The fastest animal on land is on full display at the Safari Park. Opening this July, the park’s new and improved Cheetah Run showcases the incredible speed and grace of this large African cat (Acinonyx jubatus), as well as its impressive ability to stop pretty quickly and be a good kitty. And we got to preview it with VIP treatment!
Continue on for photos and video of the run!
Let’s do the nuts and bolts first. The Cheetah Run is located between Lion Camp (which is undergoing its own facelift) and the giant yellow Balloon Safari. It’s not an entirely new concept; a premium service existed previously, but was only administered on weekends and was in a private location. This new incarnation is completely free (with admission, duh) and will be conducted daily. Once daily, with two runs separated by a few minutes. I’m sure run times will be posted.
To reward its Twitter followers, the Safari Park tweeted an invitation that promised a sneak preview of the new attraction for those in attendance (admission not included), but anyone perceptive to the strange comings and goings around the Cheetah Run was welcomed to watch. After getting slushies, we headed to the run for the 12:45 tweet-up, where a sizable crowd had already gathered. We soon found out that Tweeters, not the 2.5 year-old cheetah Amara, were the main stars. Led forth by the zoo and Safari Park’s social media guru Matt, us Tweeters were taken to a special area to view the run away from the throngs of people.
Quickly, I’m going to talk a bit about cheetahs and dogs. I’ve talked about it before, but the zoo and SP pair up cheetahs (and sometimes arctic wolves) with domestic dogs when they are very young to foster companionship and make them more comfortable around people. The idea is that the cheetah is used to choosing “flight” as its fight/flight response, but when its canine friend is nearby, the cheetah is more likely to relax. Basically, the dog teaches the cheetah it doesn’t need to be afraid around humans.
The run has a pretty basic set-up. On one end, the cheetah is in a crate in the bed of a truck. On the other end of the approximately 330 foot track is a mechanism that pulls the lure (the runner’s favorite stuffed animal) down the track for the cheetah to chase. The dog runs first, to feel included perhaps? Not quite sure. Once the lure is reset, the crate door is opened and the lure is sprung. The cheetah, having been trained to play with and chase that particular stuffed lure, dashes down the track at speeds of up to 70 mph, and reaching 60 mph in as little as 3 seconds. At the end of the track, the cheetah is stopped with a trainer’s whistle and rewarded with raw rabbit meat.
Fun fact: A cheetah can only sprint for up to a minute before it runs a very real risk of overheating and dying. Cheetahs must rest for up to a half-hour after a run to cool down.
In between the two runs, the cheetah must rest to lower its body temperature. To allow for this, the Safari Park has set up a small gated area alongside the track with shade and a frozen beef blood popsicle for the cheetah to enjoy. Tweeters in attendance were in this gated area and we had the amazing privilege of being within arm’s length of the majestic Amara and her canine buddy, Hopper. During Amara’s 10-minute break, we were able to ask keepers all sorts of cheetah questions. I asked a lot of questions and got some great answers, mostly about the breeding program and the individuals they house at the park. There are more cheetahs off-display than on.
After the cool-down, Amara was run again, with the same jaw-dropping speed and athleticism. At the conclusion of the second run, Amara and her keepers made their way down to the lawn in front of the cheetah exhibit where visitors could ask questions and get a closer look at the cat. A note about this, the three sisters in the cheetah exhibit are not among the runners, and they remain in their usual home in the corner of African Outpost.
This entire VIP experience was a surprise to us and I can’t thank the Safari Park enough for the amazing and unexpected encounter. They really went all out for us and it speaks volumes about their dedication to their loyal followers. If you aren’t following the zoo and Safari Park on Twitter, do so or miss out. Also, follow me.
It appears as though the private viewing and encounter will be offered as an upgrade for visitors. I highly recommend it, although I don’t know the pricing details.
Pro tip: The cheetahs are mild-mannered and extremely well-trained, so don’t let fear keep you from experiencing these beautiful animals close up. We’re not talking about lions or tigers here, folks.
Special thanks to Spencer for taking the video.