I was watching the tv show Zoo and I saw that the Bronx Zoo used the cheetahs as ambassador animals. They trained them as cubs with puppies so that they would be used to people. The cheetahs would be put on leashes and talked about to crowds of people as educations animals. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about this because in my opinion it doesn't seem super safe but the people at the zoo are professionals.
This is actually a pretty common practice - most of the big zoos with cheetah programs do use them as ambassador animals. They’re pretty much the most safe cats to do that sort of program with (although I’m not sure the actual official written reason for that - mostly what I’ve heard said is that they’re “more doglike” which is pretty obviously a colloquial reason). Cheetahs are not considered as dangerous as the rest of the big cats - even the highly restrictive language in H.R.1818 about big cats and public contact leaves a loophole for these ambassador interactions to continue while forbidding everything else.
I wrote USDA to ask about their restrictions on handling big cats in public, and they responded that:
“Our handling regulations ( 2.131) specify requirements for humane and safe handling of animals. 2.131©(1) requires that during public exhibition, any animal must be handled so that there is minimal risk of harm to the animal and the public…; 2.131(d)(3) requires that during public exhibition, dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, ….must be under the direct control and supervision of a knowledgeable and experienced animal handler.”
Not included in their response - because of how I phrased my question - is the requirement that dangerous animals be a sufficient distance away from the public or behind a barrier.
Now, what’s really interesting about the Bronx ambassador cheetah program… is the tack they use on their cheetahs in public, and the story behind it. It’s an important story because it emphasizes both a) why you never make assumptions about how a zoo handles animals until you talk to someone who works with them and b) exactly how hard it can be to pin down what regulatory bodies or people influence how a zoo chooses to do things.
What I noticed when I watched the show that I absolutely could not explain? Is that the ambassador cheetah boys at Bronx wear prong collars.
(Yes, I literally did just take photos of the TV screen. Go with it).
Now, as someone who is very familiar with prong collars from working with domestic dogs, this choice confused the hell of out me. My thought process was this: prong collars can be really traumatizing for sensitive dogs, cheetahs are known to be super sensitive snowflakes with regards to stress, so what the hell are they doing putting those on those animals?? I asked around to a few people in various aspects of the animal management world, and nobody had ever heard of facilities using prong collars on cheetahs nor could think of why this choice would be made. At which point, I was pretty appalled - but they’d made the choice to allow it to be shown on TV, which meant there had to be something more to the story.
I was incredibly lucky in that a couple of weeks later, I got the chance to actually talk to the director of the Bronx Zoo at an event. I asked him straight out if he would clarify something for me that had kind of shocked me when I watched the show (and since I hadn’t run into any program animals staffers, could he please spare the time) and described my thought process. He was immediately receptive - honestly, it seemed like a question he’d been expecting at some point- and we spent a good five minutes chatting about the choice and why it was made.
The director told me that the prong collars were required under USDA regulations as a backup to the harnesses the cats wore. If you look closely in the show, you can see that there are two leashes coming off each cheetah - the one attached to the harness is the primary leash, and the one attached to the prong is carried by the backup handler in case the primary handler drops the leash or loses control of the animal somehow. It was explained to me that the prong collar was required because in case the leash was dropped because the cheetah’s prey drive kicked in, the tack the backup leash was attached to had to be something the cat wouldn’t just run straight through. At which point, yes, the collar is meant to be aversive on the off-chance it’s needed - but that’s to save someone’s life, at that point. I was surprised the cats didn’t find having the collar on aversive in normal circumstances, but I was told that the leash attached to the prong is never supposed to be used to control the cat except in an emergency. This all makes sense, and although in the world of dog training it’s not ideal management of prey drive, I can absolutely understand the reasoning behind it when used with a large, fast, predatory cat.
…except that it’s not actually a USDA requirement. No other facility I know of uses prong collars with their cheetahs in public. I had asked the director during our chat where I would be able to look up the regulation, but he didn’t really know, so I emailed USDA to ask and got the response in quotes above. I don’t think it’s likely the director lied to me - even if you don’t believe that zoo staff operate in good faith, that’s just way too easy of a lie to get caught in for someone in his position to risk - so what could explain that discrepancy?
Local USDA inspectors. I asked around a bit, checking in with people who have spend their careers interacting with the USDA, and it seems most likely that whomever is the inspector for the Bronx is the person who decided that prongs as backups to the harnesses were necessary for ensuring public safety. USDA inspectors are supposed to do an impartial job of inspecting facilities according to the AWA standards, but in reality they do have a lot of power as individuals. Some inspectors abuse this, some don’t, some just get weirdly involved in how things run. My educated guess is that it sounds like this is a case of the latter - someone within USDA requiring actions from the zoo above and beyond the actual standards. (It would, in theory, be possible to track down who the inspector is for the Bronx and ask them, but I haven’t followed up on it at this point because I have the most important information - the thought process behind the use of tack and the fact that it’s a purposeful choice to balance welfare and safety). It could also be possible that the use of prongs is how the staff member who is in charge of program animals for Bronx chose to interpret the USDA regulations.
Whatever the reason is, though, it’s an interesting deviation from standard practice to note. I don’t think it’s a bad or abusive choice - it’s just different. I do wonder if their public program training protocols are different from those at other places with cheetah programs that don’t use prongs, but that’s mostly academic. The animals aren’t bothered unduly by the collars and the public is kept safe.
TL;DR Government regulations and the requirements imparted by the people who enforce them are complicated and confusing, and even I run into situations where I have to ask zoo staff why they do what they do because my assumptions are way off base.