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Karla Dorman, The StormSpinner

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The Cheetah--Vulnerable on the Endangered List
by Karla Dorman, The StormSpinner   

Last edited: Saturday, June 01, 2002
Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

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An overview of ACINONYX JUBATUS, the cheetah (my favorite animal)

The cheetah is a medium-sized carnivore (meat eater); it is considered a member of the large cat family, although it looks more closely resembles a greyhound (with a cat's head connected to it).

It is a creamy buff in color; the entire body, with the exception of the last third of the tail, is covered with solid black spots (unlike the leopard, which have rosettes). Until several years ago, cheetah fur was highly prized for making fur coats; now, it is illegal to export or import cheetah fur. The undersides of the cheetah are white. On the backs of their necks to the shoulders, there is a short ruff of a mane; at birth until the age of about 12 weeks, baby cheetahs have a longer mantle of grey hair on their backs. (This is probably to make them look bigger than they really are; this allows them to blend in with their surroundings; perhaps this will help intimidate enemies.) The cheetah's tail is long in proportion to its body and slightly flattened; it is banded with black and is tipped in white. Unlike other big cats, the claws are permanently exposed; they don't fully retract. Due to this, their claws are not sharp, but blunted, with the exception of the dew claw on the inside of their front feet. (The dew claw is used to trip up their prey.)

The head of the cheetah is small in comparison to its body, unlike other large cats. Its ears are small and rounded. The eyes are amber in color. From the inner corner of both of its eyes to the outside corner of the mouth, there is a solid black line (called a 'tear marking'). The cheetah is often called "the cat that cries." The cheetah's nose is larger than other big cats' are.

Acinonyx Jubatus is a solitary animal, although two or males may live and hunt together; these groups are called "coalitions."

The cheetah is a diurnal hunter (active during the day), but it will hunt at nighttime if need be. The cheetah's favorite prey are springhares, Thompson's gazelles, impala, springbok and other smaller members of the antelope family. They are not able to tackle the larger antelopes such as wildebeest, kudu, waterbuck and gemsbok; cheetahs are slight in size and do not have the strength to bring these larger animals down. (An adult cheetah weighs between 100 to 140 pounds; the males are slightly larger than the females.)

The cheetah's hunting style is a sight to behold. When a herd of gazelle or other antelope is spotted, the cheetah will slowly stalk them, but does not bother to conceal itself. (The cheetah relies on speed rather than surprise to hunt its prey.) When it gets to within several hundred yards of the herd, a cheetah will suddenly begin to run towards them; it selects one of the animals as its "victim" and the chase is on! Other animals may cross its path, but once a cheetah has chosen its victim, that's the one it will chase.

From a standing stop, a cheetah can accelerate to 43 miles an hour in TWO SECONDS. In short bursts, cheetahs have been clocked at running 75 miles an hour! (They cannot keep up this pace for very long.) The cheetah is specifically created for speed: it's aerodynamic! It keeps its small head steady; its long, thin legs reach out; the blunt, sturdy claws grip the ground, much like running shoes do (the claws and foot pads keep the cheetah from sliding) and allow the cheetah to make sudden changes in direction. The large nose allows it to take in great breaths of air, oxygenating its lungs. The cheetah is an extremely agile animal; its muscles allow it to match each dodge its prey makes. The cheetah's spine is much more flexible than other big cats' are; the backbone bends and extends, much like a spring. This propels the animal forward. At full speed, half of the time, the cheetah's paws are not striking the ground. Its long tail acts much like a rudder does, stabilizing the animal.

As the cheetah reaches its prey's side, it reaches out its paw and trips it with the sharp dew claw. This "hooks" the victim and helps to knock it off balance. Then the cheetah kills the animal by suffocating it, clamping the neck of its victim with its mouth, shutting off the prey's air. (The cheetah's small mouth and teeth do not allow it to break the spinal canal of the animal, like other big cats do; the oral structures are weak). After killing the animal, the cheetah usually drags it to a shady spot. There it rests...exhausted from the chase, a cheetah may have to wait for a half hour before it can enjoy its meal. Cheetahs tire and get overheated very quickly; the chase taxes their muscles and endurance. They will only eat food that they have caught for themselves (unless kept in captivity); they will not eat any meat that is not fresh. They must eat fast, bolting their food; too often, the cheetah's hard chase ends in defeat; their prey is stolen by other predators. A cheetah is not strong enough to defend itself against larger predators, such as lions, hyenas and leopards.

Cheetahs do not roar like other big cats; their vocalizations range from barks, yips, bird-like chirps, squeaks, growls, spits, hisses, snarls and when content, a very loud purr.

A female cheetah does not have a special time of the year, or "season," in which to mate; they can have young at any time of the year. For one to two weeks before she is ready, she will produce a special scent in her urine; this is a signal to any male cheetah that she'll be willing to mate soon. When a male cheetah first approaches a female "in season," the female may allow him to sniff her, but if he gets too close...WHAP! She'll slap him with her paw and send him running. Only when she is ready will she allow him to get near her. (The mating period lasts about a week. If she gets pregnant, she'll deliver her cubs about 14 weeks later.)

A mother cheetah will usually give birth to between two and five babies; at birth, they are blind and totally helpless. The babies weigh around 7-1/2 to 10 ounces and are less than a foot long. They develop rapidly; within 12 days, their eyes are open; by the age of three weeks, they can walk, and they begin following their mother by the age of six weeks. Feeding on their mother's rich milk, cheetah cubs gain weight steadily, and weigh around 20 pounds by five months of age. Mother cheetah raises her family by herself; the male has no part in hunting for or tending to the babies.

In the wild, cheetah cubs have a very low life expectancy; they are often killed by other, larger predators. They are also hunted by man. It is up to man to ensure that this beautiful animal, ACINONYX JUBATUS, the cheetah, wins its race for survival.

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I think the cheetah is the most graceful, elegant, and beautiful of God's creations. I love their sweet faces...they look so sad with the black tear markings. They have the sweetest sounds...their little yips, chirps and squeaks melt my heart every time. (I'd LOVE to hear one purr.) To watch a cheetah running after prey is nothing short of amazing. They are pure poetry in motion. Being disabled, I have wished I could move as gracefully and as fast as they can.

I have seen fortunate to see cheetahs twice in my life, both times here in Texas...once at the Fort Worth Zoo, once at Fossil Rim in Glen Rose. I would give anything to travel to Africa and see the cheetah in its natural environment...that would be a dream come true .

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