- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

It seems children will be children, no matter what the species.

The National Zoo’s new cheetah cubs frolicked in the snow, flipped backward down a grassy hill and playfully swatted each other yesterday, as the four siblings explored their outdoor exhibit yard under the watchful eye of their mother.

It was a rare outdoor appearance for the fuzzy, caramel-colored cats, as they prepared for the limelight this weekend. The public will get its first chance to view the 10-week-old cheetahs today.

Since the cubs were born Nov. 23, the two males and two females have kept a low profile, spending most of their time indoors bonding with mom and receiving the careful attention of veterinarians.

To prepare the cubs for their new home, zoo keepers have spent the past month slowly introducing them to the outdoors — and the wintry weather.

“They actually seem to like the snow,” cheetah keeper Craig Saffoe said.

Still, Mr. Saffoe said the zoo limits the cheetahs’ outdoor playtime to a few hours a day because of the chilly temperatures.

The world’s fastest land animals are natives of Africa, with small populations also found in Iran and Afghanistan.

This is the first litter of cheetah cubs born at the National Zoo in its 115-year history, zoo officials said. The cubs weigh about 10 pounds each, but will grow 10 times that size within the next year.

“It’s a big event for us,” said Dr. Carlos Sanchez, a veterinarian explaining that cheetahs are difficult to breed.

Much like people, cheetahs can be picky when it comes to selecting a mate, zoo officials said. Male cheetahs kept in captivity also tend to have low sperm counts, as a result many matings are unsuccessful.

It also is common for some new mothers to neglect their offspring, but that has not been the case with Tumai. The 4-year-old mother stayed close to her cubs as they frolicked yesterday for photographers and television cameras.

“She’s calm for a new mom,” Mr. Sanchez said.

Zoo officials said the cubs will remain together until they become adults. The animals then could be sent elsewhere to breed with other cheetahs as part of the Species Survival Plan. Officials with the breeding program decide which cheetahs in North American zoos should be selected to mate in an effort to maintain a genetically viable population.

With the birth of the four cubs, the zoo now has nine cheetahs. There are about 260 cheetahs at zoos in North America, with as many as 15,000 cheetahs estimated in the wild, officials said.

The animals typically live eight to 10 years.a

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