Photo courtesy Metro Richmond Zoo
Is there such a thing as too many cats? It depends if you’re a single woman or the Metro Richmond Zoo.
The Chesterfield County facility has seen an explosion in its cheetah population during the last three years. The first cub was born there on Oct. 6, 2013. As of early August, the zoo's cheetah population stood at 35. Another two are on loan to the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk.
“It’s an awful lot,” acknowledges Metro Richmond Zoo owner Jim Andelin. “We have two breeding males and seven breeding females. Those are the original cats that we work with. The rest have been born in the last few years.”
To accommodate them, the zoo is doubling its cheetah enclosures to 10. And the expansion will help with continued breeding.
“Of our original cats, there are still two of them that we have not been able to successfully breed yet,” he says. “We want to work on those two, but we needed the space.”
New cheetahs bring visitors to the zoo, but the breeding program is also part of an effort to keep overall cheetah populations genetically healthy. Though not accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, a voluntary organization, the Metro Richmond Zoo participates in its “species survival plan” for captive cheetahs.
“They rank all the cats based on mating and try to make proper pairing accordingly,” says Andelin. And at Metro Richmond Zoo, “there are certain males that breed with certain females.”
Cheetahs from one genetic background are sent out on breeding loans to facilities with other cheetahs. “We obviously can’t keep them all here,” he says. “But a lot of times, you want these cats to grow up some before you move them out.”
He says they haven’t sold, traded or given away any of the cheetahs. “We sent two boy cats that we raised here from our original litter down to the Virginia Zoo this year on loan. They’ve done really well for them. I’ve got another brother of theirs here, so I may not need them for breeding.”
Andelin estimates it costs about $225 a day to keep the cats. The expansion, he says, will cost about $100,000 in fencing and landscaping. Increased attendance has helped fund the work. “It’s gone up this year, but it goes up every year,” Andelin says. “We had some neat things with cheetahs and the dog [who formed a friendship with a cub] — it got a lot of attention.”
Can you name all the cheetahs? Check out a family tree here.