You’ll often see humans walking around with support dogs. Support dogs do really great work for people suffering from both physical and mental ailments. But, humans aren’t the only ones who need help from these caring canines.
There are animals who need support animals, too. Cheetahs, in particular, are stressed-out animals. This is only magnified when they are in captivity. In the wild, cheetahs are naturally on-edge, but they can dispense of some of that nervous energy by running in vast spaces. In a zoo, that energy doesn’t have the same outlet.
Whatever your opinion of zoos may be, their intentions are to keep endangered animals from becoming extinct. So, some zoos came up with a solution to calm these big cats' nerves and make them more confident. They’ve paired cheetahs with support dogs to help them cope with a captive setting.
Recently, a tweet went viral about how some zoos use dogs to help cheetahs “relax.” It got over 280,000 likes and over 101,000 retweets. People were amazed about this partnership. But, this practice of pairing cheetahs with service dogs has existed for decades.
The San Diego Zoo has employed service dogs for cheetahs since the 1980s. Following the success of the program, many other zoos have followed suit and paired their timid cheetahs with confident pups. “It’s a true love story of one species helping another species survive,” said Jack Grisham, VP of animal collections at the St. Louis Zoo.
Janet Rose-Hinostroza, animal training supervisor at the San Diego Zoo, said that cheetahs are instinctively shy, and dominant dogs help them overcome that. "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,” she added.
The cheetah cubs are paired with puppies when both are around three or four months. Rose-Hinostroza says that while the process to find a match is “painfully slow,” it’s also “a lot of fun.” She added, “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."
Once both the dog and cheetah can prove that they can interact with each other without leashes and constant supervision, they are moved into a living space where they spend all their time together. The dogs are only removed for the cheetah enclosure at feeding time.
“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'd have a really skinny cheetah and a really chubby dog," explains Rose-Hinostroza. Other than that, they're always with their best buddy.
While retrievers and Labradors are primarily employed by the over 15 zoos that have this cheetah service dog program, the San Diego Zoo adopts a variety of mutts. In turn, they end up also saving the lives of dogs that could have been put down.
"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," said Rose-Hinostroza. "It's not about strength or overpowering. It's about developing a positive relationship where the cheetah takes her cues from the dog."
Here Hopper is pictured with Amara’s cousin, Kiburi. The dogs at the San Diego Zoo play with other cheetahs, but form special connections with their partner cheetah. “Amara is so attached to Hopper,” said Rose-Hinostroza. “She loves him. She grooms him, she sleeps with him, she gets worried if he’s not around.”
There are other plenty of examples of extremely successful cheetah/dog relationships. Kumbali and Kago are an amazing duo. Kumbali is a cheetah at the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia. He’s best friends with Kago, a yellow lab mix. The two are inseparable and spend all their days together.
In the 1980s, local farmers in Namibia killed 3,000 cheetahs, nearly half of the cheetah population in the country, as retaliation for cheetah’s killing their livestock. The Cheetah Conservation Fund set up a program where Anatolian shepherds and Kangal dogs are raised with farmers herds. These dogs end up saving cheetahs’ lives by chasing them away from the herd before farmers get a chance to shoot them.
So, it turns out that cats and dogs can be friends. In the case of these U.S. zoos, “man’s best friend” turns out to be “cheetah’s best friend.” These amazing dogs are not only providing valuable companionship for the cheetahs, they’re also helping keep them on this planet.