Last week, the National Zoo's cheetah siblings Carmelita and Justin got a post-Christmas treat when a hapless deer hopped into their enclosure.
Zoo veterinarians are examining the deer's carcass to make sure there was nothing wrong with the unlucky animal (before it was eaten). Some other folks are examining a different sort of issue raised by this incident. As a person going by the username Suzanne L put it:
I heard this story last week, but it didn't occur to me until this morning - if the deer could get IN, couldn't the cheetahs -- well, you know where I'm going with this!
Cheetah cub keeper Regina Bakely prepares to catch a cheetah cub as it climbs out on to a limb as two cubs make their public debut at the Smithsonian National Zoo on July 24, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)
Prior to Rusty the red panda's escape from the National Zoo this past June -- recall, our cuddly Houdini was later discovered frolicking in a bar-filled neighborhood not far from home; this not long after a female vulture named Natalie had an unauthorized soar around the zoo parking lot -- we might have scoffed at the question. Today, we asked zoo spokesperson Devin Murphy to weigh in.
Murphy told HuffPost by email that "All of our exhibits are built for safety," and there's little chance Carmelita and Jason -- who were born via a risky c-section in April 2012 -- would be able to get out.
"The cheetah exhibit has a moat around it. It’s not a moat filled with water like the lion and tiger exhibits; it’s more like a deep gully," Murphy said. "The deer that jumped into that exhibit didn’t jump horizontally into the exhibit, it jumped vertically down into the exhibit. It was kind of like jumping into a bowl. It’s much easier to jump into a bowl than to jump out of it. Because to get out of it you would have to jump up."
Murphy added that the exhibit "also has a 12 foot fence around it, and it has hotwires. Cheetahs are built for running on flat planes, so they don’t jump very well. That exhibit is built to let them run, but it’s extremely unlikely that a cheetah could ever jump out of that exhibit."
It's not, though, unprecedented for cheetahs to make a break from captivity. Three cheetahs "crawled through a hole in a fence then swam across a protective moat" before being recaptured at a New Zealand zoo in 2010. In 2007, a year-old cheetah "scaled a wall at least 10 feet tall" then "got into a rocky area that separates animals from people" at a St. Louis zoo's "River's Edge" exhibit, built to mimic the animals' natural environment.
"River's Edge is a very safe exhibit," zoo employee Jack Grisham told the Associated Press at the time. "This is one of those freak things that happens."
That no one seems to have been hurt during any of these previous escapes is reassuring, and it is even possible to survive a cheetah's attentions -- just ask Adam Sandler:
But it turns out what's not such a freak thing is a daredevil deer wandering where he or she oughtn't to be in Washington. A week before the cheetahs got their Christmas venison, another deer was reportedly spotted in the National Zoo's elephant enclosure. We don't know what happened to that one, but it's probably not awful, since elephants are vegetarian. (Well, mostly vegetarian.)
Lions, however, are not. In 2009, horrified onlookers -- and one guy with a video camera -- watched while two of the National Zoo's lions fatally attacked a baby deer who'd made a wrong turn into their den.
The Washington Post reported at the time that zoo spokesperson Pamela Baker-Masson, using language that might not hold up given recent events, "described the incident as highly unusual."