- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

The National Zoo, plagued in recent years by rodent infestations, sick animals and charges of mismanagement, received an early Christmas present last week: four cheetah cubs.

If they survive, the cubs, born Nov. 23, will be the zoo’s first successful attempt to breed cheetahs in captivity.

Citing the high mortality rates among the big cats and a desire to minimize stress for Tumai, the 4-year-old mother, zoo officials said they are taking a “hands-off” approach, monitoring the newborns and their mother only via a camera.

Everything from the cubs’ birth to their mother’s care is now on tape. Researchers are eager to edit and study the footage.

“It’s our first litter of cubs, so we want to leave them alone during this critical period,” said zoo spokeswoman Peper Long. “It could very well be several weeks before [the keepers] get in there. Right now they aren’t even peeking through any cracks or crevices to get a peep.

“We’ve been involved in cheetah research for 25 years,” Miss Long said. “The fact that we just had our first litter is a really big deal.”

The births came after the zoo was forced to euthanize a 12-year-old male cheetah suffering from diabetes. The zoo’s cheetah population is now 10, including the week-old cubs.

Cheetahs in the wild tend to have a low resistance to disease and a susceptibility to stress-related problems, zoo officials said.

“The biggest danger is that [the mother] gets spooked or scared by sharp noises or anything that is different,” said animal keeper Craig Staffoe. “The worst-case scenario is that she lashes out at her cubs or gets nervous and moves them a lot,” he said.

If a mother is going to reject her cubs, Mr. Staffoe said, she usually does so in the first week. But so far, Tumai has been paying equal attention to all four cubs — a good sign that she will continue to accept and care for them.

The National Zoo has been trying to breed cheetahs since 2000. But all attempts up until now have been with older female cheetahs.

Zoo workers plan to breed Tumai again, likely with Amadi, the father of the current litter. However, that won’t happen for some time.

“We definitely want to breed this cat again, but the last thing we want to do is be too greedy,” Mr. Staffoe said. “We just want to let her do her thing with this litter.”

After two litters with Amadi, Tumai likely would be mated with a different male, Mr. Staffoe said, because the goal of genetic diversity is to produce healthier animals.

The National Zoo lost three animals in November. Two were euthanized and one, a 3-year-old Sulawesi macaque monkey named Ripley, was killed by a hydraulic door in the Think Tank exhibit.

Officials said they have plans to increase the number of animals in the zoo.

“It’s not just an issue of bringing in and having babies,” Miss Long said.

“You’ve got to make sure you’ve got staff to take care of them. It’s a real planned effort. The zoo is going through a master-plan process … in the most coordinated way we can [planning] for the next 10 to 15 years.”

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