LOS ANGELES (AP) — It may sound like a West Side Story-style love story, but some dogs love big cats.
Cheetahs are the fastest mammals in the world, but they also are the world's biggest scaredy-cats — so much so that they don't breed easily and are in danger of going extinct.
Some zoos are introducing dogs to calm the skittish cats and bring attention to their plight. They're pairing "companion dogs" with some cheetahs to serve as playmates and to provide the cats with guidance.
"It's a love story of one species helping another species survive," said Jack Grisham, vice president of animal collections at the St. Louis Zoo and species survival plan coordinator for cheetahs in North America.
Or, to quote Stephen Stills, it's a matter of loving the one you're with, he said.
"It is all about comforting and reassuring the cheetah," said Janet Rose-Hinostroza, animal training supervisor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park — the top U.S. breeder of cheetahs in captivity. In the past 40 years, 135 cheetahs have been born at the park's breeding facility.
The cheetahs most often found at zoos and wildlife parks are not considered good breeding candidates, they don't relate well to other cheetahs, or they are abandoned by their mothers, Rose-Hinostroza said. But they seem to take easily to companion dogs and look to the dogs for play and example.
Of the 19 cheetahs at Safari Park, four have dogs. Four of the zoo's cheetahs also have dogs.
The dogs, usually from animal shelters, and cheetah pups generally are introduced when they are about 3 months old.
"In this relationship, the dog is dominant, but we look for dogs that want to be a buddy," Rose-Hinostroza said. "The dog always has the cat's back, but it's never the other way around. Dogs worry about their cats. They protect their cats."