The Toronto Zoo has operated a very successful cheetah breeding program over its 43-year history but had been “stalled” at a total count of 48 cubs for a while by the time December of 2016 came around. It seemed the “magic” just wasn’t happening for the breeding adults at all. Meanwhile, Parc Safari in Quebec was still awaiting their first-ever cheetah babies; in fact, there had never been a cheetah birth in the history of that province. So just before Christmas, the Toronto Zoo and Parc Safari made a two-for-one “swap” (technically a “breeding loan” of all three females) to see if that might shake things up a bit. “Cleo” and “Akeelah” – five and four years old, respectively – were sent east while “Laini” – also four years old – came to Toronto and began a 30-day quarantine. When that was done, she was released into the “breeding house” and took an instant shine to “Patonga.” Now, when I say “instant,” I truly mean it. Cheetahs have a gestation period of 90-95 days; the earliest Laini could have cleared quarantine was January 22nd; and on April 30th, she presented her delighted Keepers with five tiny, adorable floofballs, just 98 days after she was introduced to her potential baby daddies.
Less than two weeks later, Akeelah gave birth to Quebec’s first two cheetah cubs ever (after rejecting her first five hopeful suitors, apparently); two months later to the day, Cleo produced two more beautiful kittens, bringing the total count to four (all boys). The litter count was the only thing the two moms had in common, however: Akeelah needed an emergency C-section a week before her due date and only two cubs (I believe the litter had five all told) survived. Because of this, Akeelah did not recognize them as her own and they both had to be hand-raised. By contrast, Cleo’s first litter was a natural birth and she raised her two boys splendidly. And then earlier this year, Akeelah had a second litter – this time producing two girls and two boys naturally and raising them herself. So in a little over 16 months after the swap, 13 new cheetahs were added to the global ranks, making this one of the most successful trades in the history of
professional sports cheetah breeding programs.
I must confess here: I am really not too fond of the names that were chosen for the five cubs born in Toronto – three boys and two girls. One of the girls’ names is pretty: “Emara,” which is a combination of “Emma” and “Sara” in honor of the Area Supervisor’s two daughters. (There seems to be some confusion about whether there should be a final “h;” as the calendar photo has used “Emara,” that’s the spelling I am going with.) That’s kind of sweet, really, and a beautiful thought. I guess they threw in the towel after that, though, as the remaining names were “Queenie,” “Dougie,” “Chester,” and (seriously) “The Flash” – the latter name chosen ironically because he was the slowest of the group. Contrast these with the eight names in total chosen at Parc Safari: “Mosi,” “Jelanie,” “Julius,” “Helios,” Imani,” “Ilanga,” “Bemba,” and “Malik.” I hope they do something different here in Toronto when they name the Arctic wolf cubs. Maybe they just ran out of names for the cheetahs when they went past 50 (53 is the new total).
In any event, the names don’t really matter that much to me because, at the end of the day, I have no idea how to tell them apart. Honestly, I really don’t. I do believe even the Keepers struggle with differentiating them – at least at a distance or at first glance. I think the two gals are a little smaller than the boys, but I’m not even 100% sure of that. I can tell Laini apart from her offspring, though, even 15 months later. She’s a little bit darker/more yellowy, for one thing; for another, I think she might be the most beautiful cheetah I have ever seen. I am a cat-lover through and through, but I’ve not really had cheetahs at the top of my list of fascinating felines. They all look just a little too similar to each other for my tastes, owing mostly to a genetic bottleneck which occurred about 12,000 years ago. Well, not “all,” I guess.
The very first time I ever laid eyes on Laini was also the very first day I ever saw her cubs. After a couple of very brief, “off-hours” trial exposures, the six spotted beauties had their first public viewing on August 28, 2017. A little bird told me I might want to be there that morning, and as I watched the back of the exhibit the first face I saw was Laini’s – and I was blown away by her beauty. (Check out the photo at the left.) She had a huge chest; broad shoulders; a short, flat forehead; a wide, expressive face; and the most intelligent eyes I may have ever seen in her species. She was alert and inquisitive, but not in the least tentative or intimidated by bringing her young brood into this brand-new territory. She had it all under control, allowing the cubs quite a bit of freedom, but always able to round them up with just a few, soft “clicks” of her tongue. I came that day to fall in love with five cheetahs; I ended up falling in love with six.
It’s been very special watching them grow up together with their still-patient Mom always nearby. They all seem very tightly bonded together; yet, they also seem very self-assured and I don’t think their future separation from one another will do them any harm at all. Their viewing schedule has not been particularly consistent and they are at the very top of the Zoo; couple that with two other sets of kittens born just after them last year and so many other major births since then and you might be able to understand why I’ve not been able to see them as often as I otherwise might like. But from the first time I saw them last August, through the long winter and cold spring, right into the heat of this suffocating summer, it’s a real treat to come upon the cheetah exhibit and see not one or two of them, but six magnificent cats snuggling, running, playing, and just hanging out together, clearly truly fond of one another. It remains, to this day, a very difficult scene to pull myself away from.
Hmm. Ok. Perhaps they are further up “my list” than I thought they were. I can live with that.
Coming up next month: an animal who lives in Laini’s old stomping grounds. With a little bit of luck, I might have some new photos by then of this little cutie all grown up! You’ll have to check back to see how that goes. For now, as I usually do, I’ll leave you with a few more shots of Laini’s gang. Thanks for dropping by!