I was pretty sure I’d get through this life without ever visiting San Diego, and I was okay with that. Much as I wanted to see its zoo, I’m not a Southern California vacation kind of person. Don’t like crowds. Don’t like sun. Don’t like beaches unless they’re the cold ones where you need jackets and ear muffs.
But then we were fishing for a vacation spot for summer and a friend was heading to San Diego and I happened to mention that to my son who happened to ask what’s there to do in San Diego and I happened to answer that they have what may be the most famous zoo in the world. And my son started flailing his limbs and nearly fell off the couch. How could there be a world-famous zoo, maybe the best zoo in the world, right here in our very own country that he had never had a chance to visit?
I was a little taken aback by his enthusiasm. I had no idea that he loved zoos quite that much.
Driving 21 hours to go to a zoo seemed kind of extreme to me. We do live in the middle of nowhere, but there are many closer zoos, including the also world-renowned Omaha Zoo. But I did a Google search to see what kinds of special things we might get to experience at the San Diego Zoo, and the very first thing that showed up in my search was Cheetah Run.
I’d seen this on the National Geographic channel: a cheetah gets off leash and performs a 100-yard dash chasing a lure. You are close enough to hear the pounding of cheetah feet on the grass. I did a little more Googling and discovered that you can buy a “Cheetah Safari” experience at the San Diego Zoo where you watch the cheetah do its run and then get a special meet-and-greet with the star of the show. You sit in a little enclosure and the cheetah is brought in and eats its treat right in front of you, mere feet away. You are close enough to hear it purr. You are close enough to touch it–though you’re not allowed to do that, of course. I nearly burst into tears at the mere thought of being that close to a cheetah. Cheetahs are my favorite animals (well, cheetahs and sloths), and while I was a little afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep it together (I was seriously tearing up in my living room just thinking about it!), I was now fully sold on San Diego too.
We were in San Diego for nearly a week, and things just happened to time out so that the very last thing we did before getting back in the car for the 21-hour drive home was the main reason we were going in the first place: Cheetah Run.
First, you meet a different animal ambassador. Our group got to meet a beautiful, sixteen-year-old serval. She looked quite spry for an elderly-ish cat (in captivity, they can live about twenty years). I was so overwhelmed by her beauty that I missed the first few minutes of the keeper’s talk, but I did tune in enough to learn that servals have the largest ears to body size ratio of any of the cats (if our ears were similarly large, they’d be the size of dinner plates!) and they can leap nine feet in the air to catch a bird!
And then it was time for the cheetah run. All of the cheetahs at the San Diego Zoo are paired with a dog companion, so first through the run was Hopper, a dog who works with two cheetahs at the zoo. One reason the dog runs first is to show the cheetah that it’s all fun and games, nothing to be scared of. Cheetahs are shy and skittish, and having a confident dog show them the ropes and confirm that the world is a fine place to be helps calm their nerves.
Hopper enthusiastically ran down the track. Kiburi, the cheetah, watched Hopper run, and then it was his turn. And it looked much like you would imagine: blink-and-you-miss-it speed. Kiburi was down the track after his favorite stuffed animal in 6.1 seconds. At the end of the run, he lay in the shade cooling off and clutching his stuffed animal in his mouth.
And then it was time for the meet-and-greet. The trainer led Hopper and Kiburi into the enclosure and we all tried to sit up straight, as we’d been asked to, so Kiburi would feel less threatened by us. He was able to relax a bit, I suppose, and eat his raw meat treats, but he was on high alert the whole time, eyes constantly scanning the horizon. Hopper was right there to help Kiburi feel safe, and the cheetah frequently looked at the dog.
I discovered that it’s basically impossible to take a bad photo of a cheetah. Like all the big cats, they’re ridiculously photogenic. I tried to remember to put the camera down, too, and just be in the moment. The whole experience lasted about 45 minutes. 42 hours of driving for less than an hour of cheetah? It might not seem like it could possibly be worth it, but it was.