After a couple of false starts, the Cincinnati Zoo is building cheetah facilities in Warren County.
The project, off Mason-Montgomery Road, north of Mason, is the latest development of the zoo’s 700-plus acres east of Interstate 75 in Warren County.
Plans for the cheetah run — which are expected to be used to show off the exotic cats for fund-raisers, VIPs or other special events — were approved by county officials earlier this month.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Gene Steiner, whose family farm borders the zoo land on Mason-Montgomery and Hamilton roads in Turtlecreek Twp. “It’s going to become more and more of a public property.”
The zoo already has a 24-acre wetlands, beekeeping, greenhouse and organic farm fields and facilities, on the donated land, north of Mason.
Previous plans for the zoo’s endangered species to live and breed on the land off Hamilton Road, south of the Ohi0 63 exit at I-75, were abandoned in 2017. Two sites, including a cheetah recovery center, were considered.
The larger project was expected to cost $1.5 million, including $1 million in state funds.
Development north of the site, on Ohio 63, including a large industrial park, racino and outlet mall, changed zoo officials’ minds.
“It made us nervous,” said Mark Fisher, vice president for facilities, planning and sustainability for the zoo. “That’s why we took it off the table.”
The state funding was also reduced, according to Fisher.
Plans now call for a 200-yard run to be encircled by a 10-foot fence, south of existing zoo facilities on Mason-Montgomery. Two “climbing-shade structures” and a small parking lot are also planned on the land, which extends east to Ohio 741.
The cheetahs continue to breed and run on a farm in Clermont County.
The zoo is expected to limit access to the Warren County run to 12 to 15 visitors at a time for 30 to 60 minutes. The cheetahs would be transported in a special zoo van.
“These are the same cheetahs we take to elementary schools on a leash,” Fisher said.
Neighbor Daniel Danase expressed concern during the June 18 hearing about the exotic cats’ proximity to his children.
Steiner, who raises 100 head of Hereford, Angus, Simmental cattle, said he was unconcerned.
“We have much more of a threat from a coyote in that valley than we will ever have from a cheetah,” said Steiner, also chairman of the Warren County Agricultural Society.
Plans call for the run to be installed for $150,000 late this summer on part of the 529-acre Bowyer Farm “willed to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden with the guideline that it could never be developed unless it is to further the mission of the Zoo,” according to the zoo website for the Warren County properties.
While overseeing construction of the cheetah run, zoo officials are working with county officials on bringing primitive camping to the site.
Campers would “get away from drywall and wood studs for a night” in private, primate camps, Fisher said.
Down the line, Fisher said he envisioned a trail system connecting facilities.
On Wednesday, the county issued letters notifying the zoo about the decision to allow the cheetah run. Construction can commence, following a 30-day period for appeals.
Other than the specialty fence, Fisher said the project would be completed by Jim Clark & Sons Excavating, a Warren County business.
“At the earliest we would be running in the fall, but it could be next spring,” he said.
For the fleet cats, the undulating topography will be more challenging than the Clermont County run, according to Fisher.
“Flat’s nice. That’s not the way it is in the wild,” he said.
A local farmer, Bud Shappacher, is growing alfalfa, Timothy hay and browse trees for zoo livestock on 10 acres off Mason-Montgomery.
Despite urging from county officials, nothing like the Columbus Zoo’s Wilds park is in the plans.
One day, Fisher said he hoped a 5k trail through the property could be used in sanctioned races.
“We’re excited to bring a little slice of the zoo to the county,” he said.