The Big Cats' Cradle

Tumai, a female cheetah, is one of the first residents of the National Zoo's new Cheetah Science Center in Front Royal, Va.
Tumai, a female cheetah, is one of the first residents of the National Zoo's new Cheetah Science Center in Front Royal, Va. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 6, 2007

These days you can find the cheetahs, Zazi and Tumai, yawning in the hilltop shade while butterflies float among the wildflowers and the mountain breezes rustle the trees in the distance.

Gone is the madness of Connecticut Avenue -- the gawking zoogoers, the noise, the pressure.

Here, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, a lucky cat can stretch her legs, get two squares a day and enjoy the peace and quiet. This mountain spa away from the rat race, and the poor chumps back in the city, is a straight-up cheetah heaven.

Which is precisely what scientists at the National Zoo want.

Today, the zoo is scheduled to unveil its new $1 million Cheetah Science Facility on nine acres spread among the rolling hills of its huge Conservation and Research Center, in Front Royal, Va.

The facility, made up of 14 fenced enclosures that can hold 30 cheetahs, will enable zoo scientists to conduct detailed studies on the animals and help them reproduce.

It is something the zoo's cheetah experts have been dreaming of for 30 years.

"It's fantastic," said Ken Lang, mammal unit manager and a supervisor of the facility. "You wait 30 years, it's pretty damned exciting."

Cheetahs, known for beauty, grace and speed in the wild and said to have been kept as pets by the likes of Charlemagne and Genghis Khan, are a threatened, relatively fragile species.

The legendary carnivores are poor climbers, have weak jaws and can't roar. They are prone to reproductive and digestive problems and can contract an AIDS-like disease, and only about 15,000 survive around the world, mostly in Africa, zoo experts said.

Much remains a mystery.

"People assume that we know a lot about a cheetah . . . because they go back thousands of years," said Steven L. Monfort, the zoo's associate director for conservation and science. Not so, he said. "We don't know very much about how to keep them healthy, for example. They have medical issues that we're just starting to understand."


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