Do Cheetahs Hunt Or Kill Humans?
Cheetahs are animals that are revered by many for their perceived athleticism and grace. Being considered ‘big cats’ by many, they can also be feared. Their height and spotted appearance gives them the look of leopards or jaguars that are undoubtedly dangerous to approach. However, in zoo settings, cheetahs are often interacted with more often than other big cats.
They can be seen being walked on leashes in demonstrations at zoos that normally don’t practice ‘unprotected contact’ with large carnivores. Are cheetahs less dangerous than other big cats and do they attack humans?
What Makes a Big Cat ‘Big’?
Felids are a diverse family, but people often spontaneously call any non-domesticated feline a ‘big’ cat, even though some species are closer to the size of housecats. Some smaller species include the black-footed cat, African wildcat, and sand cats. Taller species like caracals, servals, and bobcats should still not be considered big cats.
Cheetahs are also not considered to be big cats or ‘great cats’ by those more familiar with the animals. While these terms are not exactly a scientific classification, it should be noted that tigers, leopards (including snow leopards but not clouded leopards), lions and jaguars all exist under the genus Panthera, which is a genus within the felidae family. The scientific name of the cheetah is Acinonyx jubatus, a separate branch in the phylogenetic tree.
- It is a common belief that cheetahs are ‘big cats’ in the same vein as lions, jaguars, and tigers because they are bigger than the small cats millions share their homes with. ‘Big cat’ should logically refer to members of the Panthera genus.
- These species also have in common their capacity to quickly and easily kill humans due to their sheer size and power.
- Cheetahs are different. Their lean stature and style of hunting that involves tripping, rather than overpowering their prey, make human fatalities or serious injury with this species rare.
Do cheetahs attack humans and are they dangerous to have as pets?
It's common for animal rights activists to push their agendas of shutting down zoos and the pet trade by pointing to the danger of holding exotic animals in captivity. In doing that, they do a disservice to the public's perception of carnivores, leading to their euthanasia in the wild when their habitat extends into human-populated areas.
In general, most large carnivores do not want to hunt or hurt humans. Most wild animals are shy and want nothing to do with us. A few fatalities have occurred in captivity when animals not used to human contact attack people who accidentally or intentionally end up in their enclosure, which is their 'territory'. Attacks by any animal have a motivation and are not actually 'unpredictable'. Fatalities from big cats in captivity are rare, occurring 0-3 times a year in the United States since the 1990's.
Cheetahs are rare in the private pet trade because they are expensive and delicate, but they are well represented in accredited zoos and keepers regularly enter their enclosures with only a rake for protection. While cheetahs are typically shy animals that prefer not to confront intruders, there are a few recorded incidences of cheetah attacks and some fatalities.
Cheetah attacks are extremely uncommon. Most or all incidences have occurred in captivity.
Fatal Cheetah Attacks
As of 2017 I could only find two recorded fatalities resulting from cheetah attacks. One fatality was a young child, which a cheetah is easily capable of killing, however the child was not killed instantly likely due to swift intervention. While any fatality is unacceptable, it should be noted that another small child was killed in a similar fashion, by a pig. Small children are extremely vulnerable around large animals, 'wild' or not.
The other fatality was, surprisingly, a grown woman who foolishly entered a cheetah enclosure without permission. There were probably multiple animals involved in the attack, making them more dangerous, and considering the mentality of someone who would perceive the bigger cats as tame animals that could be casually played with, she could have been comfortable enough to greet the cats on the ground where one could have easily grabbed her neck.
Toddler mauled to death by a captive cheetah
March 18, 2017: 3-year old Jacob Pieterse was attacked by a cheetah while playing outside at filmmaker John Varty’s Tiger Canyon, a tiger breeding facility in South Africa. It was reported that a 'large amount of alcohol' was smuggled into the compound, and the gate that blocks the cheetah from entering was carelessly left open. The attack caused extensive injuries to the victim's head and neck. He died of his injuries on the way to the hospital. As a result, a 2.4 meter electrified fence will be constructed around the compound.
Woman mauled by cheetahs at a Belgium Zoo
February 13, 2007: At the Olmense Zoo in Northern Belgium, Karen Aerts, age 37, was killed by cheetahs in their enclosure. One of the cheetahs in the exhibit was one she had 'adopted' through the zoo's donation program and she paid for the animal's food. It is believed that she hid in the park after hours and found the keys to the cheetah's enclosure. While an animal rights group accused the zoo of being unsafe, the victim's decision obviously had an important role in the incident.
Non-fatal Cheetah Attacks, are cheetah encounters dangerous?
All animals can bite as long as they have teeth. Cheetahs are one of these animals and plenty of incidences of cheetah 'attacks' have been documented and even captured on camera. It is evident, however, that much of these incidences make headlines because the animal involved is mistakenly perceived to be a 'big cat' or 'great cat', which is often sensationalized because real big cats are much more dangerous and capable of killing a human quickly.
As previously discussed, cheetahs are very different from lions and tigers and most able-bodied people can fend off their 'attacks' which are often general play or rambunctious behavior from young individuals, not much different from the hundreds of cat videos on Youtube where toddlers and adults are pounced upon by their much smaller pets. Cheetahs and house cats express play behaviors intermixed with predatory instinct which is how they learn to hunt.
The notion that these 'attacks' are due to cheetahs being 'wild animals', which is often repeated, makes little sense, as all cats perform these behaviors (although some scientists consider housecats to be non-domesticated).
In fact, all animals of a certain size are capable of causing harm and domestication has nothing to do with it. Cheetahs that have been socialized with humans are also not wild animals.
Wildlife center owner attack by 2 cheetahs
In 2008, Judy Berens, owner of Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Wellington, Florida and one of the few private owners of cheetahs in the United States, was conducting an exhibition with two cheetahs when one 'got excited by a bouncing ball'. One cheetah pounced on her, biting and clawing and the other cat joined in at some point. Berens stated she only needed a few stitches, a couple staples, and antibiotics. She said the attack was "no big deal".
Sensationalized video of reporter bitten by cheetah
British tourist attacked by 'pet' cheetahs
In 2012, Violet D'Mello of Aberdeen of Scotland was attacked by cheetahs on April 28 while in a petting pen at a game reserve near Port Elizabeth in southeastern South Africa. It was reported that she was trying to protect a little girl that was grabbed from another family. There were photos taken of the incident that were widely circulated showing her bloodied and on the ground. She said she was playing dead. She suffered injuries to her head, stomach and legs.
"They weren't being vicious," she told the newspaper. "You could tell they were just excited, but it became serious very quickly.
"It all happened so fast. After his sister was free, another boy tried to make a run for it.
"As I stopped him, something jumped me from behind."
Adam Sandler almost attacked by a cheetah
In 2013 during the filming of the movie Blended, famous comedian Adam Sandler was pounced upon by a cheetah which was quickly pulled off the actor. He was not injured.
Another video of a mild 'attack'
3 Incidences in 2017
As cheetah attacks are rare, it has been a strange coincidence that there have been 3 attacks, one fatal, occurring in African compounds by captive cheetahs within the same year before even the midpoint. This has led to people calling for an end to captive cheetah encounters. The fatal incident involved a small child, but the other attacks were relatively minor.
In April, Peggy Lio was visiting the Emdoneni Lodge in South Africa when a cheetah “tried to bite her” as she tried to break free from its grasp. She did not need medical treatment after the attack.
“I asked a couple of the employees from Emdoneni Safari Park If I needed to go to see a doctor and get an injection, but they said I don’t need to because the cheetah has had a rabies injection before.”
Peggy Lio footage
This same cat went on to attack another tourist the next day.
14 year old Isaac Driver and his family were touring the park when they, within a group of 20 other tourists, were permitted to pat two cheetahs, supervised by tour guides.
As the group left the enclosure, it was reported that one of the cheetahs walked through the group before pushing the teen to the ground with "full force".
"[It] pushed through a few different people, caught my daughter's top, ripped all her top, and then landed on my son as he was facing it ... and pushed him to the ground," Driver's mother said.
Driver's dad grabbed the cheetah and held it to the ground freeing his son. Driver said he can't wait to show off his cheetah attack scars to his friends.