05/10/2013 07:51 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

The Problem With a 'Cheetah House'


I have to say, when I first saw the clip on ABC News of Hein and Kim Schoemans' young children playing with cheetah cubs in their home, I was concerned. I am concerned every time I hear about families like the Schoemans, and sadly there are many. However, when I heard more about the story of how the Schoemans had acquired the cubs, and their plans to star in an ongoing documentary about their family with the cheetahs, I was shocked and disappointed.

There is, of course, the obvious issue whenever someone decides to keep a wild animal as a family pet -- cheetahs are wild animals with wild instincts and though they are cute and cuddly as cubs, they are potentially deadly as adults. While it is true that cheetahs have been kept as pets for millennia by pharaohs, nobles and princes, they are not usually given such close access to children. As someone who has bottle-raised cheetahs from cubs, I can't recommend keeping them as family pets around young children, no matter how well-versed the parents are in animal care.

But it goes deeper than that. What the Schoemans have done, in separating these cubs from their mother, and choosing to highlight them on a television show, simply undermines worldwide conservation efforts on behalf of Africa's most endangered cat. The Schoemans decided that the mother cheetah that had birthed the cubs in a litter of four could not care for all of them. Although I don't personally know the circumstances of the cheetah in question, the fact of the matter is that cheetahs in the wild regularly care for four, six, or sometimes even eight cubs at a time.

Moreover, removing the cubs from their mother at such a young age has tremendous repercussions for the animals as they grow up. The ABC News report suggested that the Schoemans were going to train the cats to hunt and then send them back into the wild. I have been researching the topic of re-wilding captive cheetahs since 1974, since I first brought a captive cheetah named Khayam to Namibia from Oregon to see if she could be taught to hunt. My experience and research in this field has demonstrated that cubs that are separated from their mothers when they are very young do not get the opportunity to learn necessary survival skills, which are not limited to just hunting, and thus re-wilding a captive cheetah is not an easy proposition. I have worked with nearly 1,000 cheetahs over the course of my life, and only a little more than a dozen of those orphaned at a young age have ever successfully been re-wilded after having been in captivity. The claim by the Schoemans that they are going to send the cheetah cubs back into the wild worries me, to say the least.

Most important of all, however, is that this depiction of a happy family with cheetah pets provides cover for a very dangerous threat the cheetah is facing -- the illegal pet trade. The truth of the matter is that one of the biggest threats to cheetah populations in Africa is the fact that too many people want them as pets. Cheetahs are notoriously hard to breed in captivity, and when there aren't enough captive-bred cheetah cubs to feed the extraordinary demand, particularly in the Middle East, poachers will take these cubs from the wild.

Cheetah Conservation Fund has been tracking the illegal trade in cheetah cubs since 2005. Last year, we received reports of 117 cubs taken from the wild as part of the illegal pet trade; only 13 are known to have survived, and incidents are on the rise. Smugglers who take cubs out of the wild have no idea how to care for these animals. They are shipped in tiny crates, with no food or water. Because of the horrific conditions in which the cubs are kept as they are transported to be sold, five out of six cubs that are taken as part of the illegal pet trade die before they ever reach the point of sale.

Even after they are sold to their new owners, keeping a cheetah is no easy task. Cheetahs are the most unique of the big cats, and require highly specialized veterinary care. As the keeper of the International Cheetah Studbook, a registry for cheetahs kept in captivity, I frequently receive accounts of pet cheetahs that are raised without proper nutrition, kept in inadequate facilities, and improperly utilized as "hunting companions." The images I see of some of these animals, some barely able to walk because of malnourishment, others with unnecessary ailments and injuries, break my heart. I am, in fact, visiting the United Arab Emirates in late May for a lecture series, and will connect with organizations in the hope that we can educate people there about this issue and to teach those that are already keeping cheetahs how to care for them properly.

I am sure the Schoemans love cheetahs, and love their children, and are doing their level best to do right by the cheetahs in their home. But there is a bigger picture, and a bigger responsibility that they are missing. Cheetahs are not appropriate pets, and much less for children. Cheetahs are wild animals, and our desire to keep them as pets is killing them. There are only 10,000 wild cheetahs left on the planet, and we are loving them to death. The race is on to save the cheetah from extinction, and documentaries like this trip us up. The Schoemans may not believe it, but their choice to publicize their pet cheetahs will fuel the demand for pet cheetahs, and many more cubs will die.

Mother's Day is this Sunday in the United States. Cheetah moms raising cubs in the wild already have it tough -- human wildlife conflict and habitat loss have already decimated the cheetah population by 90 percent in the last 100 years. The Schoemans and their "Cheetah House" have just made it tougher.