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Sold out audience watch live cheetah dissection in Camden Town

The New Journal sent reporter Tom Foot to see what was going on at the Royal Veterinary College

18 November, 2016 — By Tom Foot

The event was described st a once in a lifetime opportunity to see what makes big cats tick

TICKETS for a live show in Camden Town generally mean catching a rock ’n’ roll band in the back of a pub.

But away from the drums and guitars, a venue with a slightly different offering was raising the sold out signs: a live dissection of a cheetah.

At the Royal Veterinary College, a 250-strong audience watched a professor try to work out the secrets of the fastest cat on Earth, and what had caused this particular cheetah to die.

The air in the stone-floored auditorium was thick with a putrid stench of death mixed with the pickled, vinegary smells that take you back to a secondary school science lab.

On the demonstration table at the college in Royal College Street, lay the cheetah, skinned and ready for the scalpel.

Team Cat, a group set up with funding from UCL and the Leverhulme Trust, has been dissecting all kinds of cats for the past three years as part of its research, ranging from “tiddly” two kilo house cats, up to tigers and lions which can weigh up to 400 kilos.

From the outset, Team Cat told ticket holders that there was “no shame in feeling sick” and leaving for some fresh air.

And so began the process, the cheetah in front of them having been loaned for this unique event from an unnamed UK zoo. Around 50 sat in the room on an arc of wooden benches, with another 200 watching a live stream on a big screen in another section of the college, the Great Hall.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see what a cheetah looks like on the inside,” said the RVC’s Professor John Hutchinson, before answering the first, perhaps easiest question of the night: “It’s already pretty obvious it’s a male cheetah – there are the testicles.”

There had been a strong security presence outside, following a small protest a fortnight earlier over animal research in the building in Royal College Street. The audience were told they could not take photos of the dissection in case they were shared inappropriately online.

“It is all about respecting the animal,” said Professor Hutchinson.

Over the next couple of hours, an eyeball went pop, the tongue was removed, and so on. It was not for the squeamish. – and not necessarily the perfect night out for a cat-lover, like myself.

One of the dissectors, the RVC’s Dr Andrew Croft MBE, explained what he was doing.

“Next I will be taking out the tongue,” he said.

“Cats’ tongues are really rather raspy – very different to dogs’. You will know that if a cat licks you, it is quite different to when a dog is licking you. You might not like to be licked by a cat, of course, that’s entirely up to you.”

He added: “As we go back, getting my fingers out of the way, we have a little bone at the back of the tongue. And then there’s the hyoid. If you come to a dead body and you find the hyoid has been broken, it probably means the body has been strangled.”

“We are looking at what makes cats different from other animals, and how does a big cat behave compared to a smaller cat,” said Professor Hutchinson.

“There is also a mystery, still, in science. Mammals generally tend to grow from crouching postures to become more straight-legged as they get older and heavier. But cats buck the trend. How do they manage that? It’s interesting.”

The professor, who was dissecting the rear-end of the cheetah, praised its “absolutely massive hamstrings”.

But back at the head Dr Croft was about to make what sounded like the discovery of the night after removing the skull.

“I can now take that off and we can see also, quite interestingly, the larynx and epiglottis. Look at that: those stringy things are the vocal cords. Look, they are black. I’ve never seen that before – they are dead.”

Cheetahs cannot roar, or even meow, and are known instead for their slightly pathetic chirping sound.

“Maybe this is why they chirp?” suggested Dr Croft.

Depending on your view of zoos, it may have been hard not to feel sorry for this tragic, vocally challenged cheetah, the fastest animal on the planet, who presumably had spent most of his life locked in an enclosure, without even the faculties to protest.

But it was hard, too, not to be impressed by the chirping of the audience to this most unusual event on our doorstep, much of which was made up of young students who, after a glass of wine and a bowl of popcorn at the interval, had looked on, enthralled.

The following day, the RVC announced that the dissection had “suggested the cheetah had died of a disease such as cancer”.

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