Zoo plans for cheetah facilities in Warren County on hold

Discussions have begun on a nearby location

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has put plans to move its cheetah breeding facilities to Warren County on hold, while a different location is considered.

Zoo officials met on Friday with staff from the Warren County Regional Planning Commission about relocating the cheetah recovery center and a run where the cats chase lures - and land speed records - during public viewings, Stan Williams, executive director of the planning commission, said Monday.

RELATED: Cheetahs another attraction to “Ohio’s Largest Playground.”

The facilities, along with trails and ponds, would be located on a new proposed site of more than 600 acres the zoo owns nearby at Mason-Montgomery and Hamilton roads, rather than at Nickel and Hamilton, as previously planned.

“They have some funds to use. They are trying to decide how best to use the funds,” Williams said.

No formal plans had been submitted.

More details could emerge, once staff in the county planning office meets with zoo officials again on Thursday, Williams said.

Both proposed sites are on land held by the zoo in Turtlecreek Twp., south of Ohio 63 and near the Butler-Warren county line.

The land is also near the Miami Valley Gaming racino, Cincinnati Premium Outlets mall and other development near the Interstate 75 interchange at Ohio 63.

The cheetah facilities, along with a wetlands, apiary, organic farm and gardens, are viewed as another tourist attraction in the self-proclaimed “Ohio’s Largest Playground.”

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Michelle Curley, communications director for the zoo, confirmed the plan to locate the facilities near Nickel and Hamilton roads had been placed on hold, but was unable to provide details.

“I do know that the scope of the project has changed. Therefore, the move is on hold while we consider our options,” Curley said via email.

Curley indicated she would provide more details, once she discussed the change with zoo officials.

This newspaper learned of the change of plans, while questioning delays in completing a safety plan required before construction - which was to begin last year - can get started.

Last week, Mike Bunner, director of emergency services for Warren County, said it had been at least four months since zoo officials responded to his request for information needed before he can approve the safety plan needed for the work to begin.

“I’ve reached out to them multiple times,” Bunner said. “I don’t know if they are busy with other stuff… They just have not taken advantage of my offer.”

In June, zoo officials said they were moving forward with plans to move the cheetah recovery center, despite the response to the killing of Harambe, an endangered silverback gorilla on May 28, 2016. There was no mention of the other potential site.

RELATED: Zoo director: Shooting, killing gorilla was right call

The shooting of Harambe triggered a massive outcry, going viral on the internet and forcing the zoo to focus on responding to this crisis.

“I know Harambe set them back quite a bit,” Bunner said.

The approved zoo plan showed 10-foot fences, cantilevered at the top, buried 3 feet in the ground and electrified, in a secluded area within about 600 acres donated to the zoo.

Video surveillance was to enable the caretaker to keep an eye on the entire compound. As many as 16 cheetahs were to breed and raise cubs in the 750-foot by 240-foot rectangular “containment” area.

In addition to cheetahs, hoof stock, small cats and birds were to be permitted under special zoning rules established for the zoo project.

Before approving a safety plan, Bunner said he lacked answers to questions such as who would be responsible if a cheetah escaped from the facilities and what the zoo would do to bring the big cat home.

“How do they track it?” Bunner said.

In addition, Bunner said the plan needed to specify the type of fencing used to corral the cheetahs and the policy for weapons, while identifying “critical perimeter security,” as well as policies for training, traffic control, after-hours operations and “site evacuation lockdown.”

For example, in case of a tornado or other bad weather, “how are they going to secure these animals?” Bunner said.

On Friday, there was no sign of activity at the site at Nickel and Hamilton, near a wetlands, apiary and organic garden and farm already established on other former farm land in Warren County donated to the zoo.

Plywood covered the windows of the old farmhouse on the Bowyer Farm that was to be renovated as part of the project. Abandoned tires were piled near a collapsing barn and other discarded trash was strewn in the driveway east of the intersection.

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