orphaned wallaby or teach a hungry ocelot kitten to drink milk? It's all in a day's work for Blakely, the resident baby animal whisperer at the Cincinnati Zoo's nursery. Oh yeah, and Blakely is a dog.How would you like to cuddle an
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Two years ago, the keepers at the nursery decided to look for a dog who could help them raise the baby animals in their care. The zoo has been successfully pairing adolescent cheetahs with dogs as playmates for 30 years as part of its Cat Ambassador program, which introduces trained big cats to the public to educate people and raise awareness about endangered species. The nursery only takes in new babies who need extra attention. "We don't pull animals from their moms unless there is a problem," explains keeper Michelle Smith. "If they are doing good, we leave them be."
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Often, the problem is that the newborns aren't getting enough to eat. While the keepers can painstakingly teach them how to nurse from a bottle, Blakely has a quicker method. He drinks milk from a bowl and lets the babies suck it off the fur around his snout. Eventually they learn how to lap from the bowl themselves by watching him. "He teaches them things we humans can't," says Smith. "It's animal language."
The zookeepers did their research and settled on an Australian Shepherd, a breed that is both keenly intelligent and laid back. They adopted Blakely when he was 8 months old from a rescue group. He spent six weeks in foster care with a family who owned a therapy dog, and he aced a battery of temperament and personality tests.
Blakely's first ward was Savanna, a tiny cheetah. Her brother had died and her mother had stopped caring for her. Even though Blakely was a rambunctious 18-month-old, he instinctively knew to lie down and let the cub climb all over him. When Savanna needed comfort, he would snuggle her gently. Since then, he's helped to raise many other species, including a wallaby, a skunk, a bat-eared fox, and a warthog. He recently helped rear Santos, a spunky ocelot who graduated from the nursery into the Cat Ambassador program on Tuesday.
As the animal babies grow up, Blakely knows to be frisky and wrestle with them more playfully, which is important for their development. "He's always good at reading their boundaries," says Smith. Since the animals will remain in captivity, the keepers are careful not to tussle with them using their hands, which could lead to dangerous bites and scratches for the keepers and trainers when the tiny creatures become powerful adults. Blakely can give them the roughhousing they need safely. If they get too fierce, he nudges them or simply gets up and walks away. "He teaches the babies the right way to play pretty fast," says Smith.
Blakely's days aren't all work. Every morning he gets a long walk through the zoo before opening hours and then returns to the nursery for a nap on his futon in the back office or, if someone is sitting at a computer, on a human lap. When he's not busy taking care of the babies, he has another stroll around the zoo to greet visitors. "He loves kids," says Smith. "He has the biggest tail wag when he sees children." When asked to describe his role at the zoo, Smith doesn't hesitate. "I'd say rock star. Zoo rock star."
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