WALNUT CREEK -- At a Nov. 17 Big Cat Quick Draw event at the Bedford Gallery, the only thing not moving at lightning pace is Tango, a 6-year-old, 90-pound adult cheetah capable of running 70 miles per hour.
Arranged in a line across a vestibule -- just 10 feet from where Tango's lanky frame sprawls across an eight-foot table -- artists invited by gallery curator Carrie Lederer furiously sketch or paint. They're racing to capture the animal before them within the one-hour deadline; pencils scratch, brushes swirl, paper is tossed, brows furrow.
Behind them, a crowd of nearly 75 people push to get a better view while peppering Project Survival volunteer Jennifer Costales with questions. Is the big cat sedated? Can I pet him? What does he eat? Who is his greatest predator? Does he have a mate?
Costales, an educator and Tango's keeper at Cat Haven, Project Survival's wildlife preservation park located near Fresno in Dunlap, paces rapidly back and forth, lobbing answers into the crowd with the dexterity of a tennis pro. The faster she responds, the faster the questions fly.
Meanwhile, Tango defies expectations by lounging, luxuriating in the attention. He's leashed, but loosely -- and the two assistants casually stroking his side hardly seem capable of preventing a sudden big cat bolt.
This event had two purposes. Scheduled during the final days of an exhibit featuring 26 artists' exploration of nature and natural materials, the draw/paint sprint is a fundraiser for the Bedford Gallery and for Project Survival's Cheetah Conservation and Education Center in Kenya.
Guy Combes, a native of Kenya who now works out of Antioch, is an artist participant who helped organize the event.
"In Kenya there are fewer than 1,000 cheetahs left in the wild," he says. "Tango is here to get people inspired to protect and preserve wildlife habitats. Today, we're raising money for creating a sanctuary where cheetahs who can no longer live in the wild can survive."
Calling Tango "an ambassador," Costales identifies the cheetah's dominant characteristics.
"The spots, thin head, teddy bear ears, extended claws," she begins, "and see the end of his tail? It's flat. If he needs to make a quick turn while running 60 miles an hour, he whips it out to pivot."
Tango was raised to be an educational ambassador. In captivity, he may live to be 14 years old. He eats three to four pounds of raw meat at each meal, sleeps 18-20 hours a day, and arrived at the Bedford in his own personal van.
"Someone honked at us because he had his head sticking out the window as we drove up," Costales laughs.
Tango, who has been bathing, notices two colorful, knitted geese, suspended from the gallery ceiling. Instantly, he's vertical -- four feet of alert, wide-eyed attention zeroing in on a fixed point. Observers issue a collective gasp.
It's a marvelous moment. There's nothing quite like watching a gorgeous creature display its fundamental character, and the questions fly.
"Yes, he runs every day. He chases Gatorade bottles or follows a yellow ribbon lure on a racetrack," Costales reassures the crowd. "In the wild, human encroachment is actually the biggest problem because these animals are sensitive to stress. They usually live only eight years. Cheetahs have lost 90 percent of the areas where they used to live."
In comments following the public presentation, Costales says visitor interest in Cat Haven has increased dramatically. Attributing the growth to "staycations" and word-of-mouth, she hopes a marketing-savvy volunteer will step up to help when two young cheetahs are added to the program.
"Tango is busy," she says, "and we have to be cautious about his happiness."
The artists' works were up for bid at a silent auction, raising over $900 to benefit both the Bedford Gallery's exhibition program and Project Survival's Cheetah Conservation and Education Center in Kenya. But the greatest prize belongs to Tango and Costales, for delighting and arousing appreciation in artists, animal activists and everyday audiences.
To learn more about Project Survivals Cat Haven, go to www.cathaven.com/ or call 559-338-3216.