The happy news of two cheetah births in Washington came as a welcome respite from a spate of bad news in the local animal kingdom, but turns out that the process of bringing those cubs into the world was no easy feat. Adrienne Crosier, cheetah biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, where the cubs were born, says that cheetah breeding is tough business. “Cheetahs in captivity in general don’t reproduce well,” she says. The SCBI had to resort to all sorts of tricks to get these couples to couple.
Keep the males and females apart
One might assume that more time spent between the sexes would lead to more sex, but Crosier says absence makes the heart grow randy. “They’ll almost become bored with each other,” she explains. “You’ll definitely get better results if your males never see your females before breeding.”
Keep the females guessing
Crosier and her fellow scientists constantly try new things to stimulate the female cheetahs. She says they recently moved the females to new enclosures. “We move them around a lot, and that triggers them to come into heat,” she says. “They’re really high maintenance.”
Spice things up with male feces
“We also use tricks like putting the male feces in the female yard,” she says. “It’s all about the novelty.”
Let the males identify which females are receptive
While the females are eating out of sight, the male cheetahs are brought to their enclosures to sniff them out. “Where she was lying down, where she defecated, everything,” Crosier says. The males are able to pick up a chemical indicating that the female is sexually receptive. “If she smells good to them, they’ll start stutterbarking,” she says. A stutterbark is a “distinct vocalization” that indicates the male cheetah likes what he smells.
Move to the soft introduction
The “soft introduction” follows: a chaste rendezvous with a fence between them. Both cheetahs can indicate their opinion of the other, the male through “displays” and the female through rolling around and possibly putting her back legs over her head. If both parties show an interest, “then you consider letting them have a full introduction.”
Arrange the full introduction
If it turns out one of the parties isn’t interested, the full introduction can get ugly. “He can hurt her, she can hurt him,” she says. “It gets pretty dangerous.” In the case of Amani and her mate, Crosier says it was the most amorous encounter she has witnessed. “He was extremely excited for her, and she was just beside herself,” she says. “There were no doubts on any side.” Amani had a false pregnancy in June, but got back together with her previous partner and got pregnant again in September.
Prepare for a singleton
If a cheetah gives birth to a single cub in the wild, she cannot produce enough milk to keep it alive and will typically abandon it. Amani and Zazi were deliberately introduced to their mates within days of each other. The plan was that if one gave birth to a single cub, the singleton would be added to the litter of the other to give it the greatest chance of survival. Amani’s singleton was hand-raised until Zazi gave birth, also, incidentally, to a singleton. The first cub was placed with Zazi and her cub, and both babies have successfully nursed.
Don’t worry about the mother who has lost her cub
After Amani’s single cub was taken to the vet hospital, “she did seem different, behaviorally,” Crosier says. “Almost looking for him. That didn’t last very long, to tell you the truth. After a day or two, she was pretty much back to normal.” She adds that it’s very unlikely that Amani will ever recognize the cub now that he’s left her.
Name the babies
Currently the cubs have no names, which Crosier is becoming problematic. “I don’t know when that’s going to happen. … or how,” she says. “But they do need names. We’re getting to that point.”