My continuing look into the world of cheetah conservation and an exploration into the lives of ambassador cheetah in the US brought me to Animal Ark, a 70 acre wildlife sanctuary, located roughly between the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation and the city of Reno, Nevada.
Directors Aaron and Diana Hiibel founded Animal Ark 31 years ago as a safe haven for disadvantaged wildlife who could no longer fend for themselves or were kept illegally as exotic pets. Educational tours of Animal Ark began in 1982. The cheetahs were brought to Animal Ark because the Hiibels could develop the high speed running field and were able to open these runs to the public to raise awareness for conservation in Africa.
Claws out to grip the ground, tail acting as rudder for balance and focused on the target, the cheetah runs at top speed.
Will it ever stop snowing? The visit was put off for weeks as rare late season snowstorms covered the Sierras and blanketed Animal Ark. Driving from San Francisco wasn’t going to be possible, much less photographing grumpy cheetah who won’t get their paws cold and wet for anybody. I tend to feel the same way. At last there was a break in the weather and I hit the road, arriving at Animal Ark in the late afternoon for the cheetah run.
Cheetahs are built to run, they are perfectly evolved for speed. In captivity they suffer a number of health issues; digestive and kidney problems in addition to a condition where the lower molars create holes in the palates due to improper occlusion. Aaron Hiibel has theorized that some of these issues might stem from them living a sedentary existence. Compare it to a human couch potato, not very healthy. While some facilities have large areas for their cats, they are not run at high speed on a regular basis, which could be a major factor in their digestive problems.
During dry periods at Animal Ark, three cheetah, Zulu, Moyo & Jamar are run at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour by using a high-speed winch and a plastic lure. Following the run, they are immediately given a meal, which more accurately imitates the habits of their cousins in the wild. Since beginning this program, Animal Ark’s oldest female cheetah, Zulu, has not exhibited any digestive problems and has participated in seven different medical studies.
These runs are also held for the public as educational outreach and fundraising. On this day it was just the Animal Ark staff, the cheetah, and me behind a stack of branches at the far end of the field. No fences, no barriers, I held my breath.
Photographer’s position at the far end of the field. The branches are a visual barrier to the cheetah so they don’t lose their concentration on the lure.
To see a cheetah run is one of the most incredible events on earth. Blink and you’ll miss it, the cheetah kicks up a high cloud of dust along the way. The pleasure of being in such close proximity means one can hear their paws gripping the ground and really get a sense of how their flat tails function as rudders, keeping the cat balanced as it banks left and right around the track.
The track is roughly a diamond shape of 250 – 300 yards and these cheetah aren’t dumb, they’ve learned to cut a few corners in pursuit of the lure, even though the course is changed up on a regular basis. It looks to me like they are thrilled to be running, and proof of that can be heard prior as they sit close to the edge of their enclosure purring loudly as they watch the humans prep the track. One at a time, the cheetah is taken from its enclosure on a leash as four people stand by. From what I can view from the far end of the field, this is a very controlled, quiet moment. The handlers wait for the cheetah to settle and focus, not distracted by anything in the distance (i.e. dogs barking from nearby ranches, wind… or importantly, the photographer hanging out behind some sticks at the end of the field). When the cat is unclipped from the leash, the lure goes out with a whirring sound and the cheetah is off! The fastest photo shoot in the west, capturing the look of determination and flattened ears is only possible with a high-speed camera and not the naked eye. Within seconds, he’s back at the top of the field being fed by the handler. A second run in the opposite direction and the cheetah is clearly winded and ready to rest. Moyo and Jamar are younger males and thus capable of two runs each while Zulu, the elder female, has one run around the track.
The cheetah springs into action the moment it is let off the leash and the lure starts its journey along the course.
The brief window of good weather for the high-speed fun is done and my trip back over the Sierras is greeted with high winds, flying rocks, rain and snow. It’s an unusual weather pattern at the moment and I’m glad to have witnessed the cheetah do what they do best, what they’re meant to do, and that is run.
Claws fully extended and kicking up dust around the track, the cheetah stays locked on his target.
More info on the cheetahs of Animal Ark and their personal stories:
Shaka & Zulu (born May 15, 1998) came to the Animal Ark from the Wild About Cats organization in Auburn, California. They were the first cheetahs imported into the U.S. to a private facility and were transferred to Animal Ark (2000) because we could develop a high speed running field and were open to the public, giving more people a chance to see these magnificent creatures.
Moyo and Jamar (born June 19, 2005) arrived at Animal Ark on April 11, 2006 after a flight aboard British Airways from South Africa. They came to us as ambassadors for the De Wildt Cheetah Centre and Wildlife Trust. This South African facility originally partnered with Animal Ark to help raise funds for wild cheetah conservation, a volunteer exchange program and research into the benefits of high speed running for captive cheetah. Born at De Wildt, these cubs were transferred to the Cheetah Outreach facility in CapeTown where they were raised by experts in the care of cheetah cubs and the training of ambassador cats. Moyo & Jamar have adjusted very well here at Animal Ark, which has many similarities to the South African facilities.
Zulu along with her late brother Shaka (2005) has also helped raise over a million dollars for cheetah conservation in the wild.
All Text & Photos courtesy of Marcy Mendelson