Twelve years ago, Aaron Hiibel saw his first cheetah run.
“It’s been my passion ever since,” Hiibel said Sept. 9 at Animal Ark, a wildlife sanctuary in Reno.
The sight of an 80- or 90-pound cat chasing a lure at speeds of up to 55 mph on a 200-yard field is a rare experience, and one that Hiibel, Animal Ark’s executive director and co-founder, and his staff share with the public at special “cheetah run” events several times a year.
The 38-acre Animal Ark, open from March through November, also has two new wolf pups, black bear and other wild animals that have been injured, abandoned or are otherwise non-releasable. The sanctuary, open since 1981, seeks to inspire environmental stewardship through wildlife education. Most of its animals are North American predators, but a few exotic species — including cheetahs Zulu, Jamar and Moyo — call Animal Ark home.
Staff let the cheetahs at full speed once a week, and open those “cheetah runs” to the public several times a year to raise money. The audience sits on three rows of bleachers not far from the yard, and three photo blinds are available for photographers for an additional fee. On Sept. 9, the plan was to run Zulu, a 14-year-old female once, and then run “the boys,” 8-year-old male siblings Jamar and Moyo, two times each.
But the cheetahs had other plans.
Zulu was brought out first, but ultimately did not run. Hiibel explained that her behavior — pacing and inability to settle down for the handler — indicated that she was uncomfortable with the situation. He speculated that the windy weather may have bothered the cat, as well as the fact that her regular handler was not on duty that day. He added that because Animal Ark is a wildlife sanctuary, the animals are never forced to perform.
Jamar and Moyo were another story. Both settled down quickly when brought out, focused intently on the lure — a bit of yellow tape attached to a cord and mechanically powered to zip along the course, which is basically in the shape of a “U”. Both bounded after the lure at top speed, appearing airborne most of the time. Moyo even caught the lure during his second run, clamping his paw down on the yellow tape in a manner similar to a house cat catching a mouse.
To see a Discovery Channel video of the cheetah run, click here.
Animal Ark is open through Nov. 4, and will reopen in the spring. Admission is $9.50, $8 seniors, $6.50 children ages 3-12. Details: 1-775-970-3111 or www.animalark.org/.