As many of you know on 1st July 2017 Kikay the female cheetah at Wingham Wildlife Park gave birth to 3 beautiful cubs – 1 girl and 2 boys. Kikay was an exceptional mum, raising all 3 cubs with no issues what so ever, however sadly (through no fault of her own), the female cub, Willow, received what is known as a greenstick fracture – exactly the same as (and just as common as) the fracture of the same name in young children.
What is a greenstick fracture?
The name “greenstick fracture” (fittingly some times also referred to as a willow fracture), is an analogy to a living, young stick / branch. As you know when you try to snap a fresh branch or stick, it often won’t snap properly and still be attached but bent and fractured on the inside. When the bones of a young child or cheetah cub are still growing, they are also still somewhat soft and bendy (although not as extreme as a stick), which means that when a bone breaks, there is a good chance that it doesn’t break all the way through or just ends up being slightly fractured and bent.
In the case of a severe break such as that from a significant height, the bone would still snap, however if it is a very shallow fall / trip or if it happened during play (more like a stress fracture), this is when this type of break is most likely to occur.
How was this fracture treated?
Contrary to the information stated on the BBC2 documentary “Big Cats About the House”, this fracture was not treated by Giles Clarke at the Big Cat Sanctuary in Smarden. The dedicated team right here at Wingham Wildlife Park put in many hours (going above and beyond their usual working hours, caring for Willow 24 hours a day), and literal blood, sweat and tears in to nursing this charismatic and strong willed cat back to full health.
Willow had to be removed from her very protective mum when willow was about 2 months old, something which we wanted to avoid, however without removing her and treating the fracture, Willow would have been living in agony and the bones would have eventually healed in a malformed way. The decision was as such made to take her out of the group and treat her in the same way this type of fracture would be treated in human children – a removable splint. Sadly this did mean that she had to have restricted movement access for a little while and that we had to stop her as well as her mum and siblings from removing the splint.
The great thing about Willow is that she was with her mum for long enough to start to learn cheetah etiquette and to be close to being weaned off her milk. The bad thing about this was that she was a parent reared cheetah through and through… so changing the splint regularly with the help of our veterinary team at Burnham House Veterinary Surgery in Dover was interesting to say the least. This is where that blood, sweat and tears I mentioned earlier comes in!
Treatment of the fracture included regular feeding to keep her strength up. Whilst she was almost weaned she still needed a few weeks of milk which was slowly moved across from a bottle to a bowl which allowed us to then gradually introduce her to the joys of solid food. On top of this and the splint changes, she just needed plenty of love and of course exercise to make sure that she did not lose muscle tone in her legs… Cue Dolly the jackapoo! Not being able to play with her siblings, we introduced her to the next best thing – a jack russel terrier, poodle cross who is full of beans, super gentle and as playful as any cheetah cub could possibly be!
Dolly gave her both animal company and plenty of play / exercise to keep her fit and healthy, as well as getting her prepared for being reintroduced to her mum and brothers.
Why did she not go back to her mum?
It was always the plan for her to go back to living with her mum. We always knew that there would be a risk by taking her away that this would not be possible, but that wasn’t going to stop us from trying. We tried a few times however it became apparent that it was just not going to work, and as she no longer needed her mum for milk it was decided to move her to a new enclosure at our sister park, Sandwich Wildlife Park.
Kikay is a great mum and it wasn’t that she did not want Willow back. The problems came from her brothers whose playing and curiosity with their sister who they hadn’t seen for some time was far too boisterous. This meant that firstly there was a risk to her getting a repeated injury but also suddenly the boys were at risk because Kikay wasn’t going to sit around and let them get away with beating their little sister up!
Our staff at Sandwich Wildlife Park, especially Luke, Georgia and Lara, then took up the task of keeping Willow company and making sure she developed in to a well balanced cat, set up for a great future. By spending lots of time with her, even though she was in a new place with new keepers, she settled in very well and was a calm and beautiful cat – always playing with her keepers and feeding like a trooper. This is the true reason why she was able to settle in with Giles so quickly and build up such a beautiful bond – our dedicate keepers did the leg work for him. Had she been allowed to go straight in to her outdoor enclosure, as she was in Sandwich (her first time in an outdoor enclosure at the Big Cat Sanctuary was not her first time outdoors since her injury as had been claimed), she may have settled in even quick rather than having to first take a small step back.
So why move her to BCS?
There are a couple of points which we would like to stress on the subject of moving her to the Big Cat Sanctuary, another zoological institution in Kent who do great work with their animals. Willow was doing very well with us and we had all the time and resources she needed. As such we did not need the help of the sanctuary, and the move of one of the cheetah cubs to Smarden is something which was already agreed before they were ever born… and the reason for this is very simple!… And the reason was absolutely not because we needed help or she needed further rehabilitation (this was all done by us before she moved to the Big Cat Sanctuary) and she certainly did not have any psychological trauma follow her events.
Willow was born at WWP to her mother, Kikay, however the only other cheetah we have is Kikay’s sister – Asha. Her father is in fact a beautiful male called Bajrami who is part of the European Breeding Programme (EEP) at the Big Cat Sanctuary. As a stud male it was always agreed that the Big Cat Sanctuary would be entitled to one of the cubs, once older.
As mentioned above, Bajrami is a member of the European Endangered species Program (EEP) for cheetahs and as such all 3 cubs are also going to be joining this important captive breeding and conservation network.
So you can see that this was a movement which was always on the cards and as well as having had known about her arrival since before her birth we welcomed Giles to come and see her and how well she was doing at the start of October at which point we all started to make our arrangements for Willow to make her way to the Big Cat Sanctuary. Her health tests and confirmation of her leg being healed and ready to move were all agreed upon and after 26 days of waiting for Giles to be ready we got the call from him that he was ready to come and pick up this beautiful healthy girl, to start the next leg of her life at the Big Cat Sanctuary, as a growing member of the European breeding program for this incredibly vulnerable species.