Can you train a cheetah to be your pet? Bonus: What is the least trainable big cat?

Image taken at Maasai Mara, Kenya by Kasha Patel
Image taken at Maasai Mara, Kenya by Kasha Patel

By Kasha Patel
BU News Service

Last May, Hein and Kim Schoeman shared their story of adopting two cheetah cubs to raise along with their 3-year old and 1-year old in their house in South Africa. Recording their experience in a documentary called “Cheetah House,” the Schoemans play fetch with the cheetahs, let the big cats ride shotgun in their car, and allow them to hang around their toddlers. It seems as if the cheetahs are like any other household cat or dog. But can cheetahs actually be trained to be a pet?

Yes, but it’s not simple.

People have long kept cheetahs as pets as a symbol of wealth, even to this day. The big cats are expensive, rare, and exotic. It’s illegal to own a cheetah in the United States, but, in certain areas, including the United Arab Emirates, some Western Asian countries, and in some parts of Africa, you can legally owned one. Yet just because it’s legal does not mean that owning a cheetah is easy, or a good idea.

Most animals, including big cats, can be trained to some extent, but cheetahs tend to have a comparatively tamer temperament than the others, largely due to their anatomy, said Dr. Laurie Marker, a world-class cheetah expert who founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia. Running at speeds of 70mph, cheetahs are built for speed, not strength, with a less muscular build and smaller head and jaws than other big cats. In the face of a potential conflict with a larger predator, the 110-pound felines will more likely run than fight back.

The technique used to train a cheetah is similar to that used for any other pet. Successful cheetah trainers hand-raise the cats during their formative months, starting when they are only a few weeks old. At the Cheetah Conservation Fund, Marker trains cheetahs through “affection training.” The training technique, developed by Ralph Helfer, replaces weapons like whips and guns with love and respect. With proper care and technique, cheetahs can be trained to perform certain behaviors, such as playing fetch, as the Schoemans demonstrated.

Cheetahs, though, have very specific needs, making them among the most challenging animals to keep in captivity. Marker, who has worked with hundreds of wild and captive cheetahs, said the cats require carefully monitored diets and an appropriate living environment. They need approximately four pounds of meat, including the bones, per day and special supplements of vitamins A, D, and E. At the Cheetah Conservation Fund, the captive cheetahs eat six times a week and fast on the seventh day to mimic the irregular food supply in the wild. Each cheetah also needs to regularly run— at least 2 acres of land for exercise for running in quick, short bursts.

Even if you if properly train your cheetah and meet its needs, you’ll never domesticate it like a dog. “Domestication is a process that takes hundreds of generations of domestication breeding,” said Marker.

That point was vividly demonstrated last year, when a Scottish couple visiting a private game reserve in South Africa tried to pet two trained male cheetahs. The cheetahs seemed tame and sometimes playfully licked visitors, but suddenly they attacked the Scottish woman, dragging her to the ground. The woman lived but needed bandages for wounds on her head, stomach, and legs.

“You can never assume that because a wild animal has received training, even extensive training, it is somehow now “safe” for humans to engage with,” said Marker.

Bonus explainer: What is the least trainable big cat?


Leopards are tree-dwelling animals and have a propensity to attack from above, according to Karl Mitchell, an animal expert with 40 years of experience providing exotic and domestic animals for film and live shows. They often spring from the trees with a deadly pounce on to their prey.

What Happened to the Atmosphere on Mars?

"Twin Cairns Island" from NASA Mars rover Curiosity
“Twin Cairns Island” from NASA Mars rover Curiosity


Scientists think early Mars used to be rich with water and had a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide. Today, Mars is cold and dry, lacking that thick atmosphere it once had. What happened? NASA scientists theorize that the atmospheric molecules might have gotten stripped off the planet and knocked into space through a process called “sputtering.” In “sputtering,” some of Red Planet’s ions rise to the top of the atmosphere and hit atmospheric molecules, lodging some into space.

Mars may be more susceptible to sputtering because the planet lacks an intrinsic magnetic field and ions can more easily swept away by the Sun’s large magnetic field. The Sun’s magnetic field is carried through the solar system by a stream of charged particles emitted from the Sun’s upper atmosphere called the solar wind. When the solar wind passes through Mars, the ions in Mars’ atmosphere can interact with the solar wind’s charged particles, rise to the top of the atmosphere, and crash into other molecules. (The solar wind can also interfere with the Earth’s magnetic field and cause power outages on Earth.) Several billion years of atmospheric molecules getting knocked, or sputtered, into space could explain the significant atmospheric change on Mars- especially since the solar wind is thought to be very strong at the beginning of our solar system history.


Animation of solar winds stripping off Martian atmosphere

Next Monday, NASA will test this theory by launching the first spacecraft to study the upper Martian atmosphere Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission is a year long mission that will provide data on the current rate of gasses escaping to space and will gather enough information about relevant processes to allow extrapolation to the early days on Mars. Scientists can use this data to observe how the red planet’s climate has been affected through time by the atmospheric loss of gasses. The mission will also give clues on the conditions for a planet to be habitable and not habitable, perhaps allowing scientists to use their findings to assess if sustainable life on other planets is possible.

MAVEN launches on Monday, November 18, 2013 between 1:28pm to 3:28pm EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. The spacecraft will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket built by Lockheed Martin.

What To Do After Watching a Scary Movie


Image from: Frightened Man / Shutterstock
Image from: Frightened Man / Shutterstock

By Kasha Patel
BU News Service

You’ve just binged on some of the scariest movies you can think of from The Shining to Psycho to Saw. And now you’re too scared to go in the bathroom because you might see “REDRUM” in the mirror. It was entertaining to be frightened during the movie, but you’d rather not be paranoid for the next few days. So what do you do next?

Don’t go to bed.

“It turns out that you are better off staying up than trying to go to sleep,”  Dr. Eric Hollander, professor of psychiatry at Montefiore/Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York, said in TIME magazine, According to the article, sleep “tends to consolidate and lay down traumatic memories.”

This tactic is also a good way to address more traumatic situations. The Israeli army, which has the lowest percent of soldiers with PTSD in the world, tries to “keep traumatized soldiers awake immediately after a difficult experience and engage them in warm social contact,” stated the TIME article. Both activities help reduce the risk of getting PTSD.

So, after watching your movie, don’t go to bed right away. Instead, it may be better to do something less scary, such as watching a funny movie or thinking happy thoughts about your day, before going to bed. Watch the “Behind the scenes” special feature if you have the movie on DVD. Talk with family or friends, although try to stay away from talking about how scary the movie was because then you may relive the frightening experience again.

A Volunteer-based Kenyan Healthcare System

By Kasha Patel
BU News Service

More information at

Children in the Ting Wangi district in Western Kenya
Children in the Ting Wangi district in western Kenya

Imagine you must visit 100 houses a month in your town. At each house, you spend time with the residents, asking how they are feeling and addressing any of their health issues. Then, you notice that their living conditions are very unhygienic. So, you teach them to wash their hands with clean water before eating and after using the bathroom. You teach them to wash and hang their clothing. You play a critical role in maintaining your residents’ health. Without you, the healthcare system will falter. But, you are not getting paid anything for doing this job.

That is the life of a community health worker in western Kenya.

Kenya is largely affected by HIV and malaria, but also struggles with getting people to go to hospitals and practice good hygiene in their homes. Six years ago, the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation implemented a new healthcare plan called the Community Health Strategy in order to improve the country’s healthcare outcomes. One of the changes from the new health strategy was the implementation of community health workers, which the Kenyans refer to as CHWs.

AUDIO: Jackie Atieno is a community health worker in the Butere district in western Kenya. After finding out she was HIV positive, she decided to publicly announce her status, but did not initially receive a lot of support from her peers. When her CD4 count went down, Atieno began antiretroviral therapies (ARVs) to help suppress the HIV virus. Now, Atieno helps other members of her community in revealing their HIV status to the public, motivating them to keep hope, and encouraging them to get proper treatment.

This past summer, I traveled to a rural town in western Kenya called Bondo and reported on the lives of a few community health workers. The reporting expedition was through a program called PamojaTogether with the Boston University Program on Crisis Response and Reporting. The reporting opportunity was great because it allowed me to actually experience what I learned about community health workers in my class at the BU School of Public Health. The literature told me that the community health workers are overworked, sometimes unhappy with their workload, and are not regularly paid, if paid at all. But I didn’t understand the number, gravity, or importance of their duties until I followed community health worker Millicent Akinyi Odhiambo around for few days.

After visiting her assigned households, Millicent Akinyi Odhiambo must fill out paperwork recording her visits.
After visiting her assigned households, Millicent Akinyi Odhiambo must record her visits in a large book.

Millicent is a community health worker in the Ting Wangi district in Kenya. She visits 99 houses a month and takes care of 454 people. She provides a myriad of services including checking the health of her residents, installing water sanitation systems by the bathrooms, and encouraging mothers to give birth in a clinic rather than the unsanitary conditions at home. On one day that I followed her around, she and two other health workers visited elementary schools in the area to administer Vitamin A supplements to pre-school aged children.

They walked to and from each school, which were kilometers apart. Because I was with them, they offered to get a bike to take us from each school. Wanting to experience an authentic day as a community health worker, I said no and walked with them for kilometers, in the blazing sun, with my long pants, for several hours, with no water. I could barely talk because I was tired and wanted to save my energy, but Millicent and her coworkers were walking, laughing, and enjoying the day. When we arrived at one school, the principal informed us that the elementary school children were not there because their teacher is out on maternity leave. They couldn’t find a replacement so they just told the kids to stay at home. We nodded, turned around, and walked back through the hilly, dirt roads for a few more kilometers.

After she completes her community health worker duties at 4:00pm every day, Millicent opens up her cloth store— her only source of revenue. Most community health workers are not paid for their duties as a community health worker. Sometimes, another country will provide foreign aid in the form of a small stipend to the workers, but it’s not consistent. For instance, Millicent is supposed to receive $2,000 a month from USAID (which is not enough to cover her expenses), but hasn’t received any money for months. But she still continue her duties because being a community health worker is an honor bestowed by the community.

Community health workers are either elected or appointed to the position and are members of the community they serve. After they are elected, they receive training and supplies from other countries such as USA, Norway, and Japan to help them carry out their duties. Community health workers are usually people that the community respects and can feel comfortable talking to about sensitive situations, such as their HIV status. For Millicent, as well as many other community health workers, the honor of being a community health worker and a genuine desire to help members of their community is their primary motivation.

A board hung at the Ting Wang Ministry of Health that shows the health statistics for the Siaya community over months.
A board hung at the Ting Wang Ministry of Health that shows the health statistics for the Siaya community over months.

And it’s working. In the Ashirembe area in the Butere district, community health workers have motivated eighteen out of twenty two mothers to give birth in hospitals in this past year. The Siaya district has also had measurable success with more mothers attending antenatal clinics (see picture to the right). When I talked to the community members, many were happy with their community health workers. Millicent loves working as a health worker. When she was asked to be a health worker, she was so excited because she’s always wanted to be a nurse.

It’s amazing to me that these community health workers do so much work and expect no pay, but I understand how it works after my brief but valuable time in Kenya. That is the culture in Kenya, at least in the area that I was in. Millicent and her fellow community health workers do the work because it’s an honor in their community. And to have an entire portion of the Kenyan healthcare system be based on volunteerism, well, to me, that’s impressive.

For more in-depth health reporting stories from the PamojaTogether program, visit

Recommended Reading: “The Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever”

Book cover of “Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever.” Image provided by

By Kasha Patel
BU News Service

As a science journalism student, I am taking the liberty of focusing more on the “journalism” aspect instead of the “science” aspect in this post.

We’ve all heard snippets of Lance Armstrong’s admission to doping. This Tuesday (10/15/13), WSJ reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell are releasing their book “Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, The Tour de France and The Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever” that takes a comprehensive look at how Armstrong’s career, including detailed accounts of how he and his teammates doped. To whet our appetite, WSJ released an excerpt of the book that people can read for free. And for me, it worked.

The book shows how the doping scandal was quite elaborate at times. In the excerpt, Albergotti and O’Connell write about a time when the U.S. team bus pulled to the side of the road, and the bus driver went outside with orange traffic cones, so the bus appears “broken down.” Inside the bus, though, teammates were taking turns laying on the ground connected to chilled bags of blood that were hanging from overhead luggage racks, asthe WSJ journalists reported. Blood transfusions are an illegal form of blood doping. The transfusions increase the number of red blood cells– the cells that carry oxygen to muscles– and does give cyclists an edge.

I was enthralled by this excerpt, not only because of the revealing facts, but because of the natural writing style. I found there to be seamless transitions between events in the past and not so distant past. For instance, in the bus scene, Albergotti and O’Connell are actually writing about Landis, one of Armstrong’s teammates, rehashing the experience to federal agents from the FDA and USADA (anti-doping agency).  After they describe the bus scene, they bring the reader back into that Marriott Hotel room where Landis is telling the story to the feds. The transition is natural and the imagery is strong, but not forced. I am picturing the story as movie in my head.

In the following video, Stephen Colbert interviews Albergotti and O’Connell about their book. The video is worth watching (at least to get a few laughs, if you’re not interested in the subject matter). And, for me, the book will be worth reading. After all, it’s a true story about scandal, betrayal, fallen heroes, and account’s from his ex, Sheryl Crow! And perhaps a good example of in-depth reporting and narrative writing.

Bing vs. Google [interactive graphic]

Bing vs Google

By Kasha Patel
BU News Service

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to work for Google. Walking into a place that has concerts at work, heated toilet seats, and goats “mowing” the lawn would be like walking into a party every day instead of work. Aside from the Googleplex, I am also a huge proponent of Google products. I even wrote a previous blog post showing a bit of my obsession with Google. So when I received my Microsoft Surface Pro that uses Bing as its search engine, I was not ecstatic, at all.

But what’s the big deal? They’re both search engines from reputable companies and give me accurate information. But I suspect that I’m not the only one who chuckles when I hear “Bing it” and prefers to use Google. (side note: don’t go inside a Microsoft store and ask how to change the default search engine from Bing to Google on your Microsoft tablet…I already did and got a few “Seriously?” looks and then found out that you can’t.) As biased as I may seem, I am a person of science and am willing to go where the truth leads me. If Bing is a better search engine for me, then I’ll use it. A study showed that Bing was chosen more often than Google. But that study had participants of all ages, did not consider specific goals of the searches, and made participants pick previously generated search phrases on one component. Most of all, I still felt like I wasn’t getting the results I wanted when I searched with Bing. So I did my own Bing vs. Google challenge on, a website that allows you to make blind side-by-side comparisons for Google and Bing search results. I performed 50 searches on BingItOn and found some interesting trends of when I chose Google and when I chose Bing. My trends may not be the same for you, so I’d suggest you try your own Bing it on challenge. But here’s what I found:


Out of 50 searches, I chose links on Bing 12 times, Google 25 times, and found both search engines were equal 13 times. For the most part, I could not tell which results were from Google or Bing from the layout of the webpages because the result pages looked so similar. There was a noticeable difference between Google and Bing when I searched recipes, news, facts about people like athletes, flights or music lyrics.

• Google seemed to have trusted websites higher (.gov or .org) in the search results than Bing. Bing sometimes gave or discussion forums a few links above the .gov and .org websites.

• I chose Bing the most often when I wanted to see a video. Bing puts all of the videos at the top of the search which is helpful when I am looking for music videos or clips. When I searched news pieces, Bing also showed video segments of the news that aired on the television.

Again, keep in mind that these results aren’t necessarily objective as this experiment was to find out which search engine suits me the best. For instance, I use Amazon and Expedia more than ebay and Kayak, hence I chose Google (which favors Amazon and Expedia) over Bing (which favors ebay and Kayak). Perhaps my notes will be able to help you decide which search engine works for you without performing and documenting 50 Google and Bing searches of your own. Although, it was more fun than I thought so, if you have the time, Bing/Google like crazy!

The IPCC 2013 climate report in pictures and videos

By Kasha Patel
BU News Service

Good Dog! Bad Dog!

Reporter Kasha Patel reports on what motivates animals to be good or bad, and how it’s connected to human behavior.

Can Prosthetics Sense Pain?

The Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), a brain-controlled prosthetic developed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, along with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Photo courtesy of Sarah Fortney for the U.S. Navy via Flickr Creative Commons.
The Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), a brain-controlled prosthetic developed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, along with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Photo courtesy of Sarah Fortney for the U.S. Navy via Flickr Creative Commons.

By Kasha Patel
BU News Service

Over 1,500 soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs. Many amputees are looking to prosthetic limbs, but will the prosthetic limb be able to feel pain, softness, or coldness like the real thing?

Yes, but not as you would expect.

Amputees who receive a mind-controlled prosthetic limb through a technique called targeted muscle reinnervation‎ (TMR) might feel sensation, but not in the expected body part. For example, if you touch the prosthetic arm of a TMR patient, he or she will not feel anything, but touch you touch the chest, the patient might think you’re poking the missing hand.

Annie Simon, a biomedical engineer who focuses on the control of artificial limbs, explains that when a person loses an arm, the severed motor and sensory arm nerves are still connected to the brain and are functional. The brain can tell the nerves to fire but because the nerves are not attached to anything, there will be no effect. However, if you touch the nerves, the brain will sense it.

In TMR, the unattached end of the nerves is rerouted and connected to the chest. Even though the nerves are connected to the chest, they still have the same function as before, which was to control the arm.

“The brain doesn’t even know that nerve has been connected to a different muscle. It’s sending out the same signal as if it was controlling a hand muscle,” said Annie Simon who works on targeted muscle reinnervation at the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute.

From the arm nerves on the chest, electrodes are connected to a device that produces an electromyogram (EMG) signal that eventually leads to prosthetic arm movement. While the message from the motor nerves is relayed to the prosthetic arm, the signal of the sensory neurons is not. Therefore, the person only feels sensation as far as the sensory neurons reach— and sometimes that means feeling hand sensations in the chest.

However at the University of Pennsylvania, Neurosurgeons Douglas Smith and D. Kacy Cullen are developing a technique in which amputees can control their prosthetic arm with their brain and feel objects and sensations with the prosthetic arm. In this technique, the amputee’s arm nerves are intertwined with graft neurons to extend down and connect to the bionic arm. The graft neurons are connected to an electrode in the bionic arm.

Incorporating sensory feedback into the prosthetic arm though has an inherent complication though. An amputee can relearn to pick up an object because the brain remaps the motor neurons fairly easily. The brain has a much harder time remapping sensory neurons and coordinating a sensory neuron with a specific sensation, as that is a much more difficult task.

To overcome that problem, the prosthetic arm has receptors called transducers that are programmed for certain sensations. For example, if a person says a particular electrode feels like the first finger on the left hand, then a pressure transducer would be connected and the brain would not have to remap any sensory neurons.

“If you have a prosthetic and you already programmed the sensory feedback, there is no training,” said Smith. With this brain-prosthetic interface, messages can now be sent back and forth between the brain and transducers on the bionic arm.

While the technology is promising, it is still in the experimental stage.

“Our [approach] is harder to do now because you can imagine how many connections you have to worry about, [but that number of connections] will dictate the ultimate function of that hand,” said Smith.