One of the big highlights of our California trip earlier this month was our big cat experience at the San Diego Zoo’s safari park. The world-famous zoo has a huge parcel of land outside Escondito that they use as a free roaming parkland for many of its animals. In addition, the park is home to 1.7 million species of plants, many of which feed the myriad of zoo animals. It’s also home to the world’s only “cheetah run.”
The cheetah run is a grass floored alleyway, almost a trench that is bermed, fenced and surrounded by plants. In case you hadn’t guessed yet, you get to see a cheetah run full tilt down this track. But let me back up a second. Suzanne and I got VIP passes for this spectacle that gave us some unbelievable up close cat experiences. As a warm up, the keeper brought out a caracal to show us. This amazing animal has huge feather ears that mimic birds, its chief prey. The flickering ears help it blend in with the birds but its 10 foot vertical leap make it a cold blooded killer! A very intense animal and a rare treat to experience so closely. To demonstrate the caracal’s jumping ability, the keeper had a toy on the end of a whipthingy. I found a youtube clip that shows their jumping much better than my picture.
After the caracal visit came the main attraction, the cheetah. We got to stand in a special viewing area right on the track. At one end was a plush toy attached to a cord attached to a special motor that could pull it up to 120km/hr. At the end of the track, the cheetah was behind a curtain. The “bait” was given a brief head start to gather speed and when it passed, the curtain lifted and the cheetah came out like lightning, running 2 feet in front of us at 110km/hr!!
I’ve been lucky to have seen a long list of extraordinary things in the natural world. This ranks right up there in my list of amazing sights. What I will always remember is the sound it made as it churned its feet through the ground. A heavy thunking rumble like distant thunder you could feel in your stomach. Seeing anything move that fast so close up was really hard to fully take in. The cheetah ran the 330 foot long track in 6 seconds.
The keeper then had us sit down and she brought the cheetah in with us as it enjoyed a bowl of frozen blood and rested from the run. It was purring quite loudly as it was led in. When the bowl of frozen blood was brought in, she furiously licked it, periodically looking up and around. They are nervous animals generally and it was quite a spectical watching it bolt up and look right past you at something in the distance and strain its neck and widen its eyes to assessing some noise or movement in the distance. In order to help calm them, cheetahs in this park grow up with a companion dog from the time they are kittens. This cheetah’s companion was Hopper, a very relaxed dog seen in the back getting a treat. The idea is that the cheetah looks for cues from the dog which is always relaxed. When the cat gets rattled, it sees that Hopper is unphased so it relaxes too. I found the two of them were a funny couple, the cat so regal and majestic but jittery, while the dog was a commonplace mutt without a shred of self-importance and just a little bit zen.
After enjoying a bowl of frozen blood, (I didn’t try it myself but it looked refreshing) the cheetah was returned to its section of the park and the keeper did some question and answer with us. An unforgettable experience (even if I didn’t get to give the cheetah a big bearhug like I wanted!)
Above: The cheetah relaxes in its part of the park
An amusing sight was the lion enclosure which contained a Land Rover 4×4. In the winter when the air temps are a little cooler (warm by our standards) the sun heats up the roof making it a desirable sleeping pad. Anyone whose ever watched a house cat lounging in a sunbeam would have found this pose pretty familiar.
A touch of humour for visitors and genuinely enjoyed by the cats as the picture shows! We initially scanned their huge enclosure and couldn’t find them as we walked past the many viewing areas. Finally, at the last viewing platform, there they were on their 4×4, a brilliant way to bring the cats up close to their audience.
What you can see is the male finally having to move out of the shade and leap frog into the sun. Meanwhile one of the other girls on the left is just coming to terms with the fact she has to move as well. Meanwhile, her sister is in the Goldilocks spot and wants for nothing on this earth. The longer you look at it, this picture describes the human condition as much as any.
San Diego Zoo’s animal park is just as amazing as the zoo itself. We spent the whole day here and will return again for sure. Below is a wider look at the park. As you can see it’s more like a nature preserve than a zoo. Areas are fenced off where appropriate but the space is so large it feels very natural. In the picture below there are giraffes, hippos, rhinos, ungulates and many other savannah critters all in one massive area.
There’s something terribly amusing to me about a bird sitting on his own interpretive plaque!