Aging Gracefully: Cheetahs Savanna, Tommy T & Nia

Posted January 30, 2024 by Andrea Haugen

You might be noticing some different cheetah faces in the cheetah habitat versus the running yard. The ambassador cheetahs in our program live a dynamic life at the zoo through many different roles as ambassadors. One of the highlights of the Cat Ambassador Program (CAP) is, of course, the cheetah runs during the cheetah encounters.

Most of our cheetahs that live up at the cheetah running yard take part in the running program during the warmer months. Our cheetahs can run as long as they decide they want to and as long as it is still healthy for them to do so. Running on our lure machine is one of the best forms of enrichment for the cheetahs. They love getting to stretch their legs and show off their incredible adaptations to make them the fastest runners on the planet!

As any animal ages, their activity levels and likes may begin to change. A few years ago, we noticed Tommy T, who is now 15 years old, not wanting to chase after the lure as much and mostly enjoying time laying out in the yard. We decided he would have more time lounging around down at the cheetah habitat and moved him there.

A while after Nia, our oldest female at 14, was showing signs of aging and getting a bit slower running. She still loved to run, but we were able to modify it to where she would only run about once a week in the Cheetah Encounter. In the off-season we knew she would love more time with a space of her own, so we also moved her down to the cheetah habitat.

The cheetah habitat can house two different cheetahs that rotate on and off the large yard viewable to guests. They do not live together down there as cheetahs are solitary by nature and prefer their own space.

We can adjust the way we manage our cheetahs based on their best welfare and what they decide they want to participate in. As our cheetahs age, their needs change as well. One of our other older cheetahs, Savanna (11), was recently evaluated by our veterinary team and they found signs of aging with her having some arthritis in her spine. It was determined that for her best welfare to help her back that Savanna should not run on the lure anymore. Even though this means she is “retired” from the cheetah encounters, she is still able to participate in many other ways as an ambassador animal. We are currently in the process of getting her acclimated to the cheetah habitat as well.

With our aging cheetahs, we will be modifying their care as they dictate and decide what is best for each individual. This means you may see different cheetahs in different places at the zoo! The best way to tell which cheetah is which, is to look for unique characteristics of them to identify individuals.

For example, Nia and Savanna are smaller than Tommy T because they are females. Savanna has a lot of black at the tip of her tail, whereas Nia has a shorter tail with a little kink at the end of it. Tommy T also has a snaggletooth!

We do not have a set schedule on when each cheetah will be in a different habitat, but we expect it to be a more fluid process as we have older cheetahs rotating down to the cheetah habitat and back to the running yard. Nia may come back up and run once in a while if she decides she wants to! We will just have to wait and see.