1590 Goodlette-Frank Road, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Zookeepers heard two cheetahs purr contentedly last week, just 45 minutes after the cats were introduced to their new habitat at the Naples Zoo.
The newest exhibit featuring two senior felines — one male, one female — will open Saturday to visitors.
"The move hasn't been nearly as stressful for them as we thought," said zookeeper Michelle Vicari.
The pair, ages 12 and 13, and weighing about 100 pounds each, join the ranks of big cats at the zoo that now boasts lions, leopards, tigers and cougars.
These cheetahs were hand-reared in captivity. The female was born in the Netherlands and the male was born in South Africa, Vicari said. They've lived together for the past six years, first at a conservancy in Florida and then at Busch Gardens in Tampa where they saw limited visitors on small tours.
"They haven't been display animals," Vicari said.
The cats ate two meals on their first day at the zoo Wednesday and seem to be settling in, said Pam Krol, director of development and marketing.
On Monday each lounged in the shade behind a screen that hid them from visitors, flicking furry tails in the air and turning their heads at sounds from neighboring creatures.
"They look like they've been here forever," Krol said.
In their past homes, the cheetahs lived next to a couple of meerkats, but have shown an interest in the nearby striped hyenas and alligators, the roaring lions and the primates, Vicari said.
"We think the male cheetahs has a crush on our female tiger," joked Vicari, who has noticed the two staring at each other across the way. "She's very exotic to him."
Director David Tetzlaff said the zoo's newest additions are exciting for Naples. The exhibit is sponsored by the Daily News.
"Cheetahs are a species we haven't had (at the Naples Zoo) in 40 years," Tetzlaff said. "We haven't had them here since I was a kid."
While cheetahs are known to sleep up to 15 hours a day, their enclosure is one that gives visitors a clear view from any point along the fence.
In the wild, the cats can run at speeds of 70 miles per hour. In the zoo, they eat about three pounds of meat each day and are learning to come when their names are called for feeding time indoors. The zoo maintains a policy of not releasing the names of its animals so visitors can't confuse or disturb them by calling them out.
As opening day for the exhibit approaches, keepers are getting to know the cheetahs.
"He's gregarious," Vicari said. "She's a bit more sassy. Her trust has to be earned for sure."
The exhibit will open to VIP members Thursday, followed by a member preview Friday. The public will get to glimpse beginning Saturday.
"These need no introduction," Tetzlaff said. "It's a great opportunity for people to see another beautiful creature,"