New View of Cheetah Conservation

Posted at 1:50 pm October 29, 2010 by Yadira Galindo

From left: Kelly, Makena, and Rachel during an ultrasound procedure.

Rachel carefully pours blue gel onto the ultrasound wand. She glides it gently over Makena’s belly, applying only light pressure while in search of a heartbeat, spine, or ribs. Next to the mother-to-be is Kelly, who provides moral support and gently caresses Makena. Moments later Rachel whispers, “There is a heartbeat.” And then a second. The fetuses are getting bigger daily. Everyone beams with enthusiasm except Makena. She purrs. I may have as well!

Makena is a five-year-old cheetah participating in a training session to carry out ultrasound procedures. She is one of 133 cheetahs born so far at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park as part of a very successful conservation program. After her birth in 2005, her mother was unable to care for Makena and her three littermates. They were lovingly hand raised by zookeepers. Because Makena is part of an endangered species, she joined the Safari Park’s breeding program and became pregnant for the first time this year. Her temperament and bond with Senior Keeper Kelly Casavant are the perfect mix for a husbandry training program that eliminates the need for anesthesia and other invasive techniques. Makena sat, unrestrained, licking a frozen treat and purring during this training session.

“She learned basic behaviors as a cub such as sit, down, and stay,” said Kelly. “I have been working with Makena her entire life to get her to this point. We are very much about training for medical reasons.”

Makena was introduced to new people and strange objects, like the portable ultrasound machine the size of a laptop. She inspected it, including the magic wand. She decided it was acceptable as long as she was able to enjoy time with Kelly, her favorite keeper, or had a treat. The blue gel she didn’t care for, however. “She doesn’t like feeling wet,” said Kelly. They got over that hurdle, and in October they were able to see two fetuses in an ultrasound.

Kelly’s work, along with Rachel Peters, senior registered veterinary technician, has paid off. Detecting a pregnancy in this species through hormones is common; seeing the fetus in the womb is a rarity. The Safari Park had not performed an ultrasound on an alert, unrestrained cheetah in more than two decades. In the 1980s a similar opportunity existed when a cheetah with a similar temperament was pregnant. The Park prefers not to anesthetize pregnant females when avoidable. Since pregnancy can be confirmed with hormones, ultrasounds are not routinely used. An ultrasound may occur during a necessary veterinary exam.

The opportunity to do an ultrasound on a cheetah provides the team with a chance to gain valuable information about cheetah biology and ultrasound techniques, all while Makena enjoys her “bloodsicle.” It is not essential to know how many fetuses a cheetah is carrying during pregnancy, but from a science perspective it offers insight into something called “resorption,” which is the process of breaking down and assimilating something; in this case, the body breaks down a fetus. If an ultrasound indicates the animal is carrying one or more fetuses, but only one or none are born, scientists can rule out a false pregnancy and can take a closer look at the animal’s health. Is there a problem, or was it a natural occurrence?

Resorption has been documented by San Diego Zoo scientist in giant pandas. The adult female panda, Bai Yun, has given birth five times in San Diego. During her previous two pregnancies it was well documented through ultrasound that she carried more than one fetus. In both cases Bai Yun gave birth to only one cub. In 2009, the heartbeat of the second fetus became faint with each ultrasound until it disappeared completely. Perhaps it is the body’s way of saying this fetus was too weak, or it recognized that the mother was not able to carry more, or maybe the environment was not right for the birth of more than one cub. This is an area that needs further study in individual species.

What we do know is that training animals to participate willingly for a reward during husbandry activities has allowed zoos to care for animals in a way similar to how your dog is trained, through positive reinforcement. It is less invasive and can be mentally stimulating to the participant. The same principals are applied to training other species, including an elephant receiving a pedicure or blood being drawn from a monkey, because like our own pets, zoo animals can get sick or, in this case, pregnant.

I watched in awe as Makena sat patiently while Rachel placed the cold gel on one side of her belly and then the other side. Periodically Makena turned from her frozen treat to look at Rachel. “It’s still me,” Rachel reassured her, and the big cat went back to purring like a kitten.

Cheetahs are smart, Kelly says. I never asked my doctor for a treat when I went in for an exam or vaccination. Makena is definitely smarter than I am! From years of watching zookeepers work with animals using positive reinforcement, I learned a few tricks to teach my three dogs better doggie etiquette at home, but this technique was even more helpful when my cat was diagnosed as diabetic. I placed a small amount of tuna in his bowl to distract him from the insulin injection he received twice daily. After only a few days using this method he never again fussed about his medication. If only I could have taught him to stay. That’s a job for another day.

Yadira Galindo is a senior public relations representative for the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Name the Elephant Calf!

Watch video of this amazing procedure being performed on a cheetah!

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3 Responses to “New View of Cheetah Conservation”

  1. Lainie says:

    Yadira – Thank you for the wonderful news !! Congrats to everyone at the SDZ. Is there, or is there going to be a video of the ultrasound ? Thank You !

    Moderator’s note: There’s a link to the video at the end of the post above.

  2. Brenda says:

    That is amazing. It probably helped that Makena was hand-raised along with her sisters. What an experience it must be for the keepers and vet staff to be able to do something like that. It is obviously less stressful for everyone involved, especially Makena. I hope she has an uneventful pregnancy and gives birth to 2 fat, happy cheetah babies. Are they the product of natural breeding or was it something like Amara and was more scientifically assisted? When are the babies due?

    Yadira responds: Makena is due in mid-November. The animal care staff and Zoo scientists are continuing to use a recording of a cheetah vocalization called a “stutterbark” as part of its breeding program, as they did when Amara was born.

  3. Brenda says:

    Thank you, Yadira. I’d read they were going to try it again and I’m glad it successful a second time.