Born just five weeks ago, the cheetah cub with no name was rejected by his mother at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, but he fared a lot better than his three siblings.
Two died almost immediately and the third may have been eaten by the mother. Ultimately, the surviving cub was shipped to Busch Gardens, where he has been cared for by park veterinarians.
This morning, the 3-pound feline made his premier, as Busch Gardens showed the cub off for reporters and photographers. He's been eating regularly and packed on a few pounds. For the team of four to six caretakers, raising the cheetah is a treat, even though they have to feed him every six hours and alternate taking him home at night.
"It's hard to beat a 40-day-old cheetah," said Mike Boos, vice president of zoological operations at Busch Gardens, as he cradled the furry bundle. "This is about as good as it gets."
His new home will be the Cheetah Run habitat, expected to open later this spring along with Cheetah Hunt, the park's newest roller coaster. That's not to say he will be among the dozen cheetahs at the park. He won't be introduced to them until he is a 100-pound adult, about two years from now.
Even then, he may not be part of the cheetah coalition, said Tim Smith, assistant curator at Busch Gardens, who is heading up the cheetah-care team.
Right now, he's getting a special blend of formula designed for cats, he said. The next big milestone is being weaned from the bottle, but every little bit of behavior is documented, he said.
Notes are taken each day on weight, on movements, even his sneezes, Smith said. "He's just learning to run," he said of the endangered species credited with being the fastest mammal on the planet. "And, he's very fast for his age."
The spotted ball of fur roamed a blanket laid down for his photo op on Thursday morning.
"I prefer it when they look regal as an adult," Smith said. "But they certainly are cute at this age."
If he isn't added to the other cheetahs at Busch Gardens, he will be come an educational representative of a species that is having a tough go of it in the wild, Smith said. "He's a conservation ambassador," he said. There are fewer than 10,000 cheetahs in the wild.
It's the first weeks-old cheetah Busch Gardens has ever had, he said.
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Director of Conservation and Education Dan Maloney said the cub was one of four born of an 11-year-old cheetah mom named Tora just over a month ago.
"Tora, as far as we know, is the oldest cheetah mother to have given birth to viable cubs for the first time at 11," Maloney said. "That's the equivalent of a 50-year-old woman delivering for the first time."
The pregnancy surprised everyone. Tora, who was born in the wild, had multiple opportunities to breed with various males over the years before ending up in Jacksonville, but motherhood eluded her.
In Jacksonville, Tora was placed with a one-eyed male named Limpopo, Maloney said.
"The joke was that she thought he was constantly winking at her," he said.
The two were together for two years before they successfully bred.
Three cubs didn't survive.
"Two succumbed pretty quickly," Maloney said. One disappeared and zoo biologists think the mother may have eaten it. The surviving cub was booted out of the nursing box and was losing weight and covered with mud when humans intervened, he said.
Biologists thought it would be best to ship the cub somewhere else for its own good. Checks were made to see if a foster mother was available anywhere, but there were none.
Wildlife biologists with various agencies, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which sets standards for zoo animal care, approved of the plan to move the cub to Busch Gardens, which has a number of cheetahs and that will help the cub's upbringing and socialization.
"He's an important animal to cheetah population," Maloney said.
Busch Gardens will hold a contest sometime soon to name the cheetah. The public will be able to view him in a couple of weeks, Smith said.
"He looks healthy and he's acting healthy," Smith said. "He's in pretty good shape."