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Best friends with a purpose: Cheetah has a ‘therapy dog’ companion at Turtle Back Zoo

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Posted: Feb 4, 2020 11:47 AM

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    WEST ORANGE, NJ (WCBS ) -- There’s an unusual pairing at the Turtle Back Zoo in New Jersey: A cheetah and a domestic animal. They have bonded over their love of play and more.

But as CBS2’s Meg Baker found out Monday, it’s not just fun and games.

What do you get when you mix a puppy with a predator?

Comfort.

“Bowie” the Labrador retriever helps ease “Nandi” the cheetah’s anxiety, her loud purring signaling she is at ease.

They’ve been together since they were just a few weeks old,” explained Charlotte Trapman-O’Brien of the Turtle Back Zoo.

Cheetahs are so shy that zoos around the country are giving them their own emotional support dogs. Bowie and his cheetah sister have been inseparable for more than a year, wrestling in the snow and sharing toys.

“Bowie has a very important job here, which is to be, kind of, her confidence builder. So cheetah’s are naturally skittish by nature, so one of the things that allows us to bring her out and do educational presentations like this is having Bowie by her side,” Trapman-O’Brien said.

Nandi looks to Bowie to make sure everything is okay and that she is safe. Bowie has similar training to that of a therapy animal.

“We do need him to be calm. That’s his whole job with the cheetah. So no matter what else is going on, if something startles her, she needs to look to him, and he needs to be calm. So he’s been exposed to a lot of different environments. Part of the reason he comes home with us at night is to get him exposed to all different scenarios: Car rides, honking cars,” said trainer Samantha Wegman.

These best friends have a greater purpose. There are less than 7,000 cheetahs left in the wild in Africa. Part of the program at Turtle Back Zoo is to educate people and inspire them to protect these big cats.

Dogs are also used in the wild to protect cheetahs, which hunt in the daylight so are often blamed by farmers for killing livestock. Trained dogs keep the cheetahs safely away.

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