Rescue Dog Bonds with Cheetah

All dogs, and especially dogs pulled from a shelter, excel when they have a purpose.

By | Posted: March 7, 2014, 10 a.m. PST

But not many dogs share the job joyfully performed by Miley, a rescued Husky mix: being best friends forever with a cheetah named Bakari.

It may seem  odd , pairing a shelter dog not just with a cat, but with a 70 mph predator, but Kathy Marmack, animal training supervisor at the San Diego Zoo, has been pioneering these matches since 1981.

Cheetah and Dog friends at San Deigo zoo.

From left to right, trainers: Lorena Walton, Charmaine Hook, Wendy Ricker, Kristina Nelson, and Kathy Marmack, DOG FANCY editor Ernie Slone

To say that the zoo’s lead trainer knows animals is a vast understatement. She has spent 38 years working with wild animals at the zoo, and has been active in dog obedience training and agility for 36 years. She knew as soon as she saw Miley three years ago at the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA shelter that this dog would be a good match.

Miley’s story was all too typical: a lost job, then a lost home, then left to the mercy of adoption. But the fluffy white dog had a way about her.

"When I first saw Miley, I noticed that she never took her eyes off me,” Marmack recalls. "It was clear that she was self-confident.”

In pairing rescue dogs with big cats, confidence is important because even though the dogs are smaller, they are the dominant partner. The confidence exuded by the dog calms the cheetah, putting it at ease.

Bakari’s original job was to help promote a cheetah outreach program, making appearances while crisscrossing Northern California. But there was a problem: He would get carsick, unable to handle the long rides. The Cheetah Conservation Fund, which placed him at the zoo, insisted that he get a dog pal.

"Once Miley was adopted, she was placed in an adjacent enclosure to Bakari, to help them get acquainted,” Marmack says. The close proximity allows the animals to sniff and investigate each other. It can take a month or more to settle in, but Bakara and Miley hit it off almost right away. "Bakari really liked her, and Miley knew: This is my job, to like this cat,” she adds.

What do the dogs do for the cheetahs? "His life is very enriched with the dog,” Marmack says. "When they got together, she was 1½ years old, and he was 2. Now they really like each other. When they are separated, Bakari will chirp his head off, missing her.”  

The dogs and cheetahs develop strong, lifelong bonds, Marmack says, noting that one of the zoo’s cheetahs, named Karoo, fell into grief after losing her longtime, inseparable companion.

"They had been together 12 years when Sven Olof, a shaggy Golden Retriever, died last May (2012),” she says. "Karoo, his cheetah partner, was lying next to him when he had a heart attack.” The cheetahs and dogs both live to about age 10 to 12. "Luckily, Karoo’s trainer had been with her all of her life, so that helped her recover from the loss,” Marmack says.

The San Diego Zoo has four pairs of dogs and cheetahs, and the zoo’s Safari Park has another four pairs, part of the zoo’s Animal Ambassadors program. The ambassadors travel to events and participate in presentations. Having the dogs along helps to calm the cheetahs, who otherwise might be nervous, when making visits to educate people about the threats faced by these endangered animals.

A century ago, there were an estimated 100,000 cheetahs around the world, but due to loss of habitat and other factors, the cheetah population has now declined to fewer than 12,000, according to the group Cheetah Outreach.

Doing outreach is important to spread the message about conservation. "When we have the cheetah with a helping dog, we can take them anywhere and do anything with them,” Marmack says. "Everyone identifies with the dog, and then they can also appreciate an endangered animal. We sometimes overnight at hotels with them.”

The dogs have also helped provide a calming influence with other animals at the zoo, sometimes being paired with clouded leopards, tiger cubs, and even reindeer.

The cheetahs and dogs live with each other 24/7, and even sleep together on a heated pad. "The one precaution we take is to feed them separately, because otherwise she would gobble his food up,” Marmack says.

Miley, age 5, and Bakari, 6, love to play together with a soccer ball. Sometimes mischievous Miley  plays tricks on her big cat pal. "Miley loves water, and sometimes she will snatch Bakari’s favorite ball and then dash into the water,” Marmack says. "She knows he won’t chase her into the water. It is almost like she is saying, ‘Na, na, na, na, look what I’ve got.”

You can visit the dog-and-cheetah pairs at the zoo or Safari Park, or get special, up-close access with the Backstage Pass. Learn more at sandiegozoo.org


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Eileen - 249708   Port Perry, ON

3/16/2014 4:42:09 AM

There are some great people who really understand how great the capacity is within animals, this is a fantastic pairing.

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HaplessPizza98   Calgary, AB

3/14/2014 7:37:58 PM

This is awesome! A great idea! Is so cool that cheetahs and dogs can get along so well

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