Zoos across the U.S. are using man’s best friend to become the endangered cheetah’s best friend. At the Columbus Zoo, you can see emotional support Labrador retrievers romping in the the wild cat’s exhibit.
“The number one question up here, this $40 million exhibit: ‘Are the dogs coming out?’ It’s the number one question,” Suzi Rapp told CBS News. She runs the zoo’s animal programs. “And I say the Columbus Zoo built the world’s most expensive Labrador retriever exhibit in the world… the biggest dog run.”
Yes, dogs are running in the cheetah exhibit! Turns out, cheetahs don’t threaten the pups, but actually need the unlikely friendship to survive.
This is because the most endangered wild cat is socially insecure. These sensitive creatures can be so stressed that they won’t procreate. So, to encourage more social behaviors in the African cat, the cheetahs learn confidence from the doggos.
Once the puppies are introduced to the wild cat cub, the animals get along like siblings.
“If you place the puppy with the cubs, then pretty soon the cubs don’t realize – they think it’s their brother, their sister,” Rapp said. “What I’ve learned is that we want our cheetahs to have all the confidence in the world. And we know we can’t give it to them, but we know the dogs can.”
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The dogs offer comfort to the wild cat, as well. When a cheetah named Keyara needed leg surgery earlier this year, Coby the lab helped her recuperate. The dog provided the kind of support you’d expect from a best friend.
“Without him, I don’t know that we could have pulled this off. She will be fantastic. She will do great. I could not say that if we didn’t have that relationship with the dog,” Rapp said.
However, this bond between the domestic dog and the wild cat in zoos isn’t merely an experiment. The relationship’s display at zoos is inspired by and helps promote the life-saving role dogs play for cheetahs in the African wild.
“How they are saving cheetahs is not by being their friend,” Rapp said. “There’s a specific dog in Africa that is actually saving the cheetahs and it’s called the Anatolian Shepherd.”
Anatolian Shepherds act as livestock guard dogs for African farmers. The Cheetah Conservation Fund with the help of partners like the Columbus Zoo bring the livestock guard dogs to Africa.
“You may see in history that this dog can be responsible for saving the cheetah from extinction. That is one heck of a story right there,” Jack Hanna, Columbus Zoo director emeritus, told CBS News.
Because the Anatolian Shepherd is a big and loud dog, farmers use them to scare off cheetahs. Obviously, this is a much better alternative to trapping or shooting the endangered wild cat.
Since the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s solution started in 1994, it’s helped grow the cheetah population in Namibia from 2,500 to nearly 4,000. Sadly, poaching is still a problem, but Hanna thinks man’s (and cheetah’s) best friend is helping to control the hunting and trapping of cheetahs.
In addition to the Columbus Zoo, you can find cheetahs and canines cohabitating at the Cincinnati Zoo, the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia and the San Diego Zoo, where the animals were first paired up more than 30 years ago.