By Kasha Patel
BU News Service*
Last May, Hein and Kim Schoeman shared their story of adopting two cheetah cubs to raise along with their 3-year old and 1-year old in their house in South Africa. Recording their experience in a documentary called “Cheetah House,” the Schoemans play fetch with the cheetahs, let the big cats ride shotgun in their car, and allow them to hang around their toddlers. It seems as if the cheetahs are like any other household cat or dog. But can cheetahs actually be trained to be a pet?
Yes, but it’s not simple.
People have long kept cheetahs as pets as a symbol of wealth, even to this day. The big cats are expensive, rare, and exotic. It’s illegal to own a cheetah in the United States, but, in certain areas, including the United Arab Emirates, some Western Asian countries, and in some parts of Africa, you can legally owned one. Yet just because it’s legal does not mean that owning a cheetah is easy, or a good idea.
Most animals, including big cats, can be trained to some extent, but cheetahs tend to have a comparatively tamer temperament than the others, largely due to their anatomy, said Dr. Laurie Marker, a world-class cheetah expert who founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia. Running at speeds of 70mph, cheetahs are built for speed, not strength, with a less muscular build and smaller head and jaws than other big cats. In the face of a potential conflict with a larger predator, the 110-pound felines will more likely run than fight back.
The technique used to train a cheetah is similar to that used for any other pet. Successful cheetah trainers hand-raise the cats during their formative months, starting when they are only a few weeks old. At the Cheetah Conservation Fund, Marker trains cheetahs through “affection training.” The training technique, developed by Ralph Helfer, replaces weapons like whips and guns with love and respect. With proper care and technique, cheetahs can be trained to perform certain behaviors, such as playing fetch, as the Schoemans demonstrated.
Cheetahs, though, have very specific needs, making them among the most challenging animals to keep in captivity. Marker, who has worked with hundreds of wild and captive cheetahs, said the cats require carefully monitored diets and an appropriate living environment. They need approximately four pounds of meat, including the bones, per day and special supplements of vitamins A, D, and E. At the Cheetah Conservation Fund, the captive cheetahs eat six times a week and fast on the seventh day to mimic the irregular food supply in the wild. Each cheetah also needs to regularly run— at least 2 acres of land for exercise for running in quick, short bursts.
Even if you if properly train your cheetah and meet its needs, you’ll never domesticate it like a dog. “Domestication is a process that takes hundreds of generations of domestication breeding,” said Marker.
That point was vividly demonstrated last year, when a Scottish couple visiting a private game reserve in South Africa tried to pet two trained male cheetahs. The cheetahs seemed tame and sometimes playfully licked visitors, but suddenly they attacked the Scottish woman, dragging her to the ground. The woman lived but needed bandages for wounds on her head, stomach, and legs.
“You can never assume that because a wild animal has received training, even extensive training, it is somehow now “safe” for humans to engage with,” said Marker.
Bonus explainer: What is the least trainable big cat?
Leopards are tree-dwelling animals and have a propensity to attack from above, according to Karl Mitchell, an animal expert with 40 years of experience providing exotic and domestic animals for film and live shows. They often spring from the trees with a deadly pounce on to their prey.