A Cheetah and a Dog Form a Tremendous Friendship at the Metro Richmond Zoo

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If you’re online much these days, you can’t avoid seeing evidence of mixed species friendships: cute videos of animals you’d think would be mortal enemies, cuddling up together and playing.

At the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia, when you look into the cheetah habitat you’ll see…a dog.

That’s Kago, and his feline best friend is Kumbali. The two grew up together, and now they play constantly and never want to be apart.
Kumbali needed human intervention shortly after he was born. His mother couldn’t supply enough milk to keep him and his two siblings all alive, so members of the zoo staff took over and bottle-fed him back to health. They then set out to find him a companion. That’s when Kago, a Lab mix rescue, entered the picture. He was saved from an Alabama high-kill shelter and brought to Richmond to meet Kumbali.

Here are the two of them enjoying each other’s company:

It’s become fairly common to pair dogs with cheetahs since the San Diego Zoo pioneered the practice some thirty years ago. Relationships can take anywhere from a week to three months to build, depending upon the individual animals.
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It’s been found that the dog helps to calm its companion by example. Canines tend to be trusting and confident. A cheetah’s natural state is fear and anxiety – especially as it gets older. It’s always on edge and ready to respond to threats by leaping into action with a burst of speed. In the confinement of a zoo, that pent-up energy has nowhere to go. But it can be released through spirited play with the dog.

Dogs are also useful in teaching social cues the cheetahs would have gotten from their mothers, sisters and brothers.

Zoologists carefully screen possible canine companions – choosing shelter dogs that have a good disposition and calm demeanor.

Here’s how the San Diego Zoo handles the pairing. When the dog and cheetah are first introduced, they’re put in adjacent habitats and allowed to look at and smell each other through a partition. Next there are brief supervised visits, where handlers let them get close enough to sniff and investigate each other more thoroughly. “Pretty soon, when someone throws a ball, they both go after it and when the people go home for the night, the cheetah gets to cuddle up to his big ball of fur friend and use him like a pillow,” says senior animal trainer Carlee Westbrook.

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Once a relationship is established, they do everything except share meal time. That’s because they don’t have the same diet and, according to Westbrook, the dog would probably push the cat aside to eat all its food.

Dog/cheetah pairings are a specific and unique bond. If a cheetah’s canine companion dies, it will not accept another. The zoo’s only choice then is to work on keeping it calm for the rest of the time it’s there.

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