By Katie Demeria
A litter of Cheetah cubs born at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal late last year had to be separated from their mother after she inadvertently wounded them and caused one cub's death.
Cheetah biologist Adrienne Crosier said the cubs' mother, Ally, was exhibiting some undesirable behavior, carrying the cubs excessively and repeatedly placing them outside the dens.
"So we separated her from the cubs and got a look at them, and realized that at least one was injured at that point," Crosier said. "We wanted to try to treat the cubs for their injuries but leave them with [Ally] for as long as possible."
The cubs had puncture wounds on the back of their necks because Ally was picking them up so frequently. Biologists checked on the cubs regularly to monitor their conditions and soon realized one was becoming lethargic.
"He wasn't acting like a spunky little cub should, so we brought him into the clinic for more extensive treatment and realized pretty quickly that he was in bad shape, and spent a day giving fluids and treatments, but ended up losing him that evening," she said.
The infection from the puncture wounds, Crosier said, must have been more widespread than biologists originally suspected. At only 12 weeks old, the cub's immune system was not yet prepared to deal with a serious infection.
After they lost the cub, Crosier said biologists decided to remove all of Ally's cubs and raise them by hand.
"We realized what we were dealing with was pretty darn serious," she said.
Crosier added that she does not think Ally was aware of what she was doing to her cubs.
"I do not think she had any intention of harming her cubs," she said. "This was the first litter she ever raised, and she was very nervous, very unsure. It sounds odd, but she had enough maternal instinct to care for them and nourish them and groom them, but they weren't where she wanted them to be."
The remaining three cubs, two males and one female, she said, are doing very well.
Because they have each other, Crosier said, the three will grow up to be, behaviorally, just like other cheetahs, despite being raised by hand.
"Thank goodness they have each other," she said. "They are very, very tightly bonded, which is great, I love to see that. They have each other, so they play and do all those normal cheetah behaviors."
Miti, another cheetah at the institute, gave birth to her own litter around the same time as Ally. Also a first time mother, Miti is still doing well with her litter of five females and one male.
"They're doing great," Crosier said. "They're 15 weeks old, and they're growing and playing. I don't think they loved the snow we got, but that's melted now pretty much. It was taller than they were for sure."
If Miti continues to do well with her cubs, they will likely stay with her until they are between 14 and 18 months.
Ally, like many cheetahs in captivity, will be transferred to another facility in the spring where she may again be bred and have the opportunity to raise her cubs herself.
"It might be that when she tries to raise her subsequent litter, that she's totally fine," Crosier said. "It's hard to predict what she'll be like in the future."
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org