Four cheetahs join Pittsburgh Zoo

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At the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, they are seeing spots. Four cheetahs' worth of spots, to be exact.

The cheetahs -- two males and two females born on a ranch in South Africa about 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," said Ginger Sturgeon, director of animal health at the zoo. According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, about 10,000 cheetahs, mostly distributed throughout Africa, remain in the wild.

On Tuesday, the zoo was closed to visitors due to the cold, but the Animal Care Center was open, and inside Ms. Sturgeon and her staff conducted a physical exam on one of the new cheetahs, a 90-pound male. He was anesthetized so the health team could run about an hour's worth of tests, including an abdominal ultrasound, a cardiogram and X-rays.

"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.

Ms. Sturgeon also conducted a skin biopsy, which will provide the DNA sample to 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.

Increasing diversity among the species, which can produce healthier animals, is an important goal for 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 within the zoo's Animal Care Center.

Sometime this spring, the cheetahs will move into their new home, an 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 from an observation platform in November 2012. That observation platform has been removed and replaced by fencing. The zoo's only other cheetah, an older female, was moved to the exhibit this summer.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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