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Global first for SA cheetah

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Global first for SA cheetah

A two-year-old cheetah who had its paw mangled in a crude snare is to have a prosthetic one fitted in a ground-breaking operation by South African vets.

Betty-Blue was operated on at De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre, near Johannesburg, after being rescued from the iron jaws of the trap, which had clamped down on her left hind leg in Mpumalanga.

"She was brought in to a vet, who thought it was so serious it should be euthanised. But we are not big on euthanasia and decided we should give it a try," said project deputy director Vanessa Bouwer.

An expert wildlife vet, Peter Caldwell, amputated two of the normally fleet-footed big cat's toes as gangrene had already started setting in.

'Cheetahs in Southern Africa are at great risk from snares'
He later had to amputate another 10cm of its foot.

The staff at De Wildt then came up with an idea that had never been attempted before on a cheetah.

"We thought come on, we can improve its quality of life and give it extra mobility," said Bouwer, explaining how the idea to fit a prosthetic leg to Betty-Blue came about.

"Cheetahs rely on speed to hunt, so it would mean it couldn't be released (into the wild), but it would give it a reason to live."

Early next year, the animal physiotherapist who has been working with Betty-Blue and technicians will get together and "brainstorm" to design and fit its new leg in the first such operation for a cheetah in the world.

The cheetah has dumbfounded staff at the centre who are marvelling at how calmly it lies back and accepts medical care.

On a visit to the centre on Thursday, Betty-Blue was seemingly oblivious to the attendant who was changing the bandaging on its damaged foot, giving only a few disgruntled growls as its cast was placed back on.

"It's hard to believe it is a wild animal," said Marilyn Hull, the manager of the centre's education programme, after she helped dress the cat's wound.

Hull said she could remember only one other wild animal that had had a prosthetic leg an elephant.

Cheetahs in Southern Africa are at great risk from snares, often set by farmers trying to protect their livestock or laid by hungry people in the hope of catching antelopes.

There are only about 1 000 cheetahs left in South Africa, while populations in Zimbabwe have also plummeted due to traps set by desperate and poverty-stricken citizens setting traps in the hope of catching food.

The spotted cat is the fastest living land animal, reaching speeds of up to 120km/h.

Hull said there was no known incident of a cheetah having killed a human. - Sapa-AFP

This article was originally published on page 5 of The Star on December 22, 2006