These rescue doggos are helping to save an entire species - by teaching cheetahs how to cat.
Despite their elegant, fierce appearance, cheetahs are actually very shy, skittish creatures. As the smallest species of Big Cat in Africa, cheetahs have been hardwired to run first and ask questions later. When coming face to face with lions, leopards, and hyenas, it's not hard to see why cheetahs are naturally so anxious.
However, this anxiety does not a happy cheetah make, especially when it comes to breeding. In the San Diego Zoo Safari Park's captive breeding program, cheetahs were often too nervous or shy to breed. These big scaredy-cats needed a confidence boost.
That's where the companion dogs come in.
The dogs become the cheetah's companion and playmates. But more importantly, the dogs serve as role models for nervous, flighty cheetahs.
"A dominant dog is very helpful because cheetahs are quite shy instinctively, and you can't breed that out of them," explains Janet Rose-Hinostroza, animal training supervisor at the Park.
"When you pair them, the cheetah looks to the dog for cues and learns to model their behavior. It's about getting them to read that calm, happy-go-lucky vibe from the dog."
Many captive cheetahs are especially shy because they never learned how to socialize with other cheetahs, often because their mother rejected or abandoned them. The primary goal of the companion dogs is to help cheetahs be at ease in their captive environment so they feel comfortable and confident enough to breed with other cheetahs.
The companion dogs at the San Diego Zoo are usually rescued from shelters. The current dogs at the Zoo are Max, Alexa, Hopper and Mtani, and an Anatolian Shepherd Dog named Yeti.
"My favorite dog is Hopper because we found him at a kill shelter and he's just 40 pounds, but he lives with Amara, who's our toughest cheetah by far," says Rose-Hinostroza.
Pictured above: Hopper and Amara
Cheetah cubs are paired up with their canine counterparts at about 3 to 4 months old. They take things slowly, as the staff is very protective of their cheetahs. Both parties are kept on leashes to ensure everyone gets along. "There are lots of toys and distractions, and they're like two cute little kids who desperately want to play. But cheetahs are instinctively hardwired to feel uneasy so you have to wait and let the cat make the first move."
A century ago, there were 100,000 cheetahs living in the wild. Today, there are less than 12,000 (some estimates say as low as 7,100), and the species is considered extinct in 13 countries. Since starting the captive breeding program at the San Diego Zoo, 135 cheetahs have been born at the park.