Two cheetah cubs are being raised by hand at the Smithsonian National Zoo after a risky birth last month.


When the cubs’ mother, 5-year-old Ally, gave birth to the first cub, a male, on April 23, she abandoned him, which is fairly common for first-time mothers in captivity. Zookeepers moved the cub to the veterinary hospital to be treated for hypothermia, and hours later Ally was anesthetized so doctors could determine if any cubs remained.


Dr. Copper Aitken-Palmer, head vet at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, heard additional heartbeats and performed a cesarean section, a procedure rarely used on cheetahs — and one that cubs don’t often survive. Veterinarians worked for three hours trying to resuscitate the three cubs, but only one, a female, survived.


“Given how rare this procedure is, we thought it’d be unlikely for any of the cubs to survive,” SCBI cheetah biologist Adrienne Crosier said in a press release. “But that little female is a fighter. Once we got her breathing, she just kept going. It was a very intense, stressful experience, but among the most inspiring of my career.”


The cubs were kept at the hospital’s intensive-care unit for three days, and the cubs’ father, Caprivi, was brought in to donate plasma to aid their immune systems. Although the cubs require around-the-clock care — they need to be bottle-fed every few hours — they’re both in good health.


“There are now two new genetically valuable cubs in a population that so desperately needs them,” Aitken-Palmer said. “So this is really a success for this struggling species.”


Tony Barthel, curator of the zoo’s Cheetah Conservation Station, where the new cubs will one day live, says the cubs aren’t “out of the woods yet.” The mortality rate of cheetah cubs in human care is 20 percent in the first six months, but Barthel is hopeful they’ll both remain in good health and aid in cheetah conservation efforts.


“The goal is to ensure that the cheetahs thrive and become ambassadors for their species,” he said.


It’s estimated that there are only 7,500 to 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists cheetahs as a vulnerable species.


The cheetah cubs are still being hand-raised by zookeepers, but they’ll be ready to make their public debut at the Cheetah Conservation Station sometime this summer.


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