It may sound like a doomed love story, but some dogs love big cats. Cheetahs are the fastest mammals in the world, but they also are the world's biggest scaredy-cats - so much so that they don't breed easily and are in danger of extinction.
Some zoos are introducing "companion dogs" to serve as playmates and to provide the cats with an example.
"It's a love story of one species helping another species survive," says Jack Grisham, vice president of animal collections at the St. Louis Zoo and species survival plan coordinator for cheetahs in North America.
"It is all about comforting and reassuring the cheetah," says Janet Rose-Hinostroza, animal training supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park - the top US breeder of cheetahs in captivity. In the past 40 years, 135 cheetahs have been born there.
The cheetahs most often found at zoos and wildlife parks are not considered good breeding candidates because they don't relate well to other cheetahs, or they are abandoned by their mothers, Rose-Hinostroza says. But they seem to take easily to companion dogs and look to the dogs for play and example.
Of the 19 cheetahs at Safari Park, four have dogs. Four of the San Diego Zoo's cheetahs also have dogs.
The dogs, usually from animal shelters, and cheetah pups generally are introduced when they are about 3 months old.
"In this relationship, the dog is dominant, but we look for dogs that want to be a buddy," Rose-Hinostroza says.
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