Cheetah cubs born March 8 at Cincinnati Zoo have a new guardian: a male Australian shepherd named Blakely who was called upon to bond with the five newbies after their mother died.

The cubs were born in an unusual way, delivered by C-section from their 5-year-old mom Willow. But, sadly, Willow passed away within two weeks, as weakness and loss of appetite overtook her after the procedure.

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Now it’s up to Blakely to be the cubs’ best bud, as the little ones tumble all over and about him in their nursery home at the zoo:

“His first job is to let the cubs climb on him, which they did as soon as they were put together,” said Dawn Strasser, head nursery keeper at the zoo. “They need the exercise to build muscle tone and get their guts moving,” she added in a press release.

Blakely’s no stranger to being a nanny of sorts at the zoo. He’s hung out with foxes, other cheetahs, ocelots, and even a warthog.

“In essence, Blakely is a nursery worker, helping interact and play with baby animals,” the zoo’s executive director Thane Maynard told “It’s cute and fun, and yet in terms of those babies growing up, that socialization is an important thing.”

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For their part, it’s so far, so good for the little cubs, who have been under critical care since birth, receiving bottle feedings from staff and stepping up on the scale for frequent weigh-ins.

“They really turned a corner this weekend,” Strasser pointed out. “They opened their eyes, had good appetites and, most importantly, they pooped!”

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The plan is for the cubs to remain in the nursery for about two to three months. Once they’ve grown up a bit, they will be hand-raised and trained to become cheetah ambassadors at the zoo.

Then, presumably, Blakely will be assigned new duties in his companionable life.

Cincinnati Zoo is one of just a handful of facilities participating in cheetah breeding programs, and every new cub counts. Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are the fastest land animals, but they’re also disappearing fast, with just fewer than 7,000 remaining, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of threatened species.