NFL players race Busch Gardens cheetahs in Nat Geo show

TAMPA — It wasn't your typical matchup.

National Geographic pitted two of the fastest football players, Chris Johnson and Devin Hester, against cheetahs from Busch Gardens to see who could cross the finish line first.

The race was part of a television show for Nat Geo Wild called Man v. Cheetah, premiering at 9 tonight 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. Park visitors got to watch as two cheetahs, Jenna and Nave, competed against Johnson, a running back for the Tennessee Titans, and Hester, a wide receiver and kick returner for the Chicago Bears.

Nat Geo created a 220-foot-long course with a 10-foot-tall wall separating man from beast. The athletes may be brave, but they weren't out of their minds. Imagine a player getting hurt during a run-in with a wild cat? That probably wouldn't be covered in a multimillion-dollar contract.

The production team set up about 20 cameras along the course to capture every angle. 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 did a 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).

"I didn't think it was crazy," Johnson told USA Today in a story after the taping. "I thought it was something fun to do, just to test human vs. animal."

Johnson didn't hesitate, he said, until he showed up and was told they had to build the wall higher because a cheetah jumped over the first one.

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.

"They are such iconic animals,'' Wittish said. "Maybe it's because of the way they look with the teardrops coming down under their eyes.''

Busch Gardens officials hope Man v. Cheetah 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.''

People close to the race aren't saying who won until the show airs. But Apostol from Nat Geo said the results may surprise. Cheetahs "are wild animals. They aren't trained monkeys and we didn't know if they were going to run or not,'' she said. "You have to wait to see what happens.''

Contact Susan Thurston at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.

.Fast facts

If you watch

Filmed at Busch Gardens, Man v. Cheetah premieres at 9 p.m. today on Nat Geo Wild as of part of "Big Cat Week,'' the network's most watched week.

NFL players race Busch Gardens cheetahs in Nat Geo show 11/28/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 29, 2013 9:48am]

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