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At Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's Cheetah Run habitat, the cats are a nose away

TAMPA

A teenage cheetah flopped on the ground in front of Tammy Martinez and batted his black eyes.

"Your eyes are amazing," said Martinez. "Ohhh."

The big cats were just getting to know their new habitat, a grassy knoll at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay called Cheetah Run. The cheetahs sniffed the ground and pressed their noses to the glass pane splitting them from the fanny pack crowd.

Martinez, 49, joined other moms from Orlando to admire the cats while their kids acted as extras in a park commercial. Ride operators and construction workers took breaks to coo. The cheetah handlers flashed thumbs-up signs through the glass.

This was good practice. The cheetahs needed it.

Cheetah Run opens Friday, along with Cheetah Hunt, the park's new coaster designed to mimic the speed and motions of the animals. Fourteen cats will rotate through the grassy space in small packs, doing scheduled sprints down a 250-foot track, playing with each other and lounging for the pleasure of tourists.

The habitat faces the mammoth, twisting roller coaster, which is surprisingly quiet on its track. But there's no stopping the screams of riders whizzing by at 60 mph. To get the cheetahs ready, keepers have been exposing them to recordings of ambient theme park noise.

Critics aside, the park stands by the positives. The cats are endangered, with only about 12,400 left in the wild. Busch Gardens aims to educate people who come to the park for fun, spreading a conservation message. The habitat will include interactive screens with cheetah facts.

Busch Gardens opened in 1959 as a bird garden. Now it has 2,500 different animals mingled with the rides.

"We have a lot of people who only know us as a coaster park," said park spokeswoman Jill Revelle. "They don't realize we have animals."

The park's 14 cheetahs have come from South Africa and White Oak Conservation Center near Jacksonville. The biggest boon has been an explosive bomb of cuteness — a baby cheetah named Kasi acquired when its mother at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens couldn't care for it. Adding to the fluffy hysteria, the park adopted a puppy pal for the cheetah named Mtani.

The cats all live inside the climate-controlled space where the park's Clydesdale horses used to live. They will only interact in designated packs. The cheetah and the puppy, for instance, will never hang out with other cheetahs. Early bonding for cheetahs is powerful, and keeping them separate minimizes risk of attacks.

Kasi and Mtani have done a media blitz, including a stop by The Tonight Show. Since they've only really known park life, they'll be the attraction's "ambassadors," interacting with guests on the sidewalks. On leashes, of course.

But it won't be tough to see the others.

Cheetahs are somewhat lazy animals, and who can blame them? They get up to 60 mph in a flash, exhaust themselves and seek delicious nap time in a shady place. Busch Gardens positioned that shady place right in front of the viewing areas.

That equals cheetah in your face.

Cheetahs take in the surroundings as they are released into their new habitat, Cheetah Run.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Cheetahs take in the surroundings as they are released into their new habitat, Cheetah Run.

If you go: Busch Gardens

Other attractions: The African-themed park has more choices for roller coaster enthusiasts. SheiKra is a floorless plunge coaster; Kumba offers a smooth ride that features a distinct roar; the floorless Montu flips, dips and zips; Gwazi is two wooden coasters "with crossing speeds of 100 miles an hour."

For kids, check out the Sesame Street Safari of Fun attraction.

Adults who are roller coaster averse can try the Congo River Rapids. 3605 Bougainvillea Ave., Tampa. Admission: $83.45, $72.75 ages 3-9, but check buschgardens.com for online deals and packages. Toll-free 1-888-800-5447.

Coming up: Busch Gardens should find plenty of fans for its new Animal Care & Nutrition Center, scheduled to open this winter. Park visitors will be able to observe animals behind the scenes getting fed and undergoing checkups and even having surgery. The nearly 16,000-square-foot facility will be built where the rhino exhibit is now in the Nairobi area.

At Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's Cheetah Run habitat, the cats are a nose away 05/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 27, 2011 3:36pm]

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