Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years of work within zoos.
Cheetahs are a popular 'Ambassador Animal' with many zoos presenting them at educational talks or walking them on leads or harnesses. There is a popular myth that as they do not have retractable claws like other members of the cat family that they are less dangerous. Not so, the claws are sharp and they have a dew claw which is capable of causing severe injury. They also have a set of teeth designed to kill their prey.
I have heard rumors that some zoos are removing the dew claws from their Ambassador Cheetah....this I believe to be reprehensible.
Cheetah Dew Claw
EAZA Best Practice Guidelines Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
"Cheetahs need to be kept in protected contact; handling should take place through a barrier. Therefore, separation facilities need to be provided in order to ensure that keepers are able to work without having direct contact with the animals. Needless to say, direct contact of visitors with cheetah in any way is not accepted."
Husbandry Manual for the Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus
Edited and Compiled by: Karen Ziegler–Meeks White Oak Conservation Center
"Cheetahs have a wide variety of behavior, ranging from timid/shy to bold/aggressive although even timid cats can get aggressive in certain circumstances. It is unwise for institutions to have an ‘all or nothing’ policy in regards to allowing staff to work in with the cheetahs. Institutions must exercise care in determining the safety of keepers working in with each individual cheetah.
Extra care should be taken when working with hand reared cheetahs since they often have less fear of humans and therefore lack a clearly-defined proximity zone as mother-reared cats do. Hand reared cheetahs can be very unpredictable. Several facilities have reported that hand-reared cheetahs have attacked with no warning. Hand-reared cheetahs should never be allowed to play, stalk, paw, bite or jump on keepers as they grow up. One should set strict guidelines on acceptable behaviors between cubs and keepers."
One UK zoo did plan for a 'walk through' cheetah enclosure. It was very short lived. Cheetah are wild animals and are unpredictable.
Later in 2021 a number of South African Cheetah will be shipped to India for a rewilding project. The Madhya Pradesh Forest department has started publicity campaign ahead of the arrival of cheetahs in Kuno National Park.
“that the fastest mammal is being brought to your area...that its not dangerous...doesn't attack humans," said a forest department official requesting anonymity.
Recorded Attacks By Cheetahs
The following list does not pretend to be exhaustive. Many Cheetah incidents are classed as 'minor' and go unreported. We do however have two fatalities listed below. I feel certain that the number of deaths would have been much higher except that in all the incidents there were other people present to intervene.
11th November 2003 - Living Desert Zoo, USA
A cheetah being walked on a leash attacked a zoo visitor and handler. Both were injured. The visitor was bitten on both calf and thigh.
12th February 2007 - Olmense Zoo, Belgium FATALITY
Karen Aerts, 37, entered the cheetah enclosure after the zoo was closed. She was found dead later.
20th March 2007 - Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya
Simon King,Television personality, and a female colleague. King received a severe bite would to the arm and his colleague lesser injuries. Both required hospital treatment.
29th March 2008 - Panther Ridge Conservation centre
Owner, Judy Berens, was attacked and bitten by two imported cheetahs. She was pinned down for ten minutes before rescue. She was rescued and airlifted to hospital where 40 puncture wounds to back, arms and legs were treated.
2009 - Kragga Kamma Game Park, South Africa
Michelle Bodenheimer was attacked by an 18 month old cheetah. She required dozens of stitches to her scalp.
10th July 2011 - Eagle Heights, UK
Cheetah attacked two men who had gone into the enclosure to film. Both individual received bites and scratches.
February 2012 - Harnas Game Farm, Namibia
A 27 year old Norwegian tourist was attacked and injured by a cheetah.
28th April 2012 - Kragga Kamma Game Park, South Africa
Two cheetahs attacked a Scottish tourist after attacking and biting an eight year old girl.
1st April 2015 - Lion Park, South Africa
A 13 year old boy was bitten twice whilst taking a shortcut through the Park.
August 2015 - Midlands Conservancy, SA
Schoolboy attacked and bitten. Required hospital treatment.
4th December 2015 - Mbidi Lodge, SA
Visitor, Ms Tanya Laubscher-Swanepoel, was attacked and badly bitten on chest and leg. Required hospital stay and skin grafts.
7th March 2017 - Emdoneni Lodge, SA
A 14 year old New Zealand boy was attacked and bitten on the back and shoulder.
May 2017 - Tiger Canyon wildlife farm, Free State, SA FATALITY
A three year old boy was attacked and killed by a cheetah which escaped from its enclosure. There were extensive injuries to the neck and head.
18th May 2017 - Tenikwa Awareness Center, SA
Two guides were attacked and injured by a cheetah.
5th April 1994 - Jackson Zoo, USA
A cheetah escaped from its enclosure and attacked and injured an 8 year old boy.
11th October 1994 - San Diego Zoo, USA
Animal trainer, Joah Embery, suffered two deep gashes on the face whilst handling a cheetah on a television talk show.
10th October 2019 - Zoo Miami, USA
Keeper attacked and bitten during routine enclosure cleaning.
11th March 2021 - Columbus Zoo, USA
Zookeeper attacked and bitten. Taken to hospital.
A Personal Cheetah Story
Back in the early days of my zoo career (circa 1968) I was responsible for the care of a large male cheetah called 'Bobby'.
He had a large spacious enclosure where he was constantly tormented by Grey Squirrels. Try as he may, I never saw him catch one.
'Environmental Enrichment' had not yet been invented, either as a phrase or as an activity. Zoos looked upon such activities as a waste of time and with workload there really wasn't the time to waste. It was an endless pursuit of feeding and cleaning and most days stretched into unpaid overtime and rarely, very rarely, a word of thanks.
To me, as a green keeper, it was obvious that Bobby was bored. I set aside part of my very precious lunch hour to go and keep him company. One day, whilst walking down to his enclosure I saw a football stuck in a bush and so I retrieved it and took it with me.
Every day Bobby and I played a kickabout in his pen. I enjoyed it and so did he. He really seemed a lot happier.
It was whilst playing one of these games that I was spotted by the zoo director but nothing was said.
A couple of days later I was informed that the zoo was to be visited by a famous footballer who would play a game with Bobby.
On the appointed day the footballer, his agent, a photographer and the zoo director turned up. They all insisted they go into the enclosure. I advised and tried to insist that there were too many people. They ignored me.
We were in the enclosure less than half a minute before Bobby went in for the attack.
He wasn't choosy and in seconds he had bitten and torn the clothing of all of the party. I did my level best to protect and extract them from the enclosure. In my turn, I too was injured including a nasty laceration on the inside of my mouth.
No photos were taken and I heard the group mumbling together as they walked away licking their wounds. My relationship with Bobby was not affected.
In the years since then I have worked with around a dozen cheetahs, none of them 'tame'. My advice would be, never turn your back on a cheetah.
It is unfortunate that for some that the Cheetah is looked upon as a status pet. Some are even used for HUNTING in the Middle East.
Many of these animals are smuggled in from the wild. Others are purchased from Cheetah farms in South Africa.
FlourishAnyway from USA on August 03, 2021:
Cheetahs are beautiful and are wild animals most of all.