Fastest of them all

The Jerusalem Zoo's Desert and Onyx are the only Cheetahs in Israel.

kissing cheetah 88 248 (photo credit: Stuart Winer)
kissing cheetah 88 248
(photo credit: Stuart Winer)
They are the fastest-moving land animals in the world and so strange that they have their own genus. Cheetahs are a very special kind of animal in more ways than one. Cheetahs are one of the most iconic animals of all due to their incredible running speeds that are fast enough to warrant a speeding ticket, even in Israel. The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo has two cheetahs: a female called Desert and a male named Onyx, a reference to the cheetah's special classification group called Acinonyx. Although cheetahs look like other large cats, they have a few peculiarities that set them apart. They cannot fully retract their claws and they don't climb trees, which makes them similar to dogs rather than cats. Cheetahs can also purr but not roar, which is the opposite of other big cats that can roar but not purr. Leopards and cheetahs are often confused because at first glance they look so similar. However, cheetahs are slimmer and have black tear-stain marks that run down their noses from the corner of each eye. Less than 100 years ago cheetahs were common across many parts of Africa and Asia, including the Holy Land. Because cheetahs are easily tamed, many rulers kept them as pets and even trained them to hunt. However, being hunted themselves and a gradual depletion of food sources eventually diminished their populations, and now the only wild cheetahs in the Middle East are a group of about 50 that live in Iran. The warm weather has inspired Onyx to make romantic advances toward Desert. With cheetah populations decreasing, a new set of cubs would be a source of much celebration. For the time being, however, Desert has given Onyx the cold shoulder, rejecting his attentions. Chief carnivore keeper at the zoo Dennis Smith attributes Desert's rebuke to Onyx's rather half-hearted efforts at wooing. The solution may be to separate the two for a period of time and then let them cohabit again. However, Jerusalem has the only suitable enclosure for cheetahs in the country; so for the time being, the two will remain together. The cheetahs at the Jerusalem zoo are the only cheetahs in Israel, giving visitors a rare opportunity to see these graceful animals. Zoo staff raised Desert since she was a cub, and she is now quite tame. She enjoys being petted by Smith and responds to her name when called. Desert also has a habit that is common among dogs: she likes to chase bicycles. Many of the staff at the zoo use bicycles to get around the complex, and whenever any of them ride past the cheetah enclosure, Desert gives immediate, albeit short, chase. It is just as well. To outrun Desert, a keeper would have to cycle at up to 120 km/h, or about as fast as a local taxi on an inner city run. Cheetahs can also accelerate from rest to over 100 km/h in just three seconds. That is quicker than the fastest sports cars on the road. Visitors can see the cheetahs throughout the day and may even get a chance to see Desert take a bound or two, should a cycling keeper stray into view.