GREENWICH -- Reverse 911 for escaped cheetahs?

The town's top elected official said Monday he supports the idea of using an early warning system to notify neighbors by phone in case dangerous animals were to escape from a private backcountry zoo.

Lionshare Farm, a 95-acre animal sanctuary in Stamford that boasts a Greenwich postal address, recently won federal approval to import three cheetahs from South Africa to its sprawling campus.

Its effort to bring the exotic cats to the backcountry has stoked concern among some residents, including state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, about a potential threat to public safety.

The private zoo and equestrian center, owned by Olympic medalist Peter Leone and his

wife, Marcella, is near a number of private homes, schools and a golf club, the state attorney has said.

First Selectman Peter Tesei said an "emergency response system" used by Lionshare to notify residents whose properties abut the animal center would help minimize the safety risks.

"An animal they can't get under control that escapes the perimeter of the property -- I think that's the main issue," said Tesei, adding that he has consulted the Police Department about potential safety issues.

With Lionshare's application to house the cheetahs approved, Blumenthal has said it's incumbent upon the center to assure authorities, such as police and the first selectman, that it's taking all the necessary precautions.

seeking comment were left with Lionshare on Monday.

Lionshare representatives have said that the center has taken the utmost precautions to ensure the animals are in safe, contained facilities and are cared for by professional zookeepers and veterinarians.

The cats would join a variety of other animals housed at the center, including a peacock, porcupine, ant-eater, zebra, miniature horse, tortoise, camel, giraffe, two striped hyenas and several small monkeys.

In addition, the state Department of Environmental Protection has confirmed that Lionshare is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to import exotic animals, including cheetahs. The center is also accredited as a zoo by the Punta Gorda, Fla.-based Zoological Association of America.

Despite the precautions, many residents raised safety concerns this summer, citing the mauling of Charla Nash in Stamford by a 200-pound pet chimpanzee that ripped off her hands, nose, lips and eyelids. Nash has been hospitalized since the attack. The chimp, which police killed that day, lived with its owner in a private house.

While citing a need for safety precautions, Tesei also said on Monday that it was important to distinguish between a facility such as Lionshare and a private resident.

"This is so different from the woman in Stamford," Tesei said.

In its import application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was approved in September, Lionshare said it was seeking two male cheetahs and a female "for conservation education for the benefit of the residents of Greenwich, and its suburbs where there are no cheetahs in nearby zoos."

Lionshare is not open to the public, but it provides private tours to accredited institutions, nonprofit organizations and other individuals who make appointments in advance, according to representatives there.

The center could seek a second female cheetah as early as next year as part of its plan to breed the animals when the two males, Raphael and Leonardo, are sexually mature, the application says.

The cheetahs will dwell on a contained 3-acre swath of land at the center, measuring roughly the size of 2½ football fields, with a large enclosure to house them at night and during inclement weather, the application says.

While their natural habitat is on the warm plateaus of south and central Africa, cheetahs, which can run at speeds as fast as 75 mph, also have proven to be highly adaptive to cooler conditions, experts say.

Staff writer Colin Gustafson can be reached at or 203-625-4428.