We had the greatest experience of our lifetime. Only four kids from our whole class were chosen to be Kidsday reporters, and we went to the Times Square Renaissance Hotel in Manhattan to meet Kasi, a cheetah, and Mtani, a Labrador, and their trainers. The cheetah and the dog are together because Kasi’s mother couldn’t take care of Kasi, so the zoo where Kasi was born contacted Busch Gardens, and now they and Mtani are taking care of him.
We found out so many interesting things about cheetahs. We found out that they run at the speed of 70 miles per hour; by the time you count to three, a cheetah already has run across a football field. Cheetahs are endangered; there are only about 10,000 left in the world.
It was really, really awesome seeing Kasi (whose name is Swahili for “one with speed”) and Mtani (whose name is Swahili for “close friend.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We were able to pet Kasi and felt his coarse fur. It looks smooth, but it is not.
We met with Christine Charlick, an animal educator from Busch Gardens in Tampa. She told us all about Kasi, who was abandoned by his mother. She told us that Busch Gardens has 14 cheetahs, and you are able to tell them apart by the spots on their faces and tails.
She told us about how Kasi and Mtani relate and why they are good for each other. We also met with Ashleigh Lutz. She was Kasi’s trainer and handler while they were in New York. Kasi was so calm in her arms, but we couldn’t hold him, we could only pet Kasi.
Becky McKeel was Mtani’s trainer. Mtani had such a sweet disposition and looked like she enjoyed all the attention we were giving her.
Here's our interview with the trainers:
How low of a number do you need to be on the endangered species list?
That’s a good question. I wish there was an easy answer. There’s a lot of factors that go into that. It depends on the amount of area. Like for instance, let’s say you lived on an island and there were 20,000 of you on that island, but you may still be considered endangered because if a hurricane came in they’d wipe out your entire island. So you would be considered endangered. Now let’s say we had the same 20,000 of you in a much larger space you may not be considered endangered because the risk or the danger that’s involved isn’t as high. So it’s really not an easy answer. Now cheetahs are considered to be really imperiled and they’re the most endangered big cat in Africa. And there’s only about 10,000 of them left and that’s because they’re spread out across this region that has a lot of conflict and a lot of different things that are happening. Like they’re losing a lot of their food, their prey and there’s also a lot of human people kind of like encroaching and taking up their space. So they’re considered endangered by the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service because of all of those pressures that are on them. So I wish I could give you an easier answer. But do you understand why?
How did you get Kasi?
Kasi was a very special animal. He came from another zoo in the state of Florida and his mom couldn’t take care of him. This was a smaller zoo and they entrusted us and we were very lucky that they felt that we were the best ones to take care of him. So when we got him he was real little. The zoo there did a really nice job of helping him, giving him some food and getting him to start gaining weight. So when we had him, we had him under 24-hour day care so all day we had somebody there to take care of him.
Cats and dogs are usually considered natural enemies. Why is it that cheetah tend to get along with dogs?
That’s a great question. Our cheetah is a male cheetah and usually what happens when baby cheetahs are born they stay with their siblings, their brothers and sisters, as they get older the boys or the males, they go off into other groups and they call them this funny name called a coalition. And those males stay together for awhile. But they don’t socialize with other families. They stay within their own family. So what happens is when you have a cheetah that’s by himself it’s really important that they have a companion especially as they’re younger. And the dogs, especially like labrador retrievers, they’re great sweet dogs and they spend a lot of time with them and the dog is actually a few weeks older and is teaching our cheetah manners. Because they’re growing up as brother and sister, pretty much, they don’t know any different, so they’re going to spend their whole life together and they’re going to be best friends. Because that’s all they’ve known is each other and being with us there’s no problem at all.
A cheetah can run about 75 miles per hour. Will you be able to teach it to run that fast?
We noticed that labs are also guide dogs. What’s special about their personality that helps them care for people?
That’s a great question. She’s asking what makes labs so different. If you ever met a labrador retriever, they are very, very sweet animals. They have a great temperament, and they love to be around people and other animals. So those particular traits make them perfect for either being a guide dog or being a companion to a cheetah.
We know there aren’t a lot of cheetahs left in the world. What can we do to help the cheetahs?
That’s awesome. There’s a lot that we could do just as kids and adults here in the United States to help save cheetahs around the world. Because you know we talked about there’s less than 12,000 of them. The best thing you could do is learn everything you can about cheetahs and to be excited about it and to tell all your friends. There are other things that you can do. You can do fund raisers like at your school, that you can make awareness and you can maybe save all your cans, your pennies or your change from lunch and you can donate it to conservation groups that help cheetahs in Africa because they’re doing a lot of good work over there trying to help cheetahs and all the other animals that live in Africa so that they don’t become endangered and extinct. So really the key to it is just learning as much as you can. There’s a couple things you can do; first thing is go on the internet go to websites like BuschGardens.com or even like cheetahs.org and they will help and teach you all about cheetahs and what you can do as well.
What adaptations do you think cheetahs have more to help them to run?
Their adaptation is their speed. But let me tell you about all the adaptations that make them fast. You guys have seen pictures of cheetah’s right? You’ve also seen pictures of lions and tigers. Cheetahs have really small heads and that helps make them more aerodynamic, just like an arrow going through the wind. They also have really large nostrils so that they could get more air into their lungs. Their lungs are bigger than most cats. They have a bigger heart, which gets all that rich oxygen into their muscles. They have non-retractable claws, which means their feet are like cleats. So their claws don’t go back in like a lot of other cats. So that helps dig into the ground and gives them that burst of speed. Really flexible spine. It’s like a spring that does that, that’s where all their power’s from. Really long legs. What really helps them the most, you see these on Kasi’s, they have a tremendously long tail. That helps them steer. As they move their tail back and forth, like if you saw a movie of cheetahs running you’ll see that they use that tail so that they can make those sharp turns. And all of those things put together give those adaptations that the cheetahs need to be really, really fast. And of course sharp teeth help as well. But you know what’s interesting though they are the most successful predator on the Serengeti. Fifty percent of their prey, they catch. Lions only about 10 percent. So you’ve got cheetahs that are really, really good at catching their prey, but what happens is after they’ve run 70 miles an hour, they’re pretty tired. So they have to go sit in the shade and rest and catch their breathe, but that’s when the other predators come in and like lions, and hyenas and steal their prey. But fortunately for the cheetah, a meal is just another 70 mile an hour sprint away. So after he rests for a little bit he can go right back out and catch something. Now what they do to stop maybe some of the lions and hyenas from coming out, is that they’ll hunt during the day time while lions and hyenas are sleeping — because those guys hunt at night. Those are some of the advantages of hunting during the day and running really fast and sometimes they’ll even try to stash their prey away, but still the lions and hyenas are pretty crafty.
Are you an animal trainer?
Yes, I am and then you’re going to meet two of our animal trainers in just a second too.
How did you feel when you found out the cheetah’s mother wasn’t taking care of her cub?
We felt a very strong sense of urgency that we needed to step in and we were very honored that we were entrusted with his care. So right away we got with the other zoo and we started making up different formulas for him. We quickly got him an incubator to make sure that he had a nice warm place to sleep and we very, very quickly did everything we could to make sure he was stable and comfortable. So I could say we are excited, but we were also making sure that we thought of every single thing we needed to do for him.
What do you do to prevent Kasi from biting you and Mtani?
We always use positive reinforcement, which means, when you get good grades in school, what does your mom and dad do to reward you? They give you money sometimes, they give you a special treat to the movies and that’s called positive reinforcement. So if you make an A on your report card you get a little something extra. So that’s what we do with our animals at Busch Gardens. Every time they do something we want them to do, we give them a little extra special treat. Maybe it’s their favorite food, maybe a toy and that positive reinforcement goes a really, really long way. So you can’t train something not to bite. They have to eat, that’s what they do. But if he starts to nibble we just kind of ignore that behavior and it’s called redirecting, which means we give him his favorite toy to play with and then he forgets about that he wants to lick your hand. So we just kind of flip him over and redirect his attention. That works really well.
Can you describe how he eats?
He has really sharp teeth and a rough tongue. Anybody who has ever been licked by a cat would know that. But why do you think they would have rough tongues? ... they can lick a lot of that meat off the bones and that rough tongue helps scrape some of that extra meat off.