Changing their spots: Zoo welcomes two new cheetahs

July 11, 2017 - 12:42pm

Zoo says hello to Mary Jane and Darlene, as Ranger and Strike move to San Diego

Only the most observant visitors may notice, but an important changing of the guard took place recently in the Oregon Zoo's Predators of the Serengeti section.

Mary Jane and Darlene, a pair of young female cheetahs from San Diego Zoo Safari Park, have moved in — while Ranger and Strike, the 7-year-old male cheetahs who formerly lived here, made the return trip to San Diego.

The switch was made on a recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan for cheetahs, a cooperative breeding program that works to maintain a sustainable population of the animals in North America. Ranger and Strike will each be paired with a female partner in San Diego, where it is hoped they can add to the population of this imperiled species.

Meanwhile, Mary Jane and Darlene will live at the Oregon Zoo, and caregivers say they are already doing well in their new habitat.

"They've been very playful," said curator Becca Van Beek, who oversees the zoo's Africa area. "There's been a lot of typical cat behavior: chase, pounce, ambush — and, of course, sleep. One of them even jumped up into a tree — something you don't see too often, but it's a natural cheetah behavior."
Mary Jane and Darlene were born Nov. 21, 2015. Keepers use the cheetahs' markings to identify them, but for the casual observer it may be hard to tell the sisters apart. One distinctive feature is a J-shaped spot on the front left paw of Mary Jane.

Wild cheetah populations have plummeted in recent years, dropping by nearly 50 percent since the mid-'70s and putting the species dangerously close to extinction.

"We've gone from around 14,000 cheetahs on the planet to just over 7,000 in a very short time," Van Beek said. "Hopefully, we can help inspire a new chapter in the conservation of these amazing cats."

Cheetahs are the world's fastest land animals, able to reach speeds of up to 70 mph. These stealthy predators are threatened by habitat loss, poaching and hunting by farmers concerned about their livestock.

With their dark spots, amber eyes and sleek bodies, cheetahs have long held a fascination for humans, who thousands of years ago domesticated the speedy felines for use in hunting. Leashed cheetahs are depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphs dating back to the 15th century BC.