Billabong Zoo is delighted to announce the much anticipated arrival of their two cheetah brothers, Warrior and Vongani. Chrissy Jones chatted with excited zoo owner Mark Stone about the new additions.
You officially opened the all new cheetah exhibit during the September school holidays; how have Warrior and Vongani taken to their new home?
They are loving it. When we first put them in there, they checked out every inch. We were in there with them first up, and they explored every corner of the enclosure. They play soccer with Christy, my head keeper; she has formed a real tight bond with them. They are really loving their new home here at Billabong Zoo.
Why did you choose cheetahs?
A few reasons. First and foremost, we wanted to promote the plight of the Cheetahs here in Port Macquarie, similar to what we have done with the snow leopards. There is only an estimated 10 thousand left in the wild and there are only a few small organisations doing wonderful things in South Africa, but it’s all on a shoe string budget.
Secondly, in NSW you aren’t allowed to work with big cats once they reach a certain size, but in Queensland and the ACT you can. In my opinion, Cheetahs are the most suited big cat to work in close contact with, as they have a different disposition to most other big cats. They have the advantage of their speed; they are the fastest land mammal on the planet, so if they are threatened – they run. A lion for example, can’t run as fast, so he needs to be able to stand his ground and fight to protect himself; whereas, the cheetah would run. That is believed to be one of the reasons why a cheetah is a much more placid animal to work with.
Cheetahs are well known for their long-legged, slender bodies with a beautiful golden tan coat that is covered in around 20,000 black spots – count them if you don’t believe it! They have short, sparse fur and black tear marks that run from the corner of their eyes, down the sides of the nose to their mouth, which protects the eyes from the harsh sun and accentuates the facial expressions.
Built for speed, these animals have a small streamlined head, long light limbs, powerful hind legs, flexible shoulders and spine, long muscular tail, semi-retractable claws, enlarged liver and heart, wide nostrils and increased lung capacity, which combine to make them the fastest sprinter on Earth. Capable of reaching speeds of 100 km/hour or more, the cheetah can cover nine metres in a single stride and almost four strides per second. Warrior and Vongani are certainly no exception!
You brought Warrior and Vongani out from South Africa. Tell us about the process?
When we first decided that we wanted to include cheetahs at the zoo, we looked at all our options. I handed the ball to my head keeper, Christy, who researched the internet in search of different refuges in South Africa that work with cheetahs. She found Cheetah Outreach, who have exported them before to other countries including New Zealand and also to Australia, which was a great advantage. If we imported our animals and could work in with them, people would be more inclined to learn about these beautiful creatures. We then made contact with Cheetah Outreach, approximately 2½ years ago.
Then the massive importation project began. If you start looking at importing animals from overseas, the Government Authorities have many, many hoops to jump through and boxes to tick. We had to be so careful. We had to demonstrate our professionalism in our operations, what we planned to do with them, and how we planned to manage them.
Christy and I went to South Africa to Cheetah Outreach and spent a week with the boys, getting to know their personalities, their likes and dislikes and for them to get used to us. Every day from open to close we would go into their enclosure, go up to them, touch them, feed them, and pat them, getting them used to us. We would sit with them; they would lay down beside us. At certain points in time they would get up and move away from us, and we would just stay where we were and wait for them to return to us; this would go on for hours at a time. They might have left us for half an hour, and then all of a sudden one would come back and sit with us again. At that point we knew that they were taking us on board; they were coming to us, they wanted to be with us, as opposed to us just being a stranger in their world – and you just need to be patient.
Both the boys are totally different. Vongani is a ladies man, quite charismatic – he loves Christy – and Warrior is just a cutie, a big sook.
Leaving South Africa with the cheetahs must have been very exciting, as well as nerve wracking …
To prepare the cheetahs to come home was again a process. They travel in specially constructed travel boxes, and they have to be conditioned to be comfortable to walk in and out of their boxes and be happy once in the boxes for the door to be closed. They handled this extremely well; I guess because they are used to being taken for walks even off site from Cheetah Outreach Centre. It must have been such a surprise for Mr Average in South Africa to be out for his afternoon stroll by the lake, and all of a sudden to come across half a dozen people taking a couple of Cheetahs for a walk.
The day before departure and the day of departure was the most stressful for us, checking and double checking everything was in place. Our transport plan, the vet checks as the boys were boxed, our permits were with us for both export and import, transportation on arrival in Australia, etc. etc. And it’s not every day cheetahs are exported out of South Africa, so the South Africans kept a very keen eye on every step we made.
Most people would not even think about what’s involved in flying something that size; some planes they wouldn’t fit, some planes don’t have temperature controlled cargo holds, some don’t carry live animals and of course, we wanted to make sure we were on the same plane and flight.
As I said, they travelled extremely well, which is wonderful, as it is always our major concern. It came down to preparation; it’s like anything: if you prepare well, which we did, then the outcome should be good. The professionalism right from the start to finish was amazing.
From Sydney the cheetahs cleared customs, and then it was down to Mogo Zoo on the South Coast to quarantine them in Australia for 30 days. Mogo Zoo and their team were fantastic. I would like to thank Sally Paidy and the team for taking such good care of our new boys. Christy spent the first week with Warrior and Vongani at Mogo Zoo, my wife Danena and I spent the second week, the Mogo team spent the third week with them, and then Christy spent the fourth and final week with them until I returned to bring them home – just so they always had a familiar face with them.
Now they are here at Billabong Zoo, are they difficult to care for?
I have always said anything that is pleasurable is not difficult, but in relation or by comparison to some of the other big cats species, I think not so – which is probably due to their placid nature. We have very strict guidelines that we work to, so as to ensure ours and their safety; this also makes a big difference
The brothers have travelled all the way from Cheetah Outreach in Cape Town, South Africa and come with an important message. What’s that? The cheetah is the fastest land mammal, capable of reaching speeds of 100 km per hour, but they are losing the greatest race of all – their race for survival. Since the turn of the previous century, population numbers have dramatically declined from 100,000 animals down to as few as 10,000 today. They are currently listed as critically endangered. Warrior and Vongani are here to raise awareness and support for the conservation efforts being undertaken by Cheetah Outreach. Billabong Zoo applauds the work of Cheetah Outreach and encourages everyone to get behind them and raise awareness or donate to ensure this vital work continues. Check out their website for more info: www.cheetah.co.za
I would like to thank all the people and the business houses that have gotten behind us and this huge project. I can’t thank everyone individually, but I would like to acknowledge the tireless work of David Doherty, who kept pushing this project forward, and last but by no means least a very heartfelt thank you to my wonderful family and our very, very dedicated staff, whose support is endless – thank you.
Thanks Mark, and welcome Warrior and Vongani.