Q&A: Raising cheetah cubs in Front Royal

Paul Marinari, senior curator of the Department of Animal Programs at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Warren County, answered questions about the births of cheetah litters at the facility in March.

Q. How are the litters since their birth?
A. Both of the litters are doing really great. The moms are being fantastic taking care of their litters. All the cubs have also been gaining weight so we’re very optimistic about their future.

Q. How did the center breed the cheetahs? Naturally or through artificial means?
A. Both litters were born through natural breeding. So as part of the larger collection of cheetahs under human care we have certain matches that are beneficial genetically, so we have the appropriate male and females here at SCBI obviously and we try to get all of adults represented in the population. So we mix and match based on that genetic information to produce the most genetically diverse offspring as possible. So our two females came into reproductive readiness and we had males that were interested and that were the best genetic match for those two females. One was the mother of the one of the females so it’s our second generation of that line.

Q. How do you pick the queen and the sire?
A. Well, the dame and the sire, it’s based on genetics but we also assess animal behavior, vocalizations and see the animals respond to each other … if they’re actually interested in breeding. So once we find a good match then we will let the male into the female’s area and then we do some observations to make sure and to record the breeding positions and behavior of the individuals.

Q. How do you care for the cubs as they grow?
A. Ideally we would not be bottle-feeding or hand-rearing the cubs … You could have to hand-rear even animals that were naturally bred or animals that were artificially inseminated. So, thankfully, the moms are doing a fantastic job of taking care of the young. Of course one of our moms is a first-time mom and the other female has had a surviving litter here in the past so that’s a really good indication and we really prefer that cheetah cubs are raised by the mom, so that helps with a lot of behavior and it makes for better cheetah breeders in the future. Our staff will continually monitor the health of the animals over time.

Right now, we can peer into the dens through our camera systems that are in place so our staff can be at home watching and making sure that everything’s going well. Our animal program staff and scientists are working with our veterinary department as well as our nutrition department to ensure that the cubs are putting on weight and, with all the information that we have throughout the cheetah program in North America, we have a lot of data that tells us that a certain litter size, those cubs should be within this weight range.

Over time the cubs will begin exploring their environment. They’ll begin leaving the dens and we’ll be also giving them some of their vaccinations here sometime in May. It’s just like raising kids, right? You want to make sure they’re eating, they’re growing, they’re able to be vaccinated and battle any diseases or infections that come their way and occasionally we have to bring them to the vets for a checkup, and we work with our nutritionist to make sure their diet is well balanced.

Q. How do you socialize the cubs?
A. The cubs are playing with each other. The mom is there to kind of fine-tune some of their innate behaviors. Our keeper staff right now are the only ones that are going in with the cubs and that is not every day. But we try and get visuals on them and we have a certain time frame on when we get weights so we can keep track that weights are going up. Then over time we’ll add various types of enrichment that we add into all of our different species that we have at SCBI, both youngsters and adults.

Q. What are the cubs’ futures?
A. The main goal with our cheetah program here at SCBI is to have a sustainable population of cheetahs throughout the North American facilities. Right now we can’t say which animal or animals will be staying here at SCBI but we have so many cheetahs right now and we want to keep our population of cheetahs here at SCBI genetically diverse so we can’t keep a lot of related individuals housed here because that will be a genetic bottleneck for our future breeding. Every year the program coordinator … will take in all the information of all the cheetahs that are born throughout the North America facilities and she will then begin placing these cubs after a couple of years at facilities where it maximizes their potential to produce the most genetically diverse offspring.

Q. Is the cheetah an endangered species?
A. For the cheetahs we have here, they’re on the red list of threatened species. That information is always as good as the information we get from the field and what we hope to do is try and alert about species before they get to the point of being critically endangered. So the time to study animals, the time to understand their behavior and reproductive biology is when they’re more plentiful. But each of the species we have here, including the cheetahs, have gone through many bottlenecks in the wild and we manage our population here, again, to try and minimize the loss of genetic diversity as best we can.

Q. What are the challenges of breeding cheetahs?
A. It’s as much an art as it is a science. We really have a dedicated staff who really get to know the animals on an individual basis and can pick up the signs, you know, this female is ready to breed and this male has the appropriate vocalizations and would be a good match. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t work. We’ve been very lucky here at SCBI and we’ve been quite successful with our cheetahs. On average, the breeding group that have cheetahs produce about 46 cubs per year so that number has actually gone up because we’re learning more about the ways to house cheetahs, to feed cheetahs, to breed them – that increases our likelihood of producing mother-ready cubs.

Q. How many cheetahs exist in captivity?
A. There’s roughly about 310-315 cheetahs at facilities in North America. In the wild, they are listed … it depends on which group you’re going to so … Right now I think the estimate that folks are going with is probably no more than about 8,000 individuals in the wild.

Q. Why keep these cheetahs in captivity?
A. These can be viewed as kind of insurance populations. Our goal here … is not to return cheetahs to the wild. Our goal is to understand cheetahs, to be able to breed cheetahs and to have a stable, North American population. Now, that being said, we do partner with folks over in Africa to do these biomedical surveys on wild cheetahs, see how those cheetahs compared to the animals we have under our care and then we also extend that a little further and try to understand what the issues are in those range countries to try and again have different partners that are facing the conservation of species around the globe at all those different levels. Meanwhile, we are collecting genetic information from all the different animals that we have and we’re banking that for potentially future artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization for some species. It’s a multi-faceted approach to conservation.

It’s tough to educate the public with something that they’re not seeing and obviously there’s a huge interest in people seeing cheetahs at zoos, at other wildlife center. We’ve move our cheetahs to a much more natural open area here at SCBI. We have almost 9 acres dedicated to our cheetahs. It’s kind of an off-site facility. It’s kind of remote on our property and we find that that really has had a positive impact on our breeding success. Now some of those cheetahs will be going to other facilities that are urban areas or smaller.

Q. What does the institute want the public to learn from this news and will they get to see the cubs in person?
A. It all depends on where the eventual … homes are for these animals and that has yet to be determined. In terms of here, at SCBI, we are a facility that is closed to the public even though we do have our Wednesday lecture series … Our cheetah science facility, like a number of our animal facilities, are kind of off limits for a number of disease and disturbance concerns, which I’m sure everyone can understand. I’m sure the zoo will announce wherever these cubs are destined to go and follow-up stories. But, again, they’re just kind of fresh on the ground and those decisions haven’t been made.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com