10.30.16: Caged cheetah

A cheetah watches passing visitors through the wires of its enclosure, Columbus Zoo, Powell, Ohio. 


Technical information

July 16, 2014,
10:46 a.m.

40°9'23” N, 83°7'20" W
(Show in Google Maps)

Canon EOS 7D

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L, Canon 1.4x teleconverter (420mm)


1/640th second


I’ve visited a lot of zoos through the years, visits that produced a mix of emotions. 

There’s the enjoyment of seeing exotic animals up close. And there’s the sorrow of seeing the animals pinned in small enclosures, often exhibiting the repetitive behavior of captive animals given inadequate mental stimulation. The behavior can include repeatedly pacing the same path along the enclosure, repetitive rocking or swaying while standing (often seen in captive elephants) or excessive sleeping.

The top zoos recognize the problems and have experimented with different methods to provide mental stimulation for the captive animals. These methods can vary: spraying different scents around the enclosure each day to stimulate the animal’s senses or hiding food in different areas of the enclosure or inside objects to trigger hunting behavior or puzzle solving.

Some zoos regularly rotate animals among different enclosures to provide different habitats with different scents.

It’s all an attempt to improve the quality of life for animals in captivity.

This photo of a cheetah peering through the fence of its enclosure at the Columbus Zoo could be seen as an example of a bored animal. But there’s more to the story.

The cheetah had been running with a Labrador retriever (yes, a dog — more on this later) inside the large enclosure when it stopped to watch a couple of small children playing outside the fence. Their laughing and running caught the cheetah’s attention so it stopped to watch.

The Columbus Zoo provides a variety of measures to keep the captive cheetahs stimulated. Their enclosure is relatively large compared to the cages used by zoos in the past (but still a fraction of the 15 to 60 square mile range patrolled by cheetahs in the wild). The enclosure provides a variety of boulders and trees for activity. Several times a day the cheetahs are released into an open compound for what the zoo refers to as the Cheetah Run. A stuffed “prey” is tied to a rope wound around guides in the compound. As the cheetahs are released the rope is pulled at high speed, providing the cheetahs with an opportunity to chase the “prey” as they would in the wild. This gives the cheetahs an opportunity for exercise and zoo visitors the chance to see the cheetahs' incredible speed. Cheetahs can average 40 miles per hour when chasing prey, with short bursts approaching 70 miles per hour.

And then there’s the dogs.

Cheetahs are shy cats. Labrador retrievers are confident, social animals. So the zoo has started pairing young cheetahs with a companion dog, raising them as family from birth. They live together. They play together. And the cheetahs adopt the confident manner displayed by their “sibling,” allowing them to better cope with the constant parade of people outside the enclosure and the frequent public appearances with Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, who uses cheetahs during TV interviews and other public forums to explain the species’ plight in the wild.

Each week I will post a photo from my collection with an explanation of how I got the shot. Previous photos of the week are in the archives.