Run, cheetah

Diana Hiibel

Photo By David Robert

Fast cats. Not fast like a bunny or a horse. Much faster. Cheetahs are the fastest land mammals in the world—and two of these lithe, streamlined felines are on loan to the Animal Ark Wildlife Sanctuary in Red Rock. Once a week, volunteers take Shaka and Zulu into a field where they’re allowed to fly across the desert, zipping from zero to 45 miles per hour in three seconds. Now, for the first time, the Ark is opening its cheetah races to the public for a fall fundraiser 3-7 p.m. Sept. 20. Money raised helps buy food and supplies for the animals during winter months when the Animal Ark is closed, says Diana Hiibel, who co-founded the Ark with her husband, Aaron, in 1981. Hiibel was interviewed as she toured the grounds and fed snacks through the fence to the cheetahs. Tickets are $100 and include a gourmet meal catered by the Fig Tree and a silent auction with high-end goodies like jewelry and airline tickets. Learn more at Make reservations before Sept. 13 by calling (775) 970-3111. (This is a long-distance call.)

Cheetahs in Nevada?

In prehistoric times, there was a cheetah-like animal [living here]. They’ve found fossils in Nevada, Wyoming and Utah. … Our cheetahs came from DeWildt Cheetah & Wildlife Centre in Africa through the efforts of Wild About Cats in Auburn, Calif. Cheetahs are highly endangered. People don’t realize that they’re disappearing so quickly in the wild. (She walks up to fence. Shaka and Zulu walk up to greet her.) Who’s that purring? (Shaka stretches gracefully.) This is our big guy.

So how do you get them to run?

They go out on a leash . . . (Turns to cat.) Yes, they do.

And then you turn them loose in the desert?

Yes. They run for a lure. (Points to what looks like a traffic cone painted green that’s attached to an engine run by a small solar panel.) This moves in excess of 50 miles per hour. This takes off, and they take off after it, running along there (points to lower end of large clearing) and up past the bleachers. We’re planning two runs. It all depends on the nature of the beast.

Why don’t they keep running?

We have a volunteer with a food pan and clicker. The cats are conditioned to come to the sound. Then there’s a person who comes up to leash them while they’re feeding out of the pan.

How often do the cheetahs get to run?

Once a week. They have an instinct to run. You can’t force them. They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t love it.

You’ve said that running may help the cheetahs.

Captive cheetahs are prone to digestive problems. Long-term observation of the running program will give indication whether the exercise benefits the cats’ health.

So just how fast are Shaka and Zulu?

One of the cats was clocked at 67 miles per hour on a football field.

That’s fast.

It is. Here, they’ll be running on a slight upgrade at an elevation of 6,000 feet. So I guess we’ll see in a couple of weeks when we use the radar gun.