Smithsonian center welcomes cheetah cubs

Two large litters of cheetah cubs were born over the course of a single week in late March at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Photo courtesy of SCBI

Related: Q&A Raising cheetah cubs in Front Royal

FRONT ROYAL — Cheetahs Happy and Miti brought two litters of cubs into the world at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute last month.

Happy, a 3-year-old cheetah, gave birth to five healthy cubs on March 23, according to information from the center in Warren County. Then 7-year-old Miti gave birth to seven cubs four days later. However, two of Miti’s cubs, both visibly smaller and less active at the time of birth, died, according to the center. Each litter includes two males and three females.

The mothers and cubs appeared healthy this week, said Paul Marinari, senior curator of the Department of Animal Programs at the institute. Marinari noted the significance of the litters.

“I guess the thing that we’re really excited about sharing this news with is every birth of these endangered species is something that we should feel good about,” Marinari said Thursday. “We’re optimistic that we’ve been able to add these very genetically valuable individuals to the overall cheetah population and keeping it moving forward for future generations.

“As a federally funded facility, everybody should feel ownership that these animals on the ground,” Marinari added. “They’re our representatives and ambassadors for their species and that no matter how desperate things get there is still hope.”

Adrienne Crosier, cheetah biologist at the institute and manager of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Cheetah Species Survival Plan, stated in a news release that she considers the group is large given that the average litter contains three cubs. The two birthing events increased the number of cheetahs at the facility by 50 percent, Crosier said.

Miti and Happy bred in December, matched with cats that fit their temperaments that would help ensure genetic diversity, according to the institute. Miti mated with 6-year-old Nick, a first-time father and the first cub born at the institute in 2010. Miti gave birth to her third litter though; she lost one litter in 2015 to health complications.

Happy bred with 10-year-old Alberto. The litter marked Happy’s first and Alberto’s fifth.

Scientists and keepers at the institute continue to monitor the health and behavior of Miti and Happy and their cubs via a closed-circuit camera in the nest boxes.

Both litters represent the second generation of cheetahs born at the institute. The birthing made grandparents of Amani and Barafu, the older cheetahs who recently retired together. The litters likely will be the last for Alberto and Miti, who experts at the center say are genetically well represented in the population. The institute has seen 46 cubs born at the facility since they started breeding cheetahs in 2010.

Cheetahs appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The animal experienced a population bottleneck about 10,000 years ago that led to health and reproductive problems caused by low levels of genetic variation. This created a challenge for managing cheetah populations. The institute and other organizations created the Breeders Centers Coalition in 2013 to address these challenges.

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