breeding program.

Draco, Granger and Zabini go on public display Friday. They’ll be in one of the zoo’s three exhibit yards, as will the zoo’s other male cheetah and its two female cheetahs.

“If you come on the right day, you might see some love in the air,” says Craig Saffoe, biologist at the National Zoo’s Cheetah Conservation Station.

Cheetahs, the fastest of the land animals, are critically endangered and are among the most difficult cats to breed, says reproduction specialist JoGayle Howard.

But it’s not a matter of just putting a male in an area with a female.

“Male cheetahs live in groups, and female cheetahs are solitary. That’s a phenomena that doesn’t happen with any other mammalian species that we know of,” Saffoe says.

The zoo, which has studied cheetah breeding for more 25 years, plans to use a combination of natural and artificial methods to breed the cheetahs. Over the years the zoo’s artificial insemination technique has resulted in 11 litters and 20 cubs.

So why are these three 2-year-old cheetahs so important?

“They’re important because their genetic line is not represented in North America. Their parents were both brought straight from Africa as a gift from the Namibian government,” Saffoe says.

“Basically every cheetah is like an identical twin so to get a fresh set of genes into our North American population is extremely important. These three cats represent something the North American population doesn’t have — new genes.”

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