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Bring on the cheetahs to zoo

Lake Oswego residents have key roles in the new Serengeti exhibit
by: Vern Uyetake, 
From left, Oregon Zoo director Tony Vecchio and Lake Oswego residents Teresa Delaney and Dave Bell look at the display for the zoo’s upcoming Predators of the Serengeti Exhibit that recently broke ground. Delaney is a trustee for the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which holds it annual run on Oct. 14 at the zoo. Bell and his wife spent two years working with the CCF in Namibia, Africa.

Why should you never play poker with the world's fastest land animal?

Because they're cheetahs.

And, in 2009, local residents won't have to travel far to see some of the big cats (although a game of Texas Hold 'Em is probably out of the question). When the Oregon Zoo's new Predators of the Serengeti exhibit opens, it will feature cheetahs, lions, wild dogs and other rare species of animals, most of which are native to the African desert.

Currently, it is estimated that there only 10,000 to 12,000 cheetahs left in the world, making the species endangered. The zoo is starting to replenish its collection of big cats. The facility has not kept lions since 1997 and recently brought in cougars and bobcats.

But it is the cheetahs that many zoo enthusiasts, including director Tony Vecchio are extremely excited about. Vecchio and the Oregon Zoo have long been supporters of the Cheetah Conservation Fund and Vecchio himself used to be a cheetah keeper.

'Our (cheetahs) probably haven't been born yet. We are starting to bring in more big cats because we constantly get asked about it,' Vecchio said.

Vecchio has been friends with the CFF's founder, Laurie Marker for 28 years and has supported the program consistently, long before the possibility of displaying cheetahs at his zoo was even on the radar.

'Just because you don't have the animal doesn't mean you can't support it,' Vecchio said.

Marker started the Cheetah Conservation Fund back in 1991 when she sold the majority of her possessions and moved to Africa. Her goal was to promote education among local farmers so that they would stop shooting and trapping cheetahs that came on or near their property.

The fund also worked with the farmers, providing them with guard dogs to ward off the cheetahs. The program has been so successful that now farmers are calling the organization when they spot a cheetah so that it can be dealt with in a manner that doesn't result in its death.

Marker appeared on the Today show at the beginning of her campaign and her story caught the attention of Lake Oswego resident Teresa Delaney.

Delaney contacted Marker and is now a trustee with the fund and is instrumental in putting on some of the biggest fundraisers in the state for the organization.

'Every kid knows what a cheetah is. It's a very recognizable animal and to do a run for it seems perfect,' Delaney said.

The third annual Run for the Cheetah will take place on Oct. 14 beginning at the Oregon Zoo and it will be followed by the Sixth Annual Big Cat, Big Party dinner and auction later that evening.

At the events, two cheetahs will be on display. Delaney hopes that this year's Run for the Cheetah draws 1,000 participants for its 8K, 5K and Kid's Dash events.

A Cheetah Camp for children will also be held where kids have the opportunity to spend three hours learning about the animal and making gifts.

The zoo's numerous volunteers help put on the events which also began before it was known that cheetahs would be coming to Portland.

'We couldn't put on these events without the zoo volunteers. The Oregon Zoo has always done an amazing job supporting organizations like this,' Delaney said.

Delaney has had the opportunity to visit the fund's headquarters in Namibia, Africa and has seen the the good that comes out of its efforts.

'There are so many unique opportunities (through CCF). Every day is different,' Delaney said.

She has also been able to see cheetahs close up as has Dave Bell, a Lake Oswego resident who traveled to Namibia with his wife Jen as members of the Peace Corps.

During that time, the couple volunteered with the CCF for two weeks and was then asked to stay on for an additional two years.

'We were very lucky. The key is that the CCF works with the local populations and gets them engaged. This allows them to be part of the solution,' Bell said.

The CCF has been aided by a number of Oregon interns over the years and the fund accepts interns from the Northwest each quarter.

The Run for the Cheetah will be held on Oct. 14 with the Kid's Dash beginning at 8 a.m. The 8K starts at 8:30 a.m. and the 5K begins at 8:45 a.m. For more information, visit www.runforthecheetah. org or, for more information on the CCF, visit www.cheetah.org .