WEIRD NEWS
07/07/2011 12:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

60 MPH Cheetahs Race At New San Diego Safari Park Show (VIDEO)

Talk about making a fast buck: A nature park near San Diego is hoping to attract visitors by letting them get up close to watch cheetahs run.

The San Diego Safari Park (formerly the Wild Animal Park) just started holding nightly cheetah runs, in which four of the fastest land animals on Earth sprint down a 330-foot track chasing a stuffed animal or other toy that is pulled by a machine.

The runs started July 2 at the park, but are already a hot ticket with visitors because the chance to see a cheetah run up close at full speed is very rare. Certainly, it's not being offered at other zoos.

But you have to be quick on the draw to see the big cats in action, according to park spokesman Rick Schwartz, who said the runs start around 5 p.m. nightly and end about six seconds later.

"The first two steps they're running at a 40-mile-per-hour clip, but they're running at 60 miles an hour by the third or fourth step," Schwartz told AOL Weird News.

The park had previously tried to do a similar run -- not a race, because the cheetahs don't race each other -- that was offered at a higher price than regular admission, but Schwartz said it was "cost-prohibitive."

"Also, we had to figure out where to put a 100-meter track," he laughed.

The park currently has 23 cheetahs, but only an elite force of three 2-year-old cheetahs participate in the runs. A different cheetah runs each night.

"These are animal ambassadors who've been around people since they were born," Schwartz said. "This is important because, in the wild, if something is staring at you, it's usually hunting you, so they have to learn to deal with people staring at them."

Some of the visitors sit as close as 7 feet to the cheetahs, close enough to feel the wind they create as they pass by.

There are three cheetahs that are trained to run off leash for the run: Amara, Johari and Shiley. While they are typical of the breed, Schwartz admits there's no way to be sure if they are truly the fastest cheetahs.

"However, the average person probably doesn't notice that much of a difference between a cheetah running 60 mph and one running 70 mph," he said.

Some have suggested that the cheetah run is exploitative and is reminiscent of greyhound racing, in which the dogs chase a mechanical rabbit around a track while people bet on the animals.

However, Joy Wolf, the park's director of operations for guest experiences, quickly dispelled those notions. She told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the cheetahs run one at a time and that there is no gambling. Most important, she said, is that the cheetahs love to do it.

"The difference is cheetahs do run this fast to catch their prey," she said. "This is normal behavior for cheetahs. What we're doing is allowing them to do this behavior. The cheetahs don't have to run. If the cheetah doesn't want to, the cheetah doesn't have to come out of the container."

Schwartz said getting the cheetahs up to speed took several months.

"We had to do a lot of 'lure play' to see which toys each cheetah would respond to and chase," Schwartz said. "One of them really loves a plush green octopus, which you don't usually find on the savanna."

If visitors are lucky, sometimes a cheetah does an extra run for fun.

Schwartz said the cheetah runs are a good way to relay information about the creatures, including the fact that, despite their incredible speed, it's not unusual for them to have their food stolen in the wild.

"That's because they expend so much energy running down their prey that they have to rest after killing it and, sometimes, a hyena or lions comes in and takes it."

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