CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Cincinnati Zoo officials have brought in a nursery dog in as a surrogate parent to five premature cheetah cubs after the loss of their mother.
Willow, mother of the five cubs born via a rare C-section procedure at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden on March 8, passed away Tuesday.
Zoo officials said vets were hopeful that the five-year-old cheetah would make a full recovery following surgery, but remained lethargic and stopped eating.
"Willow was able to contribute to the survival of her species by producing five cheetah cubs. Without the C-section, we likely would have lost both the mom and the cubs," said Thane Maynard, Director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
Her cubs have been receiving critical care around the clock in the zoo's nursery since they were born.
The head of the zoo's nursery says the cubs are opening their eyes and have been eating better in recent days.
Zoo officials said nursery staff have been bottle-feeding the premature cubs every three hours and closely monitoring their weight. They have brought in Australian shepherd "Blakely," to provide snuggling, comfort and a body to climb.
Blakely is the zoo's resident nursery companion and former nanny to several zoo babies
As the cubs grow, Blakely's role in their development will shift to teacher and role model, zoo officials said.
The cubs (three boys and two girls) will remain in the nursery for at least 8-12 weeks, according to zoo officials. After that, they will be hand-raised and trained to be cheetah ambassadors.
Cheetahs are endangered, and their population worldwide has shrunk from about 100,000 in 1900 to an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 cheetahs today.