By Emily Fego
The intimate room was filled with animal lovers, young and old. Every face practically glowed with anticipation as we readied our phones, preparing to capture this once-in-a-lifetime event. An excited buzz filled the air.
Finn entered the room first, with his nose close to the ground and his toenails clicking on the wooden floor. He avoided eye contact and seemed to make himself smaller as he walked quietly to a corner of the room. Finn didn’t want to pull any attention from his best friend, Triton—the one we were all there to see. Meanwhile, Triton hesitated at the door. Two handlers waited patiently until he was ready to make his grand entrance.
The chatter stopped abruptly as twenty heads turned in unison. Triton looked curiously at his visitors, surveying each of us carefully. He wore a harness, but the keepers did not need it to control or restrain him. It was Triton who ran the show and who chose to guide his keepers around the front of the room.
A happy chatter started up again, but all I could discern was Triton’s deep purr. I could feel it in my bones. My heart was caught in my throat, but I was not afraid. I realized this animal could kill me instantly if he desired, but I wasn’t scared. I felt completely comfortable in Triton’s presence, yet I was paralyzed by his beauty, poise and power.
Finn is an English Labrador and his best friend, Triton, is a cheetah. They are both part of the Bronx Zoo’s ambassador program, which started in 2012. The seemingly unlikely duo were raised together, along with another English Labrador, Norton and Triton’s brother, Little Foot.
In that room with Triton, one would never guess that these magnificent cats are actually pretty skittish, shy animals. So when Triton and Little Foot came to the Bronx Zoo as cubs, they were each paired with a puppy companion. The Bronx Zoo’s education team hoped that Norton and Finn would help keep the cheetah cubs comfortable, happy and relaxed; which would enable the keepers to work closely with them without causing stress.
In an episode of Animal Planet’s behind-the-scenes series, The Zoo, Bronx Zoo director Jim Breheny explained why cheetahs make such great ambassador animals. “Because they’re not terribly aggressive we can work with them in ways that we cannot work with other large cats,” he said. “As long as you work with them from the time they’re very young they become bonded to the people who take care of them and they become bonded to their dogs.”
Many experts believe that people who forge a personal connection with wild animals will be more likely to care about their survival. Hence the need for zoos. But when people think of zoos, they typically picture animals in cages. You won’t find animals behind bars in the Bronx, though. Over the years, the Bronx Zoo has worked to create exhibits that more closely mimic the resident animals’ wild habitats—making the experience more pleasant for animals and visitors alike.
Programs such as the Cheetah Connection allow visitors to do just that: connect. Through this personal relationship, conservation changes from a theoretical notion to a personal mission.
While sitting in the room with Triton, visitors were not only told about his personality and daily routine, but also about the threats to his species. According to a 2016 Wildlife Conservation Society press release, cheetahs are now facing rapid population decline due to wildlife trafficking, habitat loss and other human activities. The release also revealed that only about 7,100 cheetahs are left in the wild, leading many experts to believe that their conservation status should be changed from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered.”
I’m sure I’d heard about threats to cheetahs in the past. And I’m sure it made me feel sad—in an abstract way. But now, when I think of the cheetah’s decline, I have a visceral memory of looking into Triton’s large, warm amber eyes—and I know I must take action. I understand my connection to every other living organism on the planet. I feel passionate about protecting them—for all our sakes.