Animals
2:55 pm
Tue January 7, 2014

Not Just Cute: How the Pittsburgh Zoo's New Cheetahs Play an Important Role

From South Africa to Pittsburgh — four cheetahs are now living at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

The animals are considered “genetically valuable” according to Dr. Ginger Sturgeon, the zoo's director of animal health. The goal of acquiring such animals is to ensure that future populations of the endangered cats can continue to be diverse.

“So mating unrelated animals with unrelated animals,” Sturgeon said. “By bringing in new blood lines from South Africa, these are completely unrelated animals, so it will only allow us to further the genetic diversity of the cheetah population here in North America. That’s extremely critical for the success of this species here in our country.”

It’s estimated that fewer than 10,000 cheetahs remain in the wilds of Africa, and there are approximately 250 in captivity in North American zoos. The year-and-half year-old cheetahs came to Pittsburgh via a ranch facility in South Africa and are not currently on display for the general public.

“All animals that come into our institution undergo a minimum 30-day period of quarantine,” Sturgeon said. “What that period does is that allows us to make sure that the animal is healthy and has no concerns that we need to treat or help that animal out with.”

One cheetah has already undergone an exam, and on Tuesday a second underwent the comprehensive tests. A team at the zoo examines the cheetah’s DNA to find out how different they are from the cheetahs already in North America.

“We’ll look at a complete physical examination, radiographs, blood work, ultrasound, electrocardiogram, he’ll get vaccinations," Sturgeon said. "We vaccinate against the same things that you get your own cats vaccinated for, so rabies and the different feline viral diseases."

The other two cheetahs will undergo the exam in the coming days. The cats are nearing sexual maturity, so the hope is they will help spur population growth.

“We would look first at breeding them here at our institution and hopefully being successful in that and sending off the offspring to other institutions across North America,” Sturgeon said.

Test results for the cheetahs should come back within seven days of testing. If all goes well, the animals will likely be on display for the general public in the spring.