Proud 'Zazi' Shows Off Cheetah Cubs

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 25, 2005

At a mere 10 weeks old, the five cheetah cubs at the National Zoo already are starting to display some wild ways. Today, they take their antics public.

Yesterday, during media day, they chased after their mother, pawed at each other and romped around their very own grassy jungle gym, looking like fuzzy, over-stimulated house cats.

Zazi, their 4-year-old mother, offered a smack-down from time to time. But no worries. The cubs -- two males and three females -- gave as good as they got. They gnawed at their mother's legs, latched onto her throat and swatted at her nose.

Then, when they saw a swooping bird or a sibling's flickering tail, they took off in pursuit.

"They're pretty quick," said Jennifer Spotten, an animal keeper. "You can tell that they're going to be the fastest land animal."

The five cubs won't reach top speed -- 60 miles per hour -- until they are a year old, but they will start to wean at three months. For the next year, the cubs will trail Zazi.

"We were a little nervous about how she'd be as a mother. . . . First-time mothers don't always take care of their young," said Spotten, who works closely with Zazi and her cubs. "But she's very attentive and relaxed."

Suzan Murray, a veterinarian who has been monitoring the cubs' development since their birth in April, said Zazi is already teaching stalking techniques to the 10-pound cubs.

"When she takes their legs out from under them, she's teaching them how to act in the wild," Murray said. And when the cubs clamp down on their mother's throat with their sharp baby teeth, they are practicing how to hunt. They are already supplementing their mother's milk with meat. As in the wild, the cubs' father, Ume (which means "lightning" in Swahili), won't have any part in their care.

The cubs, as yet unnamed, are starting to develop personalities, Murray said. There's the mama's boy, who often clings to Zazi while his siblings roughhouse. There's the troublemaking girl, who picks fights. And then there's the noisy male who squeaks and chirps incessantly.

"It's hard to say" what it means, Murray said. "Sometimes it's 'come this way' or 'go away' or 'where are you?' They understand it."

Zazi -- which means "fertile" or "fruitful" in Swahili -- and her cubs bring the total number of cheetahs at the zoo to 14. Four cheetahs were born in November. The cheetah baby boom is a welcome occurrence for the zoo, said Jo Gayle Howard, a reproductive scientist. Cheetahs are the most difficult cat species to breed, she said, and litters of more than four are rare.

"To have a litter of five is really exciting," she said.

Back at Cheetah Central, the cubs, tuckered out from the morning play, lounged in the shade. As the zookeepers came to open the gates of the indoor enclosure, Zazi stood in front of the door. She then chirped out to her cubs, and they lined up behind her, one after the other, waiting to follow their mother inside.

They will all be on view from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. Starting tomorrow, the hours are 8 to 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., although some conditions may require that they be brought indoors.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company