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Once a cheetah, always a cheetah

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications

It’s almost time to meet a cheetah! The newest animals to join the Woodland Park Zoo family will debut in a temporary exhibit May 1, with zoo members getting a special sneak preview on April 30. The celebration continues with an official grand opening presented by Chevron on May 3.

Missy the cheetah, photographed at Wildlife Safari in Oregon. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

How did the zoo’s new, temporary cheetah exhibit come about? It all started with a call from the Species Survival Plan, a conservation breeding program across accredited zoos. They enlisted our assistance to care for a pair of 14-year-old, female cheetahs for six to 18 months. The pair, Liz and Missy, has come to us from Oregon’s Wildlife Safari. By providing a temporary home for the girls, we are able to help the conservation breeding program by creating additional space for the next generation of offspring produced at Wildlife Safari. Between the two of them, Liz and Missy have reared 15 cubs of their own throughout their lifetimes!

Liz the cheetah, photographed at Wildlife Safari in Oregon. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo,

Though we have no shortage of freckled felines—Woodland Park Zoo is also home to jaguars, ocelots and snow leopards—you can easily spot the difference when it comes to cheetahs. That’s because these cats are built for speed.

Cheetahs can run in short bursts of up to 65 mph. Even when they are resting (and let’s face it, they are cats, so that’s pretty often), look for signs of the adaptations that make their speed possible like…

Keep an eye on the cheetah's back when it's on the move. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

…A flexible spine that coils like a spring and launches their body like a catapult…

Cheetahs are slender and narrow with large chests. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

…A large chest built for lungs and a heart to match that make high speeds possible…

Take a look at their specialized claws. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

…and blunt claws that act like track spikes and textured pads that act like tire treads.

Then there are those spots meant to camouflage them as they slink along savanna grasses, stalking prey before bursting into high speed (though hiding behind a rock gets the job done too).

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Yes, the fastest land mammal on the planet is a thing of beauty. But if we want to save this vulnerable species, it’s time to think fast. Through activities, chats and interpretive signage at the temporary cheetah exhibit, you’ll learn how zoos, conservationists and communities are working together to save this species through research, breeding and field work. Examining these themes for cheetahs inspired us to make over the entire corridor where their exhibit is located, now called the Wildlife Survival Zone. The newly reinterpreted Wildlife Survival Zone will examine what it takes in zoos and in the wild to save other threatened species like the red panda, cranes and western pond turtles. Look for the Wildlife Survival Zone in the southwest corner of the zoo. We’ll see you out there!