A Fast Cat Takes It Slow -- for Him

Times Staff Writer

Majani was not at top speed Saturday, but he compensated for it with an extra dose of sociability.

Sleek and gorgeous at 130 pounds, 3-year-old Majani (which is Swahili for "grasslands") is a cheetah, a species of medium-sized cat that is considered the fastest land animal in the world.

Majani and his sister, Kubali, are stars of the latest exhibit at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park -- Cheetah Run Safari, which will open to the public April 2 and will offer visitors a chance to watch the furry blurs hit 60 mph in just 3.4 seconds.

But on Saturday, during a sneak preview for members of the media and selected VIPs, Majani appeared to be saving himself for the grand opening. He gracefully chased a lure resembling a rabbit over a rough course of about 100 yards, fast but hardly jaw-dropping.

Visitors leaned on a rail just a few feet away, cameras at the ready.

"We didn't see Majani at his best today," said animal trainer Mike Burke, "But I can look you in the eye and tell you that you've been closer to a running cheetah than nearly anybody else in the world."

After his run, Majani, on a leash held by senior trainer Janet Ramsay, posed for pictures as he cooled down.

Adventurous visitors petted him and got close enough to hear his husky purr.

"His fur is kind of rough, but he's very cool," said Jeffrey Richardson, 10, of Santee.

Jeffrey's father, Phil, agreed that Majani was only at cruising speed. "You could tell he had more kick in him," he said.

Kubali (Swahili for "to accept") is a faster runner but also more high-strung, less likely to sit still for petting and picture-taking, keepers said.

Wild Animal Park officials are hoping that the chance to see cheetahs up close -- as well as peregrine falcons (the world's fastest birds) and assorted small cats -- will prove a hit with visitors.

At $69 per person (in addition to the park's entry fee of $28.50 for adults), hourlong shows featuring these animals will be offered on Saturdays and Sundays.

In the wild, cheetahs are among the most endangered of the African mammals.

Once, cheetahs roamed a good portion of the continent; now, their habitat has shrunk to a few areas, particularly Namibia.

The zoo's Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species has made cheetahs a priority.

About 125 have been born at the zoo; most are later sent to other institutions. The zoo has nine cheetahs; the Wild Animal Park, located in the San Pasqual Valley 30 miles north of downtown, has two.

They may look ferocious, but cheetahs, particularly the males, have one of the more placid temperaments of the wild cats.

To give him courage, Majani has a canine buddy who goes everywhere with him, a retriever mix named Clifford. Majani takes heart when he sees that Clifford isn't afraid of a crowd of visitors.

"When it comes to fight or flight, cheetahs choose flight," Ramsay said. "They don't see humans as food."

Majani will do most of the appearances at Cheetah Run Safari. But sister Kubali will make a few.

"You should see her," said Debbie Morris of Ramona. "She's absolutely smokin.' "

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