The African wild and suburban backyard have combined to form an unlikely friendship at Canberra’s National Zoo and Aquarium.
An extremely rare case for cheetahs, four-month-old Solo was born exactly as his name suggests – without any siblings.
As mothers have difficulty producing milk for single cubs, zoo keepers Aline Ijsselmuiden and Kyle Macdonald began hand-raising him at a few weeks old with 24-hour care.
They have barely spent a moment away from Solo since his birth, even sleeping next to him in a room beside the enclosure.
“I would wake up three times a night to feed him,” Ms Ijsselmuiden said, adding the joke that it was great preparation for childbirth.
“We had to keep it a secret for a while while we saw how it all went, so I’m pretty exited I can finally tell everyone.”
But the trainers soon realised that humans could not provide the affection he needed to properly develop his social skills.
And what screams affection more than a puppy?
The trainers set off to a private dog breeder in the NSW town of Dubbo.
And so blossomed the unlikely friendship between Solo and Zama, the Border Collie cross Belgian Malinois.
They chose a poppy because unlike a kitten, it will grow to a comparable size of a cheetah.
But not all dog breeds are able to handle the fastest animal on earth,.
“Zama will have the energy and the stamina to somewhat keep up,” Ms Ijsselmuiden said.
“Some other breeds can damage their ligaments easily if they try to.”
A Border Collie’s intelligence also makes them extremely trainable, a trait Ms Ijsselmuiden says Solo has learned from her buddy.
“Solo has learned from Zama and loves her – if she’s not around she will call for her,” she said.
“It’s a very close friendship.”
Solo to join breeding program
While it is all fun and games for now, Solo will take on a new role to help protect the critically endangered cheetah species when he is old enough.
Habitat lost has left cheetahs dangerously close to extinction, with an estimated 7,000 left in the wild.
Solo will join the zoo’s four other cheetahs taking part in the region’s breeding program, while funds from the meet-a-cheetah experience will go towards conservation efforts.
Ms Ijsselmuiden said Solo’s friendship with Karma goes beyond providing a cuteness overload for visitors.
It is crucial preparation for Solo to take up his breeding role.
“Having a best friend slash puppy will help his development, so it’ll allow him to play and run around as they would normal as he can’t do that with us,” she said.
She said it is not the first time an Australian zoo has turned to a domestic animal to provide companionship for a sole cub, but they usually separate earlier.
“I think that there are not a lot of zoos that will try the friendship into adulthood, but that’s definitely our plan.”
“It is a lot nicer for everyone if they get to grow up together.”
But if they do grow out of their friendship, Ms Ijsselmuiden said Zarma will be adopted to a regular human home.
Currently, Solo and Zama can only be viewed through private encounters organised through the zoo or by Jamala Wildlife Lodge guests.
They are expected to be moved to public display in the coming months, when their larger display is built.