How Race-a-Cheetah United Wild Cats and Wild Kids
For most young humans, a visit to the local zoo is an opportunity to see really cool animals, enjoy an ice cream treat, and ask mom to buy something really cute from the gift shop. At the Indianapolis Zoo, the kids can also pet a shark, feed a giraffe, encounter a tiger up close, bop to the beat at the dolphin show, and enjoy a behind-the-scenes ride on the family-sized White River Junction Train, among many other activities.
And, they can Race-a-Cheetah, or more specifically race down a track where an array of lights is timed to the speed of the cheetah, which, by the way, is pretty darn fast. When the Zoo designed its Cheetah: The Race for Survival exhibit, which opened in 2010, the planners included something never before seen in quite this kind of setting. Objective? To get young visitors interested in the world’s fastest land animal and to generate funds that would directly go to the conservation of these spectacular, but much endangered, big cats.
Race-a-Cheetah also benefitted from a donation from someone who knows and admires superior speed when he sees it – 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion (and fellow Hoosier) Tony Stewart, whose foundation supports educational programming at the Indianapolis Zoo. Thus was born the concept of demonstrating just how fast a cheetah can run (and how and why they need to be that quick), while also telling the story of how researchers are working to save them in Africa.
The vehicle to tie those two ideas together was Race-a-Cheetah, a small, but vital part of the exhibit where young visitors would pay 50 cents to “enter” the track and go like crazy to try and outrun the 60 miles per hour light array, all the while listening to audio messages about the speed and grace of the cheetah. Net proceeds would go directly to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia to fund various projects that benefit wild cheetahs.
It was a singular idea; never before in a zoo had there been such a direct connection between a visitor-supported activity and animals in the wild. Not only are they linked financially, but they have similar thematic elements. In fact, one of the items to which Race-a-Cheetah funds are applied is support for raising Kangal dogs at the CCF. CCF staffers train the dogs to guard livestock for the farmers and ranchers in Namibia. The dogs protect the sheep and goats from the cheetahs, which occasionally attack domestic animals, which means that the humans won’t have to kill the cheetahs to protect their property and livelihoods. It’s a simple, yet elegant, solution to this particular human-animal conflict, and to tell that story, the Zoo also features a daily Kangal dog chat in another section of the cheetah exhibit.
In only two years, the Zoo has been able to generate nearly $30,000 in Race-a-Cheetah donations, which at only 50 cents per kid, means that nearly 60,000 young and impressionable Zoo visitors have participated. The score for humans versus cheetahs? Well, let’s just say even Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun an animal on four legs that is built for maximum velocity.
In 2011 alone, those little half dollar donations paid for the care of two orphaned cheetahs for a year, two litters of livestock guarding dog puppies, and the medical workup and release of three wild cheetahs.
Race-a-Cheetah, as mentioned, doesn’t stand alone. The track is located along one of multiple vistas into the cheetah habitat, one of which features a truly up close viewing window (basically, eyeball-to-eyeball encounters between humans and cats). Interpretative graphics throughout the exhibit tell the story of cheetahs in Africa and of the work of Dr. Laurie Marker and her staff at CCF.
Dr. Marker is no stranger to Indianapolis; twice a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize, the founder of CCF has visited the Zoo several times and personally consulted with Zoo staff on the design and concept for the exhibit. The Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation, biennially honors true heroes of conservation who are making a real difference in the global effort to save threatened and endangered animal species. Her status as a two time finalist for the $100,000 Prize and the Lilly Medal that goes with it speaks volumes about the importance and quality of the work she and the CCF have, and continue, to do to contribute to conserving cheetahs.
Why cheetahs and why is Race-a-Cheetah significant? Here’s why. It can accelerate from zero to nearly 70 miles per hour in three seconds. Its immense nostrils let oxygen pour into its oversized lungs and heart as it chases down its prey, breathing an astonishing 150 times per minute. Its semi-retractable claws dig into the soil and its flowing tail swings like a rudder from side to side, allowing it to make turns so sharply angled and sure that they can make a gazelle seem clumsy in comparison.
With penetrating yellow eyes set high on its head, black tear-lines on its cheeks to shield those eyes from the sun, it stalks with stealth and grace, camouflaged by its golden spotted coat against the sun-streaked tall grass. At rest, it purrs, but it never roars – ever.
It is the magnificent cheetah, the fastest animal on land, and one of the most beautiful creatures in the animal kingdom. It is unique among the big cats – a daylight hunter by sight, not scent, with its always visible claws, and its long, thin, deep-chested body and raffish spotted tail. These simply gorgeous animals, so admired for their speed and grace, are in danger of disappearing forever.
Their ultimate survival will depend on how successful we – the humans – are in devising ways to help them instead of destroying them. Race-a-Cheetah helps.