Improving Zoo Life for Cheetahs

cheetahDr Tom Quirke is a graduate of the School of BEES. This article, by Anthony King,  first appeared on science.ie

A cheetah can hit speeds of over 100 kilometres an hour and visitors to Fota Wildlife Park in Cork can watch them in action. The cheetahs chase after chicken or rabbit meat on a pulley system in runs, which encourages the animals’ natural behaviour.

Irish scientist Dr Thomas Quirke has compared cheetah speeds in Fota and zoos in South Africa and Namibia, with one female breaking the 100km barrier.

He also studied the exploratory behaviour of 112 cheetahs in 88 enclosures in nine zoos – in Ireland, the UK, Canada, Namibia and South Africa. His dedication will help zoos to design and improve enclosures for these big cats.

“It is important that we preserve the fundamental aspects of their behavioural biology when they are kept in captivity,” Quirke explains. He defined exploratory behaviour as scent marking, sniffing objects and exploration of an enclosure.

“For the cheetahs, it is all about gathering information and then leaving information for the next cat,” says Quirke. It is a bit like leaving a post-it note for the next guy, which is important since males and females are territorial.

Encouraging exploration

As part of his PhD thesis research in University College Cork (UCC), Quirke discovered that raised areas in zoo enclosures significantly encourages exploratory behaviours. These could be platforms, mounds, logs or trees with accessible lower branches; they are used for tree scratching, cheek rubbing, sniffing and scent marking.

“It mirrors wild cheetah behaviour, where they use raised areas and ‘play trees’ for scent marking,” says Quirke. Cheetahs are regularly spotted in the Serengeti scent-marking prominent landmarks such as lone trees, rocks and termite mounds.

Now Quirke has provided scientific evidence that simply placing raised areas or objects in enclosures encourages natural exploratory behaviour – and it is not just about scent marking.

Cheetahs are somewhat unusual among big cats in that they hunt during the day and rely heavily on eyesight for hunting. “You could introduce [raised] areas and encourage wild exploratory behaviour. They have quite good vision, and it allows them sit on these platforms and look around the zoo and they get enrichment from that,” says Quirke. This is good for their welfare and emotional well-being.

More successful breeding

Allowing the animals express a fuller array of natural behaviour can assist breeding programmes.  Monitoring such behaviours may help zoo keepers spot when females are more likely to mate successfully, allowing for more breeding in captivity.

There are only around 10,000 cheetahs in the world, most outside protected areas, so zoos would like to keep open the possibility of captive animals being released into the wild.

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