Linda Castaneda is lead trainer for the Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program, which gives demonstrations of the cheetah’s incredible speed and brings the cats to area schools for presentations.
What’s the biggest challenge of working with cheetahs?
That they are big scaredy-cats. They can see three miles. That means they notice everything in their environment and they tend to worry about it. Sometimes it’s simple things like a cardboard box. You are constantly convincing them that everything is ok.
What characteristics do you need to be a cheetah trainer?
Patience. If you say, “Let’s go,” and they are like, “I’m looking at this other thing,” you have to wait them out. A lot of people think that training is dominating an animal. For a cheetah, if you try to bully them, they shut off completely.
Have you ever been hurt by any of the cats?
I was holding a bowl [of food] and the cheetah got too excited and mistook my finger for a piece of meat. I don’t think he even realized he did it. I did, because it hurt.
They are big scaredy-cats. You are constantly convincing them that everything is OK.
What is the biggest misconception people have about cheetahs?
Most people confuse them with leopards. They think they are big, aggressive animals that are trying to get you at every chance they can. When people see us in with the animals, they ask if I’m scared. I trust the amount of training we’ve put into these animals, and that we understand their quirks.
What’s the most common question you get about your job?
People assume that I don’t have an education to do this. I have a bachelors in biology, an associate’s degree from the Exotic Animal Training and Management program [at Moorpark College], and a master’s in zoology.
Do you need that much education to be a zoo trainer or a keeper?
The bachelor’s is the new normal. It shows a commitment. Animal care takes a lot. Someone is here every day of the year, even the weekends. We often overnight with our animals when they are young. I was there when the cubs were born during a C-section to help. I got handed a cub and went to give her to our nursery staff. They told me to shake her to get all the fluids out of her body. So I had to shake her alive. I was like, “I’m not qualified for this.”
What did you do before working with animals?
I was teaching high school biology. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t my passion. I always wanted to [work with animals] but I just didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t even know this kind of job existed.
Is the job what you expected?
Every so often I look around and think my life is weird. We’re in the office having a meeting and we hear lions roar. To us, not a big deal. We’ve accepted our fate that our life doesn’t fit the mold. We have to be mindful if we are out at lunch that we aren’t talking about [animal] poop in the middle of the restaurant. Our day is discussing fecal matter.