Cheetahs a pretty synonymous with Africa, that or delicious puffed cheese snacks. But what if I told you that cheetahs used to be all over the place, maybe even with a North American relative?

Now they're almost entirely in Africa or captivity, with only a small handful in Iran. It's estimated there is 7,100 in the wild, which isn't many, but more than many of our most endangered species. This wouldn't be so bad if the genetic variability between all these cheetahs didn't fall somewhere between 0.1 - 4%

Episode: File 0129: Nazis won't change their spots but cheetahs will

Release Date: May 2 2024

Researched and presented by Cayla

Just so you get the true scope of this, if you have a full blood sibling, the genetic variability between you two would fall somewhere in 39-62%. Between you and your parent about 50%

You and your own sibling, coming from the same parents, can have differences in your genes of up to 62%. Two cheetahs that have never met, on opposite sides of the planet, at most, only have 4% of their genes that are different.

How the hell did we get here?


My brother sometimes sends me random instagram reels. Just of the most bizarre things, one he sent me the other day was about how if you handle blood worms, which are a common fish food, with your bare hands, you could develop an allergy to them. 

Naturally, like with anything, but especially with instagram reels or tiktoks, please, please, please do your research before you propagate potentially harmful information. Even if a person is telling the truth, bursts of 10 seconds is hardly enough time to present all the information

So of course I checked this and yeah, it was true. 

Once that allergy has developed, each time you interact with them, your allergic reaction gets worse. And once your allergic, even gloves won't save you. This allergy can evolve into asthma

I used to feed my fish with bloodworms, I would melt them in a container with water, and use a spoon, so I wasn't in direct contact, but thank god I never developed an allergy as I would have no idea the bloodworms were the cause. I switched to flakes after we moved just out of sheer laziness as the fish store isn't really close to our house.

It was one of these random reels that got me onto this topic. The reel was someone talking about how they just learned about all these inbred animals, Tasmanian devils that were so genetically similar that cancer became contagious (this one isn't quite true but that's for another time), and then cheetahs which were allegedly the most inbred creature on this planet

So I threw that in the ideas folder for a rainy day. Today is that rainy day

SO yeah, cheetahs! Everyone knows the basic facts about cheetahs, they have the privilege of being one of the big cats we all learn about when we're 8. They're fast af and are super dope looking.

But seriously though, they can go from 0 to 97 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) in three seconds. At top speed, they advance 23 feet (7 meters) in a single stride and complete four strides per second. Like I always knew it was fast, but don't think I really appreciated as a kid just how fast that is for a living creature to run.

There's this video on the cheetah wikipedia page that shows a cheetah running filmed at 1200 frames a second and it's really damn cool

Female cheetahs are typically solitary with large territories, where the males tend to have smaller territories which they may share with their brothers in a grouping called a coalition. Females only come near the males to breed and then go back out on their own. Pregnancy lasts about 3 months and typically produce 2-6 cubs. 

The mother raises the cubs on their own until about 18 months where she leaves the cubs. The cubs will stay together for another 6 months before the females begin to leave. The brothers will stay together typically for the rest of their lives, these coalitions are very close and seem to considerably help with survivability as single males aren't common and don't seem to survive long

The daughters will frequently share a territory with their mother while still remaining solitary. If they do encounter each other it's not uncommon for these interactions to pass with little to no aggression.

Cheetah sounds!

But ok yes, back to inbred Cheetahs. The person on the reel was right, cheetahs are one of the most inbred creatures on this planet, even more so than highly inbred cats and dogs.

So how did we get here?

Ye Old Times

There are many theories about what exactly happened that caused the cheetah to become so inbred, all of which requires us to look really far back in time.

Obviously cheetahs didn't just pop out of the ocean fully formed, I guess unless you subscribe to creationism. For the rest of us, cheetahs evolved from the same common ancestor all felines evolved from. The felidae family splits into two branches:

  • Panthterinae side which is where lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars live
  • Felinae: where everything else lives

Fun fact, the primary distinction between these two branches is that Felinae can purr but can't roar. The more you know!

Felinae breaks up into several families, you will find the cheetah under what's referred to as the "Puma Lineage"

The puma lineage splits into acinonyx which is where cheetahs are and the other side splits into two species, the cougar and jaguarundi. Did you expect cougars to be so closely related to Cheetahs? Because I sure as hell didn't

And a side tangent, I had never heard of Jaguarundi before so naturally I had to check that out and they are some cool looking cats! They're wild cats native to South America, that kind of look like a cross between a cat and an otter or mongoose

They get about twice the size as your standard house cat, and come in two colors, gray or orange. This is neither here nor there, they just looked neat and had to share

Back to cheetahs

Scientists theorized that for the cheetah to become as inbred has it has, there must've been a genetic bottleneck at some point

Just as a bottle narrows from its base to its neck, a genetic bottleneck occurs when a gene pool is narrowed to a fraction of its former diversity. This can happen via a natural disaster, such as a volcano wiping out all but a small portion of a population. - Berkley

This would imply that the modern population at one point had been so reduced that the animals had so few choices for breeding that many resorted to breeding within the same family

But the question was, what had caused that and when?

The American Cheetah

There is another member of this family called the miracinonyx, also known as "American Cheetah". The now extinct the American Cheetah used to roam across much of North America, between 2.5 million to 16,000 years ago

The american cheetah was bigger than the modern cheetah at about 1.7 meters/5.5 feet [ in length (excluding the tail) where the modern version varies between 1.1 and 1.5 m (3 ft 7 in and 4 ft 11 in)

For a time the theory was that the american cheetah was the predecessor to our modern cheetah, traveling across the land-bridge from North America to Europe, before dispersing to Asia and eventually Africa. This was primarily based on the similarities in skeletal remains of both species

This migration was thought to have maybe been one of the first genetic bottlenecks that cause the cheetah to become so inbred. When any population ends up migrating such a long route, individuals are bound to wander off or get lost, causing the entire population to become quite spread out. If spread out enough the individual would likely only be able to find family members

The american cheetah was thought to have gone extinct in north america and Europe around 12,000 years ago during the ice age when there was a mass extinction event that took out 70% the megafauna on the planet [ielc] [wiki]

This is when we saw creatures like the sabre tooth tiger and mammoths disappear. It's thought this occurred because of dramatic changes in weather, that significantly cooled much of the planet, killing off the vegetation the herbivores relied on, which in turn killed off the herbivores that the carnivores relied on.

This extinction event devastated north america, but Africa was hardly effected in comparison. This explains how we still have the cheetah today and many large creatures in Africa

But recent analysis of DNA of modern cheetahs and DNA extracted from American Cheetah remains tells us that the two are not that closely related at all, and the american cheetah is more puma than cheetah. Also of note is that the American Cheetahs had retractable claws, which are not true of the modern cheetah.

It's one of the things that make the modern cheetah distinct, as they are the only cat whose claws don't fully retract. This feature is what enables to run so fast, the claws giving them the traction they need to pick up speed. This does make their claws considerably duller than any other feline, the trade off for their speed, but they still have plenty of sharp teeth, but their primary method of assassination is suffocation by clamping down on the throat of its prey

We have also never found the remains of an American cheetah in the eastern hemisphere and vice versa for the modern Cheetah

So if it wasn't this migration that caused the bottleneck what was it?

It's been suggested that there were actually two bottleneck events that led to the cheetah we have today. The first occurred about 100,000 years ago which many believe was a migration event, but not one from North America. While today you will only find wild cheetahs in Africa and Iran, cheetahs used to live in much of Asia

100,000 years ago, cheetahs had expanded throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Modern female Cheetahs have huge territories, with the males usually keeping small ones sometimes as a group called a coalition. The problem with this is that it causes the animals to become quite spread out and makes it more difficult to find a mate when the urge arises. It's theorized that when the cheetahs could not find any other mating options, they turn to the cheetahs closest to them which are usually family.

The second bottleneck occurred around the end of the last ice age, 10-12k years ago. Megafauna was going extinct the world over and the cheetah also suffered the same fate in Europe and much of Asia. Again with only small populations remaining and available, the cheetah was forced to mate with relatives.

The cheetah did manage to survive both of these bottlenecks, the population booming in the 1800s to about 100,000, but that's a number that has been steadily decreasing ever since.

As I mentioned at the outset we have about 7,000 wild cheetahs left, with a dozen in Iran

Cheetahs and People

When people came onto the scene, they thought cheetahs were pretty cool and found that cheetahs in general don't show much aggression to people and were actually relatively easy to train.

The earliest known depictions of the cheetah are from the Chauvet Cave in France, dating back to 32,000–26,000 BC. The first cheetah is thought to have been tamed in Sumer and then practice spread from there, but some argue it was the Egyptians that first tamed these cats

Between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, cheetahs were common pets for royalty, who adorned them with ornate collars and leashes. The Egyptians would use their dogs to bring the concealed prey out in the open, after which a cheetah would be set upon it to kill it.

Hunting with cheetahs became more prevalent toward the seventh century AD. In the Middle East, the cheetah would accompany the nobility to hunts in a special seat on the back of the saddle. Taming was an elaborate process and could take a year to complete

In eastern Asia, records are confusing as regional names for the leopard and the cheetah may be used interchangeably. The earliest depiction of cheetahs from eastern Asia dates back to the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th centuries AD); paintings depict tethered cheetahs and cheetahs mounted on horses. Chinese emperors would use cheetahs and caracals as gifts

The Mughal ruler Akbar the Great (1556–1605 AD) is said to have kept as many as 1000 khasa (imperial) cheetahs. His son Jahangir wrote in his memoirs, Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, that only one of them gave birth. Mughal rulers trained cheetahs and caracals in a similar way as the western Asians, and used them to hunt game, especially blackbuck. The rampant hunting severely affected the populations of wild animals in India; by 1927, cheetahs had to be imported from Africa.

Also there's this painting from the 1800s that shows a sphinx but clearly a cheetah body was used for inspiration and it's kind of hilarious


As time went, the more the cheetah was forced to breed with their own relatives, until soon all the cheetahs were related and carried the same genes. Genetic diversity is important for a lot of reasons and we have talked about this before, but quick recap

Genetic diversity in humans is what causes all of us to appear unique. A unique combination of facial features, hair, skin and eye color, height, weight. Genes are responsible for all of that, each of us have our own set of genes and if we reproduce with another person, the child will be an amalgamation of both parent's genes. Some genes are called dominant, meaning they are more likely to be passed on generation over generation. Where some genes are recessive, meaning those genes could easily disappear if pitted against more dominant genes.

An example is red hair in humans. It's estimated that between 1-2% of the global population has red hair, with the highest concentrations, unsurprisingly, being in Ireland and Scotland. Red hair is a tied to a recessive gene, recessive genes require both parents to have it for the gene to actualize, two copies of the gene is what is makes red hair to present, otherwise that offspring might just be a carrier

For example if two red heads were to procreate, there is a very high chance that their offspring would also have red hair. If they have a child that doesn't have red hair, that child will carry the red hair gene.

If this child were then to procreate with someone with red hair, there would be a 50% chance that their offspring would have red hair. If this child were to procreate with someone who didn't have red hair, but carried the gene as well, there's a 25% chance the child will have red hair. [medicover]

This is the case with my brother. My dad is light brown, my mom has brown hair, I was born blond and my brother is a red head. There's a good chance that I am a carrier.

But this gene doesn't just come with cool hair, if this gene is activated, aka you have red hair, you also get the detriments of that gene which are increased risk for skin cancer, Parkinson's and endometriosis. They also have an increased sensitivity to pain particularly that caused by temperature, hot or cold. It also makes them resistant to some anesthetics. 

If suddenly all the humans except red heads died, you would have an entire population at higher risk of skin cancer, and in turn more sensitive to the sun. This would significantly shrink our gene pool as well

An example of recessive genes in other big cats are black panthers. Many people think panthers are their own species, but actually, they are simply jaguars or leopards who inherited the recessive trait that when activated darkens their entire coloration. You can truly see this if you ever catch a panther lounging in the sun, as suddenly their spots become much more apparent [wiki]

Another example is the elusive white tiger. The white tiger is a regular tiger that just inherited the genes that suppress the red and yellow pigments in their fur producing a white or cream colored coat. It also frequently means they have blue eyes instead of the standard yellow. In the wild this variant is only seen maybe 1-10,000 births. [white tiger]

The cheetah also has a unique alternative presentation, known as the king cheetah

Stories about the King Cheetah go back as far as we can remember. They looked so surprisingly different than their normal counterparts, that for a long time it was thought that they were some bizarre crossbreed, one such myth saying the king cheetah was the offspring of a hyena and a cheetah (this would not be possible)

Another report said

In 1926, Major A. Cooper wrote about a cheetah-like animal he had shot near modern-day Harare, with fur as thick as that of a snow leopard and spots that merged to form stripes. He suggested it could be a cross between a leopard and a cheetah. As more such individuals were observed it was seen that they had non-retractable claws like the cheetah - Wikipedia

No one was sure what exactly they were, as they looked like cheetahs, but different, but also had the non-retractable claws of a cheetah. Many thought they weren't even real, or if they were that they were a distinct near extinct species that hadn't been documented before.

Since 1927, the king cheetah has been reported five more times in the wild in Zimbabwe, Botswana and northern Transvaal; one was photographed in 1975.

In 1981 two female cheetahs that had mated with a wild male from Transvaal at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre (South Africa) gave birth to one king cheetah each. They would go on to make more King Cheetahs as would their offspring.

But it wasn't until 2012 that we would know why that was. The cause of this coat pattern was found to be a mutation in the gene for transmembrane aminopeptidase (Taqpep), the same gene responsible for the striped "mackerel" versus blotchy "classic" pattern seen in tabby cats

If two cheetahs both have this recessive gene, a quarter of their offspring will be King cheetahs.

This is recessive genes in action. While there are a fair number of king cheetahs in captivity now, it's estimated that there are only 10 in the wild, they are that rare.

This recessive gene though isn't just all badass stripes, it comes with an incredibly high mortality rate. It's estimated that of all king cheetahs born, only 5% will survive. The genes that make this pattern also brings with them a myriad of health issues

And this is the risk in low genetic diversity.

Survival of the fittest is often mistaken to mean a creature developing a trait in response to their environments, but the reality is it's closer to the opposite. Any species with significant genetic diversity will have small mutations throughout its population, many that are not visible from just looking at it.

The individuals with the most successful adaptations are the ones that most likely reproduce, so that mutation is passed on to their offspring. So and so forth

This means that typically in nature, if there was a gene that put that animal at increased risk, that gene would likely get bred out as those individuals would have less opportunities to breed. Like the king cheetah gene.

As mentioned, in the wild it's very rare though to be 10 in the entire 7,100 population. But in captivity, there is an estimated 50. With human intervention we can selectively breed animals to favor specific traits. With human medical care we can help increase the odds that offspring will survive where it might not of in the wild. [virginiasafaripark]

This selective breeding is how we have so many breeds of cats and dogs. Most breeds originate from the same original species, that has just been bred repeatedly for desired traits. Say every once in a while a dog was born with black fur, if the owners decided they liked that, they could breed two black dogs to produce offspring with black fur. By keeping those populations isolated from individuals with traits you don't want, you can create a genetic line that is much more likely to present with the desired traits.

For dogs, it just went from there. Maybe one tribe of people preferred their animals stockier so they could help them hunt larger animals, so they bred the stockier animals. But maybe another tribe preferred something long and sleek for better navigation of wetlands for the purpose of hunting fowl

A couple thousand years down the line we have pitbulls and greyhounds.

But genes often do more than one thing, like with red hair in humans, the genes that have been selected for some breeds of dogs carry with them excessive health risks. And some breeds have so few "pure" individuals left, that they are forced to inbreed. This is why some pure breeds are getting harder to find or come with increasingly more severe health risks.

Of all dogs the cocker spaniel is considered the most high risk. These dogs have more frequent orthopaedic issues and are prone to epilepsy, heart disease and liver disease. There are breeders that are working to add in new genetic material or new traits to help reduce this, but this is a long process and doesn't happen overnight. So if you want a dog to look a specific way, be prepared to pay for it not just the thousands of dollars it takes to acquire one (and often months of waiting), but also for the rest of its life. Anyone that has ever had a sick pet can tell you how quickly those vet bills stack up. And no one wants to watch a loved one suffer. If you want a lifelong companion, get a mut, mixed breeds typically have considerably fewer health issues, and I guarantee you there's a couple waiting for you at the closest shelter right now, eager to find their forever home. [mercurynews]

This is one of the risks of reproduction with a small set of genes. 

White Tigers

This brings us back around to white tigers. People love white tigers and they are truly beautiful animals, but the last time one was seen in the wild was 1958. Their rarity makes them all the more eye catching and intriguing. Also desirable.

If you have ever heard the name Joe Exotic, then you probably have some inkling of what the roadside zoo and private collector breeding programs are like. A baby tiger cub is worth a pretty penny, a white tiger cub even more so

The problem is just like with red heads, the genes that are linked to the white coloration also link to increased risks of health defects, a risk that only gets greater the more you breed them.

The best way to ensure you get a white tiger cub is to breed two white tigers. White tigers are rare, so what often happens at roadside attractions that bank on cub petting or sales to break even, is these animals are bred repeatedly, often with family members as that's usually what is available.

White tigers bred in captivity are prone to being cross eyed, impairing their vision. Hell even white tigers that don't have cross eyes, will have their eyes crossed when they get stressed or agitated.

Because of the visual pathway abnormality, by which some optic nerves are routed to the wrong side of the brain, white tigers have a problem with spatial orientation, and bump into things until they learn to compensate

They have poorer vision and their eyes are more sensitive to light.

They are also prone to shortened tendons in their forelegs, impacting their ability to walk, clubfoot and kidney issues. Animals that are repeatedly inbred begin to develop issues with fertility and more frequent miscarriages.

Zoos and conservation programs that do breed, often perform a process called outcrossing, which is the introduction of new genetic material by breeding in a different tiger that doesn't have the same traits. It reduces the frequency of white cubs but does increase the health of the animals overall.

In the 1980s India actually banned the breeding of white tigers after cubs were born at New Delhi Zoo with arched backs and clubbed feet, necessitating euthanasia

It's said that only 1 in 30 white tiger cubs are "show worthy", I don't need to tell you what happens to the other 29 [tigerrescue]

That doesn't stop private collectors though.


Another animal with a similar story is the liger, the result of a tiger and lion breeding. Ligers used to be big draws at roadside zoos because they were so rare, but also massive animals. Considered the largest cat with males reaching a total length of 3 to 3.6 m (9.8 to 11.8 ft), and about 800 lbs.

Because of their massive size ligers have considerable health risks and tend to experience a higher rate of injury and neurological disorder than non-hybrids. Organ failure issues have been reported in ligers, in addition to neurological deficits, sterility, cancer, and arthritis. 

There are thought to be about 100 ligers the world over.

The breeding of ligers is incredibly unethical. The health issues they are at risk of are no small matter, most ligers will experience at least one of those in their lives. Despite lions and tigers sharing territories throughout the millennia, a liger has never been seen in the wild, though there are legends, but there was also legends of cheetahs breeding with hyenas, so take that with a grain of salt. There's a reason this isn't a naturally occurring species.

Ian Malcolm said it best "Your Scientists Were So Preoccupied With Whether Or Not They Could, They Didn't Stop To Think If They Should" 

The thing is, as cool as it is for us humans to see such a hybrid, you are creating a creature that will suffer at some point down the line if not their entire lives 

"Their hearts give out," says Susan Bass, director of public relations for Big Cat Rescue, the largest accredited big cat sanctuary in the world. "Their organs literally can't handle the weight." - Slate

Hybridization in itself is not a bad thing, heck the reason we exist is because two species of standing apes got busy. That hybridization can be an adaptation that saves a species. But the law of nature takes no prisoners: survival of the fittest.

There have been plenty of animals that crossbred, some very successful but most not so much, the ones that weren't successful didn't leave their marks on history, because they couldn't survive the natural world. A liger is the same. This is an animal that grows so incredibly large, the amount of food it would require would be immense, but also with its potential health issues it could very easily become too sick or injured (a misstep when you're carrying 800 lbs can be devastating), leaving the poor creature to starve

Exotic Animal Ownership

There's a reason I brought up ligers and other big cats, not just because it does show what happens when gene pools are reduced and unethically bred, but because there's still a big issue with the private ownership of exotic animals.

Don't mean to go all Carol Baskin on y'all, but when talking about big cats it is very important to talk about ethics.

Exotic animals like big cats are not designed to be pets. They have incredibly specialized needs and require an immense amount of space. They can very easily kill or harm you or someone you love. It doesn't matter how much your tiger loves you, accidents happen, anyone that has ever played with a house cat knows what happens when play time gets too intense. A swat here and bite there, typically don't even draw blood, but with an animal that weighs 3-4x as much as you, with paws the size of your head, it doesn't take much for a playful bat to deal real damage.

Thankfully every day roadside zoos like Joe Exotic's have been shutting down and many countries are signing on to restrict laws around the ownership and breeding of exotic animals. But that doesn't fix the problem.

It is against the law to own a big cat in Canada in every province but Ontario [CBC]. But guess how many big cats are thought to be owned by private collectors in Canada as of 2022? 4,000 [animaljustice]. It's estimated there's maybe 4,500 tigers left in the wild [usatoday]

How do we stop this? Learn about and advocate for acts like the Jane Goodall act in Canada. Check out big cat rescue for information about bills that effect your area. And don't support roadside zoos and private collectors

It's easy to avoid sketchy roadside attractions. But there is a way that people are supporting this maybe without even realizing it. Social media. We've all seen it, you're scrolling down instagram and here's this adorable video of a woman playing with her lion cub or a guy lounging with his serval on the couch.

By viewing this content, you are telling the algorithm you like this content, and it will try and show you more content like this and try and show people with a similar profile to you this same content. If you like it that has an even bigger impact.

Not only does this effect the algorithm but it normalizes the ownership of these animals and it increases the demand for them. These social media accounts are pretty much advertisers, because these will be the first person someone asks if they want an animal like is featured.

These videos are rampant and by engaging with them you are enabling an industry that preys on animals, takes them from wilderness or breeds them in tiny cages, taking them from their mothers soon as they're born. Being fed inadequate diets and not given the space they need to roam. Sometimes the animals are declawed or have their teeth removed so that they are less a risk to the owners or people paying to see the animals perform or to touch the animals.

I don't think every private exotic animal owner has malicious intent, I think most of them do truly love their animals, but they are also not experts in the care of these animals. Raising a serval is not the same as raising a tabby. Servals have endless energy, require plenty of stimulation and area to run. They are not house cats. They will eat your house if not provided with enough stimulation.

and good luck finding a vet that not only will treat your serval, but specializes in them.

Servals somehow don't fall under the provincial Controlled Alien Species regulations, meaning they can be legally owned in B.C., depending on municipal bylaws.

Cleo was once a cute, cuddly cub. Her owners put a harness on her to walk her. As she grew stronger, her former owner could not handle her enough to get the tiny harness off. As the years passed it became completely embedded in Cleo's skin. Eventually as she grew the harness would have crushed her ribs. Because the owner did not know how to properly feed the cat, when she arrived at Big Cat Rescue she was so malnourished that to anesthetize her to remove the harness would likely have killed her. [..] - Big Cat Rescue
Ty is a Serval, a beautiful gold and spotted cat of about 30 pounds with huge ears that give it the best hearing of any cat. A breeder convinced a young couple that if they raised this kitten with their human infant they would bond and be friends for life. When mature wild cats hunt, rather than take on the strongest animal in a herd, they instinctively seek the young or infirm. At age three, Ty became an adult, and the three-year-old playmate became prey, and Ty attacked. The offending cat, who had done nothing but follow his natural instincts, was then driven for days during mid summer in a crab trap in the back of a pickup truck to Big Cat Rescue, and was almost dead on arrival from exposure and dehydration - Big Cat Rescue

They also pee everywhere to mark their territory and if you think regular cat pee sucks to clean up…

Breeders lie and tell people that if the cat is fixed it will not spray so they can keep them inside. Not true. The spray is so acidic it eats through our galvanized cage wire over time. When they spray drywall, you do not clean it – you replace it.

The best thing you can do when you see this content is report it for animal abuse, or the next closest category

Now not all content featuring exotic animals come from private owners or entertainers, some come from legitimate conservation efforts, zoos and research facilities. Here's the things you should look for:

  • The animal is wearing a leash/harness or other garment
  • The animal is being handled directly by a person. A professional zookeeper would never do this unless part of medical checkup and usually only while the animal is asleep. Touching animals does nothing for them, they are not like domestic animals, they do not seek human affection, if anything it can cause great stress and risks both the animal hurting itself or the person
  • The animal is indoors. Unless you can tell this in the indoors portion of a large enclosure, exotic animals should never been in someone's house
  • The animal is being fed by hand, or being fed things that they would not normally eat, such as processed or human food.
  • Always be wary if content includes baby animals, legitimate rescues do not breed

As with anything there are exceptions. There are a handful of reputable and accredited breeding/rescue centers that try to condition their animals to interact directly with their caretakers. This is part of philosophy of care where animals are socialized to make their regular care less stressful. If you're able to interact with an animal to check their paws, or teeth or anything else without the risk of putting them under anesthesia, it can lead to a better quality of life. This method is debated among different animal specialists, some believe an entirely hands off approach is what's best and that direct human interaction is a detriment. Some of these facilities also breed animals for eventual release. Both methods have pros and cons, just be sure to look into facilities posting content like this to ensure they are on the up-and-up

Also some rescues were hand-raised and were never socialized with other animals of their kind, making them dependent on human care and interaction. 

Also things are not always as they appear:

  • Many MANY roadside attractions claim to be rescues or conservationists. Joe Exotic would famously claim that his park was full of rescued animals and that it was to raise awareness. He's not wrong that many of the animals were rescued, coming from exotic owners that didn't realize what they were getting into when they bought a lion cub. But the way the animals were treated and the conditions they were kept in are not acceptable for any living creature. 
    • To check if a place is legit google them, append the word "abuse" to the name of their institute and stuff will come up pretty quickly. If that's a no-go check the google reviews or search for it on reddit. Also check their website, if they are accredited it should be listed. []
  • In the same vein, many private owners will claim they got their animal via rescue. If the person is part of a legitimate rescue it should be listed in their profile for your investigation. Also google their names with the terms "animal abuse".
  • What may look like an animal having a good time might not be the case at all. Exotic animals react differently than domestic animals or humans. A famous example of this is chimpanzees. All those cute pictures and videos you see of a chimpanzee "smiling"? They aren't smiling. That is a fear response, chimpanzees show their top teeth when afraid or trying to intimidate another creature. That chimpanzee is not having fun, it is probably terrified. My old roommate had gone to school and actually worked with chimps. She told me a lot about them, and pretty much said to not interact with any content where a chimpanzee stars for the purposes of entertainment (vs an educational documentary in their natural environments or at accredited zoos). The things that are done to chimps to make them act like people are horrific and cruel. Just like big cats, primates are not pets. [chimpsnw]

I know this all sounds like a lot of work for something that you watch maybe for a couple seconds or scroll past, but if you care about animals, it's worth the extra couple minutes to vet someone. Also the peace of mind of knowing that someone you follow is doing right by the animals in their care is worth it.

I'll get off soap box now, let's get back to cheetah


So we've talked about the horrors that can occur when animals are selectively bred and inbred. That brings us back to the cheetah.

Every individual in the entire living population of cheetahs almost share the exact same genes. If cheetahs were people, they would all look like identical multiples, with only the slightest variation between them

This is bad because of all the genetic health risks, but also if a viral disease hit them, it could take them all out as none of them have any significant mutations that might help them fight it

This inbreeding has also led to great difficulties with fertility, the grand majority of a male cheetah's sperm are malformed, making it really difficult for those sperm to find their way to an egg.

How do we fix this?

Well the good news is, we're working on it and we're making progress according to a study performed by Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)! [insider] I bet you were expecting this to just turn into an even bigger bummer, like most my stories. And if I am honest, so was I

Cheetahs in the wild are increasingly losing genetic diversity. This is in direct contrast with the population of cheetahs in zoos, which is as genetically diverse as it was 30 years ago because of cooperative and strategically managed breeding programs, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Cheetah Species Survival Plan.

The study looked at the DNA of over 100 male cheetahs in Namibia over the last 30 years.

They had expected to find that, as a result of their lower genetic diversity, the cheetahs in the wild would have poorer sperm quality than those in zoos. What they found instead is that sperm quality was equally poor across both populations, with the exception of about 1 in 10 male cheetahs that had what the researchers consider to be "normal" sperm quality.
"This means we might not see serious health consequences until the cheetahs in the wild hit a certain threshold of low genetic diversity," said Adrienne Crosier, co-author, SCBI conservation biologist and manager of the Cheetah Species Survival Plan. "It is important that we capture the genes of the 10 percent of males with good sperm quality and other highly beneficial traits, for example, by freezing their sperm. These lineages may be the key to helping bolster the species' chance at survival."

The SCBI runs a cheetah breeding center at its headquarters in Front Royal, Virginia, designed to help create a genetically diverse and self-sustaining insurance population of cheetahs in human care. Since 2007 25 surviving cubs have been born and this article is from 2016, the project has been going nonstop since then

Here is some footage from Apr 5 this year of one of their mothers with 5 7month old cubs

The SCBI puts cubcams online when their cheetahs have new cubs, we're entering into cheetah breeding season now and it's expected there will be new cubs in July. So if you're interested in that check out the website I will link it in the notes. This is the most ethical way you can view and see cubs up close and personal

It was found that 90% of cheetahs born in captivity were being born in larger centers off-site, away from the general public vs places like zoos. So the smithsonian worked to build a network of breeding centers that help provide this kind of environment [conservationcenters]

There are now 10 cheetah breeding centers across the US involved in the Cheetah Breeding Center Coalition, all with the goal of creating a healthier set of genes for these amazing creatures.

The keepers work to try and ensure all the animals have everything they need at the 3200 acre facility, and allow nature to take its course. In one case with a mother who gave birth in 2022, they managed to train her to voluntarily participate in ultrasounds so that they could keep track of the cub's development causing as minimal distress to the mother as was possible

After their birth the mother was left to care for them (of course under watchful webcam eye)the keepers only coming in to check the cubs once the mother was comfortable enough to spend long periods of time away from them.

The research they have uncovered with this program in the last near 20 years has catapulted cheetah knowledge and understanding dramatically. Since the studies done here, they have managed to increase north american cheetah births by 85%

The cheetah species survival plan website is full of information on how exactly they are caring for these animals and the research they have been unlocking. [cheetahssp]

Zoos and breeding centers that are a part of the coalition also are uncovering a lot of fascinating new things and that can be found on their individual websites.

One thing the San Diego zoo found was how male vocalizations helped kickstart the female hormonal cycles. 

Examination of vocal repertoires revealed that one call, the male specific stutterbark, is associated with increased levels of female reproductive hormones. Studies undertaken during breeding trials at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have allowed us to record these stutterbark calls, which we have subsequently used in playback experiments. Broadcasting stutterbark recordings via loudspeaker prior to introductions of males and females has elicited stutterbarking from the majority of males in the collection and also resulted in positive changes in female sexual behavior, including rolling, tail flicking, and seeking proximity to males. As a result, recent breeding trials have resulted in more successful breeding attempts, higher levels of involvement by inexperienced females, and ultimately full term pregnancies and births.

I feel like it's not often we get a good news story when it comes to some of the most vulnerable critters on this planet. I certainly wasn't expecting one out of this story, but if research continues down this path, cheetahs should be with us for a good long time, dodging a third near extinction event. Guess it pays off to be super fast 

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