Dogs may have a reputation as man's best friend, but at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, it's the cats that are best buds with the dogs.
Since the 1980s, the zoo and its safari park have paired cheetahs with companion dogs to provide the cats with guidance and help them feel more comfortable. For endangered felines that don’t breed easily, a canine companion can make a world of difference.
"A dominant dog is very helpful because cheetahs are quite shy instinctively, and you can’t breed that out of them," said Janet Rose-Hinostroza, animal training supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. "When you pair them, the cheetah looks to the dog for cues and learns to model their behavior. It's about getting them to read that calm, happy-go-lucky vibe from the dog."
This relationship relaxes the cheetahs and helps them better respond to each other, so they can reproduce and rebuild their endangered species.
The cats are difficult to breed because they’re not social animals. They live independently, and females don't go into heat like other cats — they have to be brought into estrus by a male cheetah.
A century ago, there were 100,000 cheetahs in the wild — fewer than 12,000 remain today. But thanks, in part, to its dog companion program, the San Diego Zoo leads the world in breeding the cats. In the past 40 years, 135 cheetahs have been born at its breeding facility.
Finding the perfect pups
The dogs are typically rescued from shelters, and Rose-Hinostroza looks for puppies that want to be a buddy. While most of the dogs are mutts, the zoo does have one purebred Anatolian shepherd dog whose name is Yeti.
"We love to go to the pound and find a dog that needs a home, but we wanted to get an Anatolian shepherd because they're such a great conservation story to share with the public," Rose-Hinostroza said.
Decades ago, cheetahs were being shot and trapped by ranchers in Namibia who were trying to protect their goat herds. Concerned for the wild cats' fate, Dr. Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, trained Anatolian shepherd dogs to protect the herds, and since then, the cheetahs' numbers have rebounded.
Yeti is the zoo's largest dog, but Rose-Hinostroza says it's not size or strength that matters when selecting a dog to pair with a cheetah.
"My favorite dog is Hopper because we found him at a kill shelter and he's just 40 pounds, but he lives with Amara, who's our toughest cheetah by far. It's not about strength or overpowering. It's about developing a positive relationship where the cheetah takes her cues from the dog."
Cat meets dog
Cheetah cubs are generally introduced to their canine companions when they’re about 3 or 4 months old once they’ve had all of their vaccinations.
"We're very protective of our cheetahs, so the introduction is a painfully slow process but a lot of fun," Rose-Hinostroza said.
The cheetah's first encounter with the dog is through the fence of its enclosure. A keeper walks the dog past the habitat to help the cat get used to seeing a different animal. Once the cub is comfortable at the sight of the dog, the two are taken to a neutral location for their first playdate, but kept on leashes.
"There are lots of toys and distractions, and they"re like two cute little kids who desperately want to play. But cheetahs are instinctively hardwired to feel uneasy so you have to wait and let the cat make the first move," Rose-Hinostroza said.
Once the animals are comfortable playing off-leash, they move into a shared habitat and spend almost all their time together. The only times they're separated are when the canines take time off to play with their fellow companion dogs and during feeding times — filet mignon for the cheetahs and kibble for the dogs.
"The dog is the dominant in the relationship, so if we didn't separate them, the dog would eat all the cheetah's food and we' have a really skinny cheetah and a really chubby dog," Rose-Hinostroza said.
To learn more about the San Diego Zoo and its cheetah-breeding program, visit the zoo's website.