Clouded Leopards: Mr. Cool Cat

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Maureen holds a young clouded leopard at Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand.

Maureen is spending three weeks at a zoo in Thailand to learn about their breeding program for clouded leopards.

Working in Thailand sounds exotic and adventurous, and that’s definitely true. I woke up to the most wonderful tropical rainstorm this morning. I remember reading about a similar storm no less than eight years ago from a predecessor here in Thailand, Andy Goldfarb from the Point Defiance Zoo. He awoke to find the rainstorm had washed his shoes away! Luckily for me, I am living on the second floor and have a porch over my front door.

It’s 6 a.m., time to jump into the shower—a very COLD shower, as there isn’t hot water in my bathroom. But I don’t mind; it is extremely hot and humid here. The jungle is literally my front and back yard and even in my bedroom! There is a very large tokay gecko living on the interior wall, eating all the insects that find their way into my house. Vervet monkeys and spotted deer travel through my yard every day. Last night as I walked home from dinner, something jumped/ran into me so hard I bruised at the impact site. I think it was a grasshopper. Insects are huge here—they look like small mammals! The reason I couldn’t identify the cause of the hit and run, I mean hit and jump, is that my brand-new flashlight flickers from high to low beam without warning. The humidity is high enough to interrupt contact between the batteries and the LED light bulb—not good when climbing some very steep cobblestone steps and trying to avoid scorpions, cobras, and vipers. Thus far I haven’t seen any, and I hope it stays that way!

I am working at the Khao Kheow (Green Mountain) Open Zoo in Thailand. The zoo is “open” because its 2,000 acres (800 hectares) are without fencing, allowing native animals to come and go. This is a unique concept that offers its own challenges. For example, some of the vervet monkeys like the anteater’s specialized diet. As a result, the keepers feed several times a day to ensure the zoo animal is getting the proper amount. There is a hermit who lives off the land on the mountain, but he speaks to no one while on his daily trek to collect fresh water.

Clouded leopard cubs Lek and Yai

My house is on zoo grounds with all the other keepers and animal staff. I walk down the street to the Clouded Leopard Consortium’s house to eat breakfast with Ken Lang from the National Zoo. Then it’s off to the Clouded Leopard Breeding Center, where we feed the clouded leopard cubs at 7:30 every morning. The cubs are named Yai, meaning big, and Lek, meaning small. They are three months old and growing fast. We weigh them twice a week to keep up with their dietary needs.

There are 34 clouded leopards here in the breeding program, which means lots of cleaning and feeding as well as introductions of possible breeding pairs. The pairing needs to be done slowly in the calm of the evening, when the only noise is the occasional neighboring lion’s roar or the ever-present serenade of crickets, nightjars, and the tokay gecko. This twilight hour has a calming effect on the cats, allowing their natural behaviors to emerge. If a female in estrous presents herself to the intended male on the other side of the fence line, we will watch this interaction for a while, looking for certain behaviors from both cats, reducing the risk when actually putting them together. There is always risk involved when breeding carnivores, but if we can minimize problems, the chance of breeding without an injury greatly increases.

Thus far we have introduced two very different couples. Our most important pairing was Dawk Mai and No Name. Dawk Mai, meaning flower, is a 24-pound (11 kilograms), 4-year-old female who has never bred. No Name, who got his name because the keepers and staff couldn’t decide on a name, is a very, very large 10-year-old male with extra-large paws; he weighs in at 65 pounds (29 kilograms). The size difference alone would be a concern, but No Name has bred before, and both cats have valuable bloodlines. After watching the interaction between the two, Ken decided to let the pair have a go at it.

We discussed the various scenarios and what to do in case of emergency. The gate was lifted, and No Name walked through to Dawk Mai’s pen. Well, I have a new name for No Name: Mr. Cool Cat! He didn’t rush; he was a gentle giant, calm and collected. He smelled her pen for a while, chuffed every time he approached her and looked away when she swatted. He basically took “no” for an answer and calmly laid down. The civil behavior must have relaxed Dawk Mai, because she turned the tables and pursued him! After 20 minutes together, they bred in the trees. A successful breeding usually occurs on the ground and ends with the female rolling on her back and wiggling. We did not witness this behavior today. Guess what we are doing tomorrow!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Playtime for Wolves, Cheetahs, Dogs.