Earlier this month, five cheetah cubs were born via caesarean section, a rarely performed procedure in these big cats. Tragically, their mother died just weeks after the operation. However, all is not lost for the young cubs, as the zoo’s resident dog, an Australian shepherd called Blakely, has stepped in as their “surrogate parent.”
Willow, the mother cheetah, gave birth to two male and three female cubs at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Cheetah Breeding Facility on March 8. On March 22, the zoo announced that she had passed away after struggling to recover from the surgery.
Caretakers at the zoo's nursery have been providing much-needed critical care to the young cubs. As Dr. Mark Campbell, the zoo’s director of animal health, explained to the BBC, carnivores born via caesarean section need a lot of extra care and attention. Their bodies have not yet developed an active immune system, instead relying on their mother’s antibodies in the milk. With weak immune systems, their carers need to stay extremely cautious of hygiene.
Blakely the dog is also playing a part in their rehabilitation. As head nursery keeper Dawn Strasser explains, Blakely will help these cubs get to fighting strength: “His first job is to let the cubs climb on him, which they did as soon as they were put together. They need the exercise to build muscle tone and get their guts moving.”
— Cincinnati Zoo (@CincinnatiZoo) 23 March 2016
Visitors of the zoo will be able to catch the odd glimpse of the cubs through the window of the nursery. However, the cubs will spend most of the next few months being cared for in private.
The zoo’s breeding facility has welcomed the birth of 54 cheetah cubs since it opened in 2002, which is good news considering cheetahs are endangered and continue to face huge threats in the wild. According to Cincinnati Zoo, there could be as few as 9,000 cheetahs worldwide, compared to about 100,000 over 100 years ago.
“This is only the third C-section I have been involved in during my 25-year career at the Cincinnati Zoo,” said Dr. Campbell in a statement before the mother died. “The decision to do the procedure is complicated and involved discussion amongst the veterinary, curatorial and keeper staff."
He added: "Important benchmarks for survival of these cubs are the first week and month of life.”