TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — National Geographic has pitted two of the fastest football players against cheetahs from Busch Gardens in Tampa to see who could cross the finish line first.
The documentary “Man v. Cheetah,” premieres Friday at 9 p.m. EST as a kickoff for the network’s “Big Cat Week.”
“We wanted to do something really different that would push our understanding of the animals and be something that was relatable,” said Jenny Apostol, the show’s executive producer. “We had no idea what was going to happen.”
The one-hour documentary was taped at Busch Gardens’ Cheetah Run exhibit in early May. Two cheetahs, Jenna and Nave, compete against Chris Johnson, a running back for the Tennessee Titans, and Devin Hester, a wide receiver and kick returner for the Chicago Bears.
The network and park created a 220-foot-long course with a 10-foot-tall wall separating man from beast.
The players and cheetahs couldn’t see each other during the race but ran simultaneously, one man and one cat per heat.
The filming was unscripted and done in a single take to avoid stress on the cheetahs — and humans.
“We didn’t do it again and again and again,” Apostol said. “We didn’t want to exploit the animals. We didn’t want to exhaust them.”
The race was part of the cheetahs’ routine conditioning. Trainers exercise the park’s five cheetahs — one male and four females — once or twice a day to keep them healthy and in good shape. Much like racing dogs, the cheetahs are trained to run using lures made of ostrich and parrot feathers that operate on a pulley.
“As soon as they see something move, they are on it,” said Laura Wittish, a zoo curator in charge of the park’s 12-person cheetah team.
Trainers have clocked Jenna and Nave running 62 miles per hour. That far exceeds the top speed of any two-legged runner, including Johnson, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds. (Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt has reached 27 miles per hour.)
Nat Geo reached out to Johnson and Hester specifically because of their reputation for speed (Johnson) and agility (Hester).
Nat Geo, the trademarked name for the National Geographic Channel, chose Busch Gardens for the documentary because of its experience with cheetahs. The network has worked with the park before on other projects but none this ambitious.
Busch Gardens has 16 cheetahs, all but five of them at the Wild Oak Conservation Center north of Jacksonville for breeding and R and R. Viewing of the cheetahs was limited to behind-the-scenes tours at the park until May 2011 when Busch Gardens opened its Cheetah Hunt rollercoaster and animal habitat area.
Jenna and Nave were born in 2010 at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre in De Wildt, South Africa, and came to Busch Gardens in early 2011. Jenna weighs 90 pounds, loves attention and often purrs and chirps (cheetahs don’t roar like most big cats). Nave, 85 pounds, is easygoing and comfortable in new situations.
Officials at Busch Gardens hope the show raises awareness of cheetahs and ongoing efforts to protect them in the wild. Due to habitat loss and hunting, many cheetah populations are considered endangered.
“When we did the filming, we had a lot of people who were interested,” Wittish said. “It’s important to have these animals around for generations to come.”
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