The big cat looks to the dog for help keeping calm in potentially nerve-racking situations
Man’s best friend is also a pal to the big cats of the planet.
At the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, New Jersey, more than 200 wide-ranging species are cared for by staff members. The resident cheetahs at the zoo, however, get additional (and surprising) support from another member of the animal kingdom — dogs.
Nandi is one of Turtle Back’s “ambassador cheetahs,” she makes appearances at events and schools to educate people on cheetah conservation efforts. The cheetah population in the wild has declined some 90 percent in the past century, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund.
To ease her anxiety, Nandi was raised with Bowie, a Labrador retriever who enjoys playing and scrapping with the cheetah on top of providing emotional support.
“Bowie has a very important job here, which is to be kind of her confidence-builder,” zookeeper Charlotte Trapman-O’Brien told WLNY. “Cheetah’s are naturally skittish by nature, so one of the things that allows us to bring her out and do educational presentations like this is having Bowie by her side.”
Trainer Samantha Wegman told the outlet that they expose the dogs to various scenarios in order to acclimate them to their special role as the cats’ steadfast rocks.
“We do need him to be calm,” Wegman said of Bowie. “That’s his whole job with the cheetah … no matter what else is going on, if something startles [Nandi], she needs to look to him, and he needs to be calm.”
On Nov. 23, the Turtle Back cheetahs — who also include Alvin, Simon and Theodore — celebrated their first birthday.
“Their first year has been full of fun new experiences, learning new things, and building strong relationships with one another and their trainers,” wrote the zoo in a lengthy post on Instagram, sharing photos of the cats’ growth.
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE’s free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories
Bowie turned 1 year old on Dec. 17, with the zoo commemorating the day by putting the adorable pup in a white-blue-and-gold “Happy Birthday” hat for a photo on Instagram.
“He makes sure that [Nandi] always feels comfortable and confident,” wrote the zoo staff in the caption. “Bowie is a very playful yellow Labrador retriever, who loves playing & wrestling with Nandi. He also loves learning new things, long walks (on or off the beach), & cuddling with his trainers. His silly, playful nature brings joy to everyone he meets.”
Of course, the cheetahs’ human companions are just as important as their four-legged friends. One zookeeper named Joanna wrote of her relationship with Theodore on Instagram, saying that there’s a “trust” shared between the two of them.
“Because of our relationship, Theodore trusts that I would never bring him into an unsafe or scary situation,” wrote Joanna. “Additionally, I learn about Theodore’s likes and dislikes, so I know how to show him he’s done a great job!”
She added: “Theodore loves his giant boomer ball, chew toys, learning new things, and quality time with his trainers. And I of course, love him!”