A Cat’s Best Friend

Cheetah and Dog Ambassadors Start Building Strong Bonds

Since their arrival from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, six-month-old cheetah cub ambassadors Ilangha and Tombi-Jeanne have been growing fast and settling in at the San Diego Zoo. Now weighing in at about 27 pounds each, the sisters are rapidly catching up to their new dog companions, Murray and Elvis.

Every cheetah trained as a Zoo or Safari Park ambassador gets paired with a domestic dog, which becomes its lifelong buddy. Since most dogs are very comfortable with people, even those they don’t know, their confidence helps naturally wary cheetahs to feel comfortable and relaxed in new situations.

Ilangha and Tombi-Jeanne have been going to what keepers like to call “cub school,” where they are learning a variety of behaviors that allow us to provide them with the best possible care—such as presenting their paws for health inspections, sitting, and lying down for eventual voluntary blood draws. We are also teaching the cubs that “all dogs are cool.” Tombi-Jeanne and Ilangha are getting accustomed to the dogs in a non-threatening environment where everyone feels safe, so their lifelong relationships will be built on a solid foundation of trust and security with each other, based also on relationships with trainers.

Duke—a big Anatolian shepherd—is the mellowest of mellow dogs, and he is very savvy when it comes to the cubs. That’s why he was chosen to be the first dog they encountered. The cubs also met Murray and Elvis while the dogs were on leash—and we are very excited that this past week, Elvis spent time with the cats while he was off leash! Since it’s more challenging for the cubs to be well-behaved when their dogs are romping around, we’ve been exploring different ways to encourage calm play behavior between the cheetahs and dogs.

Tombi-Jeanne’s and Ilangha’s personalities are becoming more apparent every day. Tombi-Jeanne continues to be the less secure cub, needing a little more reassurance; while Ilangha approaches life with confidence and fearlessness. The main job of both the dog and cheetah cub training teams is to work together and observe the animals’ responses to their learning sessions, their introductions to each other, and the many interactions they have in a given day, so trainers can continue to shape positive relationships.

It’s incredibly rewarding to observe and facilitate these relationships as they are being formed, especially while introducing the cheetahs to their new canine friends. We encourage visitors to the San Diego Zoo to keep an eye out for the cubs and their pups. Sometimes the cubs will be in the Animal Ambassador Area at Urban Jungle—with or without their dog friends—or resting behind the scenes.

Kristi Lee Dovich is animal training manager at the San Diego Zoo.