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10 Questions for Chris Pfefferkorn

by: L.E. BASKOW, Chris Pfefferkorn, the Oregon Zoo’s general curator, has a particular fondness for cheetahs.

Dr. Doolittle he may not be, but Oregon Zoo general curator Chris Pfefferkorn loves animals.

'I have as much fun at the insect zoo as watching the sea lions get fed,' Pfefferkorn says. 'They are all fascinating to me.

'But I do like the cats - the cheetah a lot. I'd be interested in working with cheetah the rest of my life, if I could.'

The Oregon Zoo has two of the exotic animals on hand, Scooter and Suseli, who arrived from their home at the Wildlife Safari Park in Winston on Sept. 1.

The zoo also held a fundraiser, 'Big Cat, Big Party,' for the Cheetah Conservation Fund recently, helping raise awareness for the plight of the animal. Only about 12,000 wild cheetahs remain, primarily in south and east Africa. The zoo has raised more than $180,000 over the years for the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

The Tribune talked cheetahs, animals and the job with the 44-year-old Pfefferkorn, a Peoria, Ill., native:

Tribune: Are cheetahs the most exotic animals you work with?

Pfefferkorn: That's a hard question. The wild dogs and lions are very exciting with their different behaviors. I've worked with cheetah in the wild, and I'm excited to have them here.

Tribune: What makes cheetahs so special?

Pfefferkorn: They're the fastest land animal, up to 70 mph, and they're the only cat whose claws don't retract. They have feet more like a dog. I like the way they look - very sleek, with tear patterns with black lines down the face.

Tribune: Is the zoo equipped to allow them to run?

Pfefferkorn: They run to catch food, not necessarily as part of their health. Running that fast takes a lot out of them, they need eight hours to recoup. They can't eat right away, and a lot of times their food is stolen by lions or hyenas; during that time, it's pretty vulnerable. … We're looking at different options to get the cheetah to run. You can do coursing lines, or cables, but sometimes they trip over the cables. What we do is an enrichment program, put things around the exhibit, like meatballs or different scents, and it gets them to explore their exhibit, helps to condition them. They do need to exercise. We want to stimulate their existence, have them jump around, walk around things.

Tribune: How do we bring back their population?

Pfefferkorn: The cheetah were hunted for their skin, and the recent problem has been contact with farmers, (because farmers fear) they prey on cattle and things like that and are killed on site. (Repopulating) takes work in the field, working with local governments and people to educate them. The cheetah don't typically prey on livestock; but (people) have to leave antelope for them. They need land. It's hard to teach a carnivore to live in the wild. We, as zoos, need to educate ourselves in the plight of the cheetah and what they need and give conservation support for people in the wild.

Tribune: What are current projects at the Oregon Zoo?

Pfefferkorn: We're working on an orangutan exhibit, where they're able to go outside for first time ever. We have a new indoor facility, and the outdoor yard will also be for the white cheek gibbons (an Asian primate), who do hand-to-hand travel through trees. It should open up next spring. … With our current (voter-approved) bond project, we're getting a lot of stuff done. An offsite elephant facility has been looked at. We're going to renovate the polar bear exhibit. There's a lot of renovating of old exhibits. We're working on building a new vet hospital.

Tribune: What's your job entail as general curator?

Pfefferkorn: I like interaction with animals, and people. Every day is different. It's what I like about the job. I oversee the whole animal collection, developing new exhibits, redesigning or renovating old exhibits, making sure animals are in good social situations - for them to reproduce, if they need to reproduce - bringing in new animals, education, guest services, working with the Oregon Zoo Foundation for donors.

Tribune: Is it tough when animals die?

Pfefferkorn: It is, but not as much as it is on the keepers. They spend as much time working with the animals as with their families. They build relationships and bonds. It's like losing a family member.

Tribune: The zoo had a record year, with 1.6 million visitors. Thoughts?

Pfefferkorn: It's our product. They can come to the zoo and learn and see cool stuff, and have fun with picnics, concerts, photo and kids classes and education programs. With the economy, we're still a really good price activity. … With our new predators exhibit, people can make a connection with conservation work being done in the wild; 25 cents of every dollar of admission goes to a fund to help animals in the wild.

Tribune: How many elephants do you have?

Pfefferkorn: Seven. Packy, born in 1962, is our oldest right now. Samudra was born in August 2008. We've had more Asian elephants born here than any other zoo - 27.

Tribune: Anybody protesting at the zoo these days?

Pfefferkorn: I've seen two, around the elephants, but they've not been big. We do a good job of educating the public, so they know what the real story is. I haven't seen them have any effect on anything.