‘Cheetahpult’ helping speedy residents stay fit

Darlene, one of the Oregon Zoo’s two cheetahs, loves to chase balls launched by her ‘cheetahpult.’

A custom-made contraption has catapulted the Oregon Zoo’s cheetahs toward a new level of fitness. Dubbed the “cheetahpult,” it’s an 8-foot wooden device that flings a ball far enough for a cheetah — the fastest land animal on earth — to chase. After more conventional ball launchers fell short, the cheetahpult was designed and built by staff members with the zoo’s speediest residents in mind.

To watch the cheetahpult in action, visit http://bit.ly/cheetahpults.

“I tried hitting balls for them with a tennis racket, but I could tell they wanted to run farther and faster,” said Beth Foster, a keeper at the Oregon Zoo and one of the designerst. “Now that I can fling the balls to the far end of their habitat, everyone’s having a lot more fun.”

The cheetahpult is a hand-cranked machine that launches lightweight plastic balls up to 150 feet into the cheetah habitat in the zoo’s Predators of the Serengeti area. Foster sets it up outside of the habitat and sends the balls inside, where Darlene and Mary Jane, the zoo’s two cheetahs, chase and retrieve them. When they’re ready for another round, they drop the balls in a bucket.

“In the wild, cheetahs run very quickly in short bursts,” Foster said. “The cheetahpult is a great activity for them because it brings out those natural behaviors.”

Foster worked with the zoo’s maintenance staff to design and build the cheetahpult, which has been through several rounds of cheetah-approved testing.

Cheetahs are able to reach speeds of up to 70 mph. These stealthy predators are threatened by habitat loss, poaching and hunting by farmers concerned about their livestock. There are around 12,000 cheetahs left in the world, down from as many as 100,000 just 100 years ago.

As part of the Metro family, the Oregon Zoo helps make greater Portland a great place to call home. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Oregon silverspot and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects focused on saving animals from extinction include studies on polar bears, orangutans and cheetahs.

The zoo opens at 9:30 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Visitors who travel to the zoo via MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit trimet.org for fare and route information.

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