Texas cheetah mom accepts two rejected cubs as her own

By CHRIS VAUGHN
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER

GLEN ROSE — The wild kingdom can be an unforgiving place.

But sometimes wild animals reveal tenderness, acceptance, devotion in ways that not only surprise us, but that inspire and humble us.

Cinnabar is one of those animals.

“She is a remarkable mother,” said Molly Hurst, who helps care for Cinnabar at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center outside Glen Rose.

Cinnabar is an 8-year-old cheetah, a middle-age female with little experience in the ways of male suitors or the offspring that result.

Technically, she is not in the wild. She never has been. But she is still a wild animal and guided by her species’ instincts.

Cinnabar has never mated, and in the cheetah world, it’s the female that does the deciding. She had been artificially inseminated at the zoo in Columbus, Ohio, but only one cub was born, and she abandoned it.

“Cheetahs will not raise one cub, either in captivity or in the wild,” said Mary Jo Stearns, Fossil Rim’s carnivore supervisor. “Single cubs you always have to hand raise. We’ve had to do it here.”

To keep the captive population in North America self-sustaining, cheetah breeding is said to be a necessity and is closely monitored by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

But there’s always a love connection somewhere, and when Cinnabar met Limpopo at Fossil Rim this June, she seemed to have found hers.

“He was talking to her, and she was talking back,” Stearns said. “Obviously not talking, but making vocalizations. She started teasing him. It was textbook behavior.”

It doesn’t take a zoologist to figure out what happened.

Exactly 93 days later, on Sept. 30, Cinnabar went into a small shelter in her enclosure and gave birth to three female cubs.

Cheetah mothers can be nervous, high-strung, even dangerous to their cubs if they feel threatened.

“We did nothing for about a week,” Stearns said. “We had no radios up here. We didn’t drive our trucks. We just walked on pins and needles. We weren’t at all sure what kind of mother she would be, and we didn’t want to upset her.”

The cubs were named Tuli, T.P. and Teensey (the runt).

Nice story that would be. Except there’s more to it.

The keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo phoned in October and said they had a cub that had been abandoned. They asked if Fossil Rim would see whether Cinnabar would take him.

The male cub was almost a week older than Cinnabar’s cubs and was eventually named Frankie. After he was flown down from Ohio, he was rolled around in Cinnabar’s hay with her birth cubs while Cinnabar was occupied eating.

“She went directly into her house and didn’t come back out,” Stearns said. “We didn’t know what was happening. But that afternoon when we fed her again, I looked in and saw he had nursed. His belly was huge.

“So I think, wow, she’s a good mom.”

A surprise came a few days later at Fossil Rim when another female, not known to be pregnant, birthed two cubs. A violent thunderstorm occurred the night of Oct. 9.

The new cheetah mother panicked, accidentally killing one of the cubs and nearly the other before Stearns could get him away.

“We didn’t know what to do, so we thought we would give it to Cinnabar,” she said. “We don’t like to hand raise the cubs because then they never really know what they are — a cheetah, a cat, a dog. It’s really difficult.”

They rolled the new cub, named Hooper, in Cinnabar’s hay and left him.

Then the nervous waiting began.

Cinnabar didn’t like it. She grew agitated.

She picked him up and dropped him on the ground.

She paced.

But everyone left her alone. She had to make her own decision.

In a few hours, Stearns returned.

“There they were in that shelter, all five in a row,” she said. “And he had a big ol’ fat belly.”

Cheetah foster parenting is an exceptional thing on its own. But for a cheetah mother to adopt two cubs of different ages and from different mothers has not been documented in this country.

It may be a first in the U.S. for any big cat. Africa, maybe not. The De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa, which is believed to have bred more cheetahs than any place on Earth, says it has seen it happen with a female named Lady.

And the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia reports that it has seen occasional instances of communal mothering.

But not on this continent.

“It’s very unusual just to have one adopted,” said Jack Grisham, the director of animal collections at the St. Louis Zoo and the national cheetah breeding coordinator. “But to put a second cub in there, it’s unheard of. As far as I know, it’s never been done. She’s a supermom. Seriously.”

Stearns and Hurst have been amazed at Cinnabar’s patience.

The cubs have progressed at different stages, with one far ahead developmentally of her birth cubs and one lagging behind.

But she has done it, helping each as needed.

“Did Mary Jo tell you that we want to make Cinnabar a plaque? Mother of the Year,” Hurst said, beaming.

IN THE KNOW

Wildlife center

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, located outside Glen Rose in Somervell County, has 33 cheetahs.

Many of them belong to other zoos and wildlife parks, but they are at Fossil Rim because it has much more room for breeding.

Officials at Fossil Rim will not put Cinnabar and her five cubs near the park road, visible to drivers, until the spring. For now, the very protective Cinnabar needs minimal contact with people or other cheetahs.

You can reach the center’s visitor services at 254-897-2960, ext. 0, or visit www.fossilrim.com.

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547 cvaughn@star-telegram.com

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