Up close and personal with zoo cheetahs
05 July 2006
By ALEXANDRA BREMNER
I'm standing at the business end of an Auckland Zoo animal enclosure.
There is a bench on one side of the L-shaped room, which is home to a collection of knives used for preparing meals.
The recipe for dinner is pinned on the wall - red meat is to be replaced by chicken if the former is not available but "cut to a similar size".
Anticipation is crackling in the air around myself and the three other people about to have an up-close encounter with an endangered species - the cheetah.
Outside, in the big cats' enclosure, zookeepers Trent Barclay and Justine Woosnam are preparing cheetahs Anubis and Osiris for their encounter with a group of excited and slightly nervous humans.
Welcome to Auckland Zoo's ZOOM cheetah experience.
The cheetah is Africa's most endangered big cat, primarily because of habitat loss to commercial farming and development.
Murray Munro, the zoo's product and sales manager, is the guide for the day, meeting us near the main entrance of the zoo.
He runs us through the rules of our cheetah interaction, while walking through the zoo, throwing in a fable or two about the cheetah's facial markings and some big cat related facts as we go.
"About 100 years ago there were more than 100,000 cheetahs. Now there are 9000 to 12,000 of them. That is a lot to lose in 100 years," he says.
Murray reassures the group that everything will be fine - if we follow the behaviour guidelines.
"They have been handraised since they were little guys. They won't eat you, they like people."
I've got butterflies and they're starting to flutter - faster and faster.
"They are the only big cats that purr," Murray says. "They don't roar like lions. They chirp, which sounds like a bird and they hiss. They chirp like a bird when they are calling their cubs."
A cheetah runs fast, topping out at about 110kmh.
To give Auckland's two boys a good run, keepers have installed a lure system around their enclosure so they can chase "prey" to mimic their behaviour in the wild.
"Everything about them is built for speed not power. They are big scaredy cats - they would run away rather than have a fight," Murray says.
We have arrived at their enclosure.
Murray takes us through the rules one more time - stick with him, don't talk to the keepers directly, be calm, don't make any loud noises or sudden moves and don't touch the cheetahs on the head, tummy or tail.
"Listen to them purr, enjoy it. It is like a little engine."
We are taken into the cheetah enclosure. Anubis and Osiris, both a year old, are on leads lying on a log being held by their keepers.
It starts to rain.
People and animals are shuffled inside the cats' night-time enclosure. Once all is calm again it is time for my close encounter of the big cat kind.
I'm guided over to the table where Anubis and Osiris lie, looking deceptively languid.
I reach out my hand, which trembles slightly, to stroke a cheetah for the first time.
Anubis' fur is amazing and the spots feel different from his yellow fur.
"The dark fur in their spots is longer and softer," Murray explains.
As I stroke his side, Anubis begins to purr unlike any other purr I have heard. Times your cat's purr by about 100 and you have it.
Zoo director Glen Holland says Anubis and Osiris were reared under the Cheetah Outreach ambassador training programme in South Africa to be advocates and ambassadors for their species.
"They're therefore very social, and meeting people is a positive and stimulating experience for them," he says.
Touching Anubis or Osiris, it becomes clear they enjoy the interaction but you are also aware they are predators, alert and watching your every move.
It has been a privilege.
The time I spent at Anubis' side - touching his fur, watching his breath rise and fall, feeling the pent-up energy stored in his built-for-speed body – was profound.
My cheetah experience with Anubis will last a lifetime.
I wonder if you can keep a cheetah in an apartment, and would my cat mind?
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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