Captive cheetahs often show symptoms of severe anxiety, which can significantly affect their quality of life. Fortunately, zookeepers at the Metro Richmond Zoo have found an adorable solution to this problem: service dogs.

All Amped Up With Nowhere To Run

Unlike some other big cats, cheetahs are not a highly sociable species. Adult females live alone, except when raising cubs, while adult males create small groups of up to five.

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The cats also have an incredible amount of energy, as they’re the fastest animals on land, capable of reaching speeds of up to 70 miles per hour.

Cheetahs living in captivity don’t have a way to release their energy, and as a result, they become agitated. This affects their ability to breed. National Geographic stated there are only 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild, so captive breeding programs may be essential to the future of the species.

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“You may see in history that this dog can be responsible for saving the cheetah from extinction,” said Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo. “That is one heck of a story right there.”

Surprising Friendship

The San Diego Zoo came up with the idea of introducing service dog companions, but not by design; the zoo first introduced the concept as a part of their “animal ambassador” program. It was an unexpected success, and other zoos have followed suit.

For young cheetahs, the dogs can offer up the social cues that the kittens would typically get from their mothers and siblings. Dogs help the cats socialize, eventually allowing them to interact with other cheetahs without conflict.

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“The number one question up here, this $40 million exhibit: ‘Are the dogs coming out?'” said Suzi Rapp, who runs the animal programs at the Columbus Zoo. “And I say the Columbus Zoo built the world’s most expensive Labrador retriever exhibit in the world…the biggest dog run.”

For the cheetahs, it’s all about confidence.

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“If you place the puppy with the cubs, then pretty soon the cubs don’t realize—they think it’s their brother, their sister,” Rapp said. “What I’ve learned is that we want our cheetahs to have all the confidence in the world. And we know we can’t give it to them, but we know the dogs can.”

A Different Role

Hanna adds that dogs have also helped the wild cheetah. Programs like the Cheetah Conservation Fund have given rural farmers large dogs to scare cheetahs off of their land; otherwise, the big cats would likely be shot. In recent years, cheetah population has climbed in Africa.

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“We all woke up. In Africa, they’ve woken up. They know the cheetah has problems,” Hanna said. “And that’s with the farmers. Poachers now? That has declined a great deal. We still have poaching—it’s like anything else in the world, you know, I’m sorry to say.”

“And I believe the dogs will—not will—is helping a great deal to control the hunting of the cheetah, as well as trapping. The cheetah now has to come back.”