Four new cheetahs to take spots at Pittsburgh Zoo


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Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is seeing spots. Four cheetahs’ worth of spots, to be exact.

The cheetahs — two males and two females born on a ranch in South Africa a year and a half ago — arrived at the Highland Park zoo in mid-December. The zoo’s hope is that the animals prove to be genetically different from the current captive population in North America, which could be a boon for breeding efforts.

“That is huge, to bring in new genetic bloodlines for such a critically endangered species,” Ginger Sturgeon, director of animal health at the zoo, said today. According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, about 10,000 cheetahs, mostly distributed throughout Africa, remain in the wild.

Increasing diversity among the species, which can produce healthier animals, is an important goal for both cheetahs in captivity and in the wild, since the big cats are at risk for developing ailments such as kidney and liver disease, Ms. Sturgeon said.

“Cheetahs are at risk for developing many diseases,” she said. “That is thought to be due to the natural bottleneck of the population in the wild, where related cheetahs were having to breed with other related cheetahs because there were so few cheetahs in the world.”

The zoo’s goal is that their new cheetahs will produce young who can be sent to other zoos for breeding and increase the genetic diversity throughout the continent.

That is the plan for the future. For now, the four cheetahs — none of whom have been given names, though they may be named in the future — are acclimating to their new environment, currently living in space located within the zoo’s Animal Care Center. The zoo’s policy is that all new animals complete a minimum 30-day quarantine period.

New animals also undergo a comprehensive physical. Today, although the zoo was closed to visitors due to the cold, the Animal Care Center was open.

On an examining table, Ms. Sturgeon and her staff examined one of the new cheetahs, a 90-pound male who was anesthetized so the health team could run tests including an abdominal ultrasound, a cardiogram, X-rays and a skin biopsy.

“Pretty much everything that your small animal veterinarian would do with a dog or cat, we look for in the cheetahs as well,” she said. Much of the examination is to provide the health staff with “baseline measurements” as they monitor each cheetah’s health in the future.

The skin biopsy will provide the DNA sample that will help the zoo determine whether the cheetahs are genetically different enough from the North American captive cheetah population, and from each other, to contribute to their breeding goals for the new animals.

Sometime this spring, the cheetahs will move into their new home, potentially joining the zoo’s other cheetah, an older female, in the exhibit known as Cheetah Valley. The space formerly housed African painted dogs, but the dogs were removed after they killed a 2-year-old Whitehall boy who fell in the exhibit in November 2012.

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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