Cheers to a Local Legend

Come with Orson a happy birthday!

Come with Orson a happy birthday!

Another October comes to the San Diego Zoo, signaling an annual celebration on Big Cat Trail. October 21, 2013, marks the 21st birthday of Orson, our beloved black jaguar. This makes Orson the oldest cat at the Zoo and among the five oldest jaguars in accredited zoos in North America. For comparison’s sake, a 21-year-old jaguar is comparable to a human well over the age of 90. For his special day, we plan on putting a femur bone in a “gift” box, and he’ll get some frozen “blood-sicles.”

Although a little slower and a little grayer than he was in his prime, Orson is still an impressive guy. From local members who make weekly pilgrimages to visit Orson to out-of-towners who haven’t been to the Zoo in a decade but say, “I remember the black jaguar from my last vacation here,” Orson has long been a highlight of any visit to the Zoo.
Although Orson has lived in San Diego long enough to be considered a local, his green eyes and melanistic coat give you the feeling of an exotic creature from far away jungles. In truth, this is not entirely the case—jaguars used to roam the southwestern US with a range including San Diego County! Unfortunately, the last known wild California jaguar was killed near Palm Springs in 1860. Due to habitat loss and hunting, no significant population of jaguars has occurred in the US for about 100 years.

Orson finds a tasty treat.

Orson jumps up to claim his prize.

On very rare occasions, jaguars are still seen in the wild in the US, brief visitors from a population located in northern Mexico. Recently, a single jaguar has been photographed by scientists on multiple occasions in the mountains of southern Arizona. This has caused excitement and growing support to protect habitat in that area in the hopes that jaguars may repatriate the area they once roamed in the not-too-distant past.

Orson’s local legacy can be traced much further back into California’s prehistoric past. Around 80 specimens of Panthera atrox have been discovered a short drive north, at the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. Though commonly called the American lion, this extinct cat is probably more accurately referred to as a giant jaguar. This distant ancestor must have been truly impressive, as it was five times larger than Orson! Most people probably think about how huge this cat’s head or teeth must have been, but in true zookeeper fashion, I can only imagine having to rake up five times more poop.

Make sure to stop by and visit Orson, who represents a recent, magnificent, and extraordinarily long chapter in the history of jaguars right in our backyard.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Don’t Miss the Lynx.


Don’t Miss the Lynx

Come see the Zoo's lynx!

Stoli eyes our photographer.

On the far north end of Big Cat Trail is one of the smallest and most overlooked felines at the San Diego Zoo, the Siberian lynx. Lacking the celebrity of Orson the jaguar, the local familiarity of the cougars, the alluring elusiveness of the snow leopards, or the extreme rarity of the Amur leopards, our lynx still have much to offer to make them a worthwhile visit for cat fans.

At 16 years old, our lynx are definitely considered senior citizens, but, interestingly, they are two of our more active cats! Skyy, the female, has a very playful side. Whether it’s batting around a toy or tossing a rabbit carcass up in the air before eating it, she is probably the one cat you are most likely to see this type of play from. Stoli, the male, is more on the vocal side. Sometimes he gets impatient waiting for his daily meal and starts tromping around his exhibit, yowling in protest.

When resting, they use their natural camouflage to hide in plain sight. Often, especially on warm summer days, the lynx lounge under the large honeysuckle in their exhibit, only a few feet from the visitor path. They blend in so well that many people miss seeing them, despite the fact that the lynx are literally right in front of them! On your next visit, take the time to look carefully—the lynx are probably closer than you think. Their trademark ear tufts often give them away.

Because of a combination of their smaller stature and extremely secretive behavior, small cats like the lynx draw much less attention than their larger cousins, but they face much of the same threats to their survival. Siberian lynx populations are still relatively wide spread throughout their range, but they are still regularly hunted for their fur. In Europe, lynx are much rarer, with only isolated pockets existing where they used to be widespread. Fortunately, some countries in Europe have had successful reintroduction programs. Spain has its own unique species known as the Spanish or Iberian lynx. Isolated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees Mountains, this cat evolved separately from the rest of the Old World lynx populations. With a population of only 300, the Iberian lynx has the unfortunate distinction of being considered Europe’s most endangered carnivore and the most endangered cat species on Earth. Habitat loss and eradication of their favorite prey, the rabbit, has caused this species to plummet drastically over the last century. The few remaining populations are intensively managed by the Spanish government to ensure their continued survival.

Here in North America, we also have our own species of lynx. The Canadian lynx is widespread in Alaska and Canada but has been exterminated from most of its natural range throughout the continental US. Early this year, excitement for the potential recovery of the animal was stirred when pictures of a pair of lynx were taken in southern Colorado. The more familiar bobcat is technically classified as a lynx and is widespread across the US, sometimes even adapting to life in heavily urbanized areas. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to have a bobcat cross my path in Peñasquitos Canyon right here in San Diego!

Make sure you stop by and spend some time enjoying the antics of Stoli and Skyy and gain a whole new appreciation of small cats.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Orson: Two Decades as Jaguar Ambassador.


Meet Ted, Our New Tiger

Ted stands for a treat during his quarantine period.

Ted stands for a treat from Karla during his quarantine period.

The Harter Veterinary Medical Center at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is also the quarantine site for many animals that come into our collection. We currently have an eight-year-old male Sumatran tiger, affectionately called Teddy, who has been with us for the mandatory 30-day quarantine period. During this period we collect samples, run tests, and do physical exams to ensure the health of incoming animals.

Teddy came to us from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoological Garden, located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He weighs about 240 pounds (109 kilograms) and has a striking coat of black stripes on a deep orange background, unique to the tiger. He is a very calm and affectionate animal. The keepers at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo have done a wonderful job with Teddy’s training, and he arrived with many learned behaviors that will make our ability to work with him in a new setting much easier.

Some of these behaviors are to sit, lay, roll-over, stand, shift from pen to pen, hold position, and show his right or left paw. The keepers who will be taking care of him in his new home at the Safari Park’s tiger exhibit have been visiting him daily to form the bond and relationship so essential in working with animals of his caliber. He will be joining his new family soon and may be visible on exhibit sometime this month.

Karla Michelson is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Clouded Leopards: Best of Luck!

Riki stars in a new video for kids (see below)!

Riki stars in a new video for kids!

Be sure to read Janet’s previous post, Clouded Leopards: Settling In and Getting Wild.

Quarantine was over, and it was time for the nursery staff to say good luck to clouded leopard brothers Haui and Rikki. On January 12, 2013, the boys made the final move forward and graduated into their new life at the San Diego Zoo’s Backstage Pass program. Although we will have a chance to visit them in the main Zoo, we knew our special time of care here in the nursery was over. From the beginning, we knew that Haui and Rikki would be staying with us only for a short while, but it was still sad to see them go. We knew we would miss them even before they left! These boys brought a lot of life and fun into our unit, and the place would seem empty without them.

On the last day the leopards were with us, we took a minute to look back. When Haui arrived in the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit on December 1, he weighed a little over 10 pounds (4.7 kilograms) and Rikki weighed around 13 pounds (5.8 kilograms). When they left us their weights were 19 and 21 pounds (8.6 and 9.5 kilograms) respectively. When we looked back on a video taken upon their arrival, they looked so small!

Since that day, Haui and Rikki have been kept very busy at Backstage Pass. The boys have met lots of people as part of their training to keep them friendly and active. Additionally, the two are now part of the Backstage Pass presentations, are doing well on their collars and leashes, and have even been on TV.

The role of ambassador animals in our collection is to spread the word about conservation and to show the public how important, beautiful, and worthy animals are. It would be hard to find two animals more able to get that point across. These days, a look at the boys just about takes your breath away. They are quite simply gorgeous.

The trainers tell us that the boys are faring well. Rikki is still calm and relaxed and will study a new situation before jumping in. Mr. Howard (Haui) is still active and adventurous, willing to investigate and welcome new experiences. The trainers are pleased and proud of the progress the boys have made.
Caring for these two special animals was a rare treat for our staff. We will always remember our time with the boys, and we feel lucky to have been a small part of their introduction to our collection at San Diego Zoo Global. Who knows the impact these two beautiful guys will make on conservation? Haui and Rikki will spread bread on the water; who knows what will come back!

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

The boys recently participated in a video for our San Diego Zoo Kids website. They did great!


Clouded Leopards: Settling In and Getting Wild

leopard-cubHaui and Rikki have settled in and spread themselves out here in the NACU. Their day centers on food, nap and wild fun at playtime.

Somehow along the way, we gave Rikki a nickname which has stuck. This frequently happens here in the nursery. Rikki‘s second name is now Rolli (named after the slightly pudgy and always hungry puppy in the movie 101 Dalmatians). We’re having a lot of fun with these boys and trying to stay ahead of them by providing fun things to do.

We house the two boys in a large room which they have full run of. In the center of the room is a climbing structure for play. This elevated perching affords repeated attempts at dropping on and surprising your brother – a move that is held in high regard. The room also has a cozy box enclosure which the boys love to relax and sleep on top of. Lately though the two have learned to scale the countertop and from there, they climb all the way to the top of the refrigerator where they survey the landscape or nap in a comical, relaxed heap.

Several times each day it is time for playtime. We move Rikki and Haui to a much larger room (and here we have to keep a vigilant eye on them because there are all kinds of things they can get into) where we provide a variety of fun toys and furniture items. Here, the boys have even more opportunities to really “get down” and play in earnest. Anyone who has watched the scene through the nursery window will agree that things get crazy! There are dramatic leaps, pounces, chases and some rough landings. They love large branches and toys that we drag about so they can practice and perfect their leaps and pounces. The boys love big cardboard boxes too – they make a satisfying noise and enjoyable slide when landed upon. Another big favorite is our office chair which rolls crazily across the floor if one of the guys lands just right.

Haui remains nimble and quick. He constantly hounds his brother by launching carefully planned attacks. When the two wrestle they can be rough, but no one really gets seriously hurt. These battles are fantastic to watch because they attest to the strength, balance, agility and speed of these remarkable cats. Clouded leopards do not purr, but they do make an adorable vocalization called a chuff, which is reserved for a greeting.

On December 19th both boys received their quarantine exams. These exams took place at our Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. The two were held off food and water in the morning as per our protocol, and then transferred by airline crate to the hospital. Our capable and talented veterinary, wildlife disease, and tech staffs thoroughly examined them. They conducted a number of medical diagnostic tests to make sure both were in perfect health. The boys did very well during the exam, recovered quickly, and passed with flying colors. They returned home to the NACU and we were glad to see that they were playing quietly together early that same afternoon.

To the staff here in the NACU, the quarantine examination signals that the boys will soon be leaving our facility. They will enter the collection at Backstage Pass and begin their training. As we look ahead to the time of their departure, we know that we will miss them.

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Clouded Leopards: Getting to Know the Boys.


Clouded Leopards: Getting to Know the Boys

Haui-san is not afraid of our photographer!

See previous post, Clouded Leopards: Beautiful Boys Arrive.

In the first days following their arrival in the San Diego Zoo’s nursery, we began to find out a little bit about the individual personality of each of these two clouded leopard cubs. The boys are distinct and different from one another, apparent right from the start. Each boy has a distinct personality all his own, and the two are unmistakable as individuals.

Haui-san, the smaller of the two cubs, is nimble, agile, and steady. He is wonderfully calm in novel situations, accepting new keepers, new toys, and new experiences. Even loud noises and distractions are no problem for Haui. Ever unflappable and reasonable, Haui’s even temper and playful nature won us all over immediately.

Rikki-san, the larger of the two cubs, is noticeably handsome; with rich and beautiful black dots and swirls, his “clouds” are unbelievably complex and gorgeous. Rikki is impressively powerful and strong. Despite his size, Rikki is a little bit more nervous when he encounters new things. Rikki tends to retreat to a corner or take cover when he is unsure. He also is a bit tubby, so he is slower than his brother at play. Handsome Riki is easy to love as he relaxes or plays, very happy to watch his more nimble brother when he is too tired to participate.

Before the boys arrived in the nursery, we selected some toys for them from our enrichment toy box. We realized very soon, however, that most of our choices wouldn’t do for these boys. Many of the toys quickly fell by the wayside as they were chewed up. Little enrichment toys were replaced with larger, more durable ones. A favorite activity is attacking a lure toy, a squeaky toy tied at the end of a strong leash and dragged around. This toy produces some hilarious recreational sessions as each cub fiendishly plots against his brother for possession of the squeaky toy. The cubs jump all over the room, from chairs, cat trees, and boxes, to lunge at the lure. These cubs just love new experiences for play, and our challenge is to keep them busy and engaged and to provide them with plenty of healthy exercise.

Here’s more info about clouded leopards…

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Cheetah Breeding Excitement

I couldn’t wait to get to work this morning! My excitement surrounded yesterday’s developments at the cheetah breeding facility at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our young, inexperienced female cheetah, Lindiwe, has been showing signs of estrus, and at long last our experienced male cheetah, Noka, has taken an interest in her. This is a very exciting development in the world of cheetah breeding!

I grab my raincoat and notebook and head over for more cheetah watching. Our breeding facility is not accessible to guests. After arriving, I try to control my excitement and optimism about the possible outcome of today’s breeding attempt. I’m pretty sure today is the day that Lindiwe and Noka will breed successfully.

My hopefulness increases as I view a short video recorded by our animal care staff just hours earlier, showing positive signs of interest between Lindiwe and Noka. These include both cheetahs laying down next to each other in their adjacent enclosures and touching noses through the fence. Noka then proceeds to make a vocalization called a stutter-bark in Lindiwe’s direction. The stutter-bark is a rarely heard vocalization primarily used by male cheetahs in breeding situations. We believe the stutter-bark plays a significant role in a male cheetah’s attempt to breed a female.

Listen to a cheetah stutter-bark:

To better understand the possible role of the stutter-bark vocalization, a little background on cheetah reproduction is needed. In most mammals (including humans), the release of eggs happens spontaneously and predictably (with cycles of varying length). However, there are a number of species that possess a different type of reproductive strategy where eggs are released from the ovaries after some sort of stimuli but not on a predictable cycle. The stimuli could include the physical act of mating, among many other possibilities.

In cheetahs, the stimuli that lead to egg release are not clearly understood. In the wild, female cheetahs are predominantly solitary, so we think that when a male encounters a female, the stutter-bark vocalization may be part of the reproductive strategy to help bring a female cheetah into estrus.

Our team moves Lindiwe to a neighboring enclosure while Noka is brought into Lindiwe’s enclosure, which he thoroughly investigates by patrolling the area, sniffing, and spraying. While he is investigating, we record details about both cheetahs’ behavior. We are hoping for a “strong” behavioral response from them, including both cats being very focused on each other, the female rolling on the ground and flicking her tail. Most of all, we are hoping that she won’t be aggressive toward him and that Noka will stutter-bark while pacing her fence line.

The breeding attempt continues for approximately 30 minutes, during which time we see the positive signs we are hoping for from both cheetahs. We decide to attempt an introduction between Noka and Lindiwe. At this point we’re also considering the possible downsides of an introduction with a female cheetah that may not be in estrus and, as a result, can be unpredictable and aggressive. This is definitely something we do not want in a breeding situation! Having weighed the costs and benefits, we move forward with our introduction: a keeper opens a fence separating Lindiwe and Noka while I continue observing and taking notes.

The breeding attempt begins positively, with no aggression from the male or female. Lindiwe is active and moving while the male stutters quietly toward her. He begins to follow her but occasionally gets a little too close, resulting in Lindiwe turning and moving toward him slightly. Then she turns and continues to walk around the enclosure. Noka is somewhat focused on her but is also not responding very strongly and appears to be somewhat distracted. After some time, we decide that the male’s response is not adequate and reluctantly separate the cats in the hope for a better response tomorrow.

If Lindiwe is truly coming into estrus, we expect to see a much stronger response from Noka. We do not currently have a scientific test that will tell us if Lindiwe is in estrus on the day of the introduction. If we attempt a blood draw, the possible stress associated with the procedure could affect the female’s reproductive hormones. Our current approach is to noninvasively examine Lindiwe’s reproductive hormones by collecting her fecal samples and determining her hormone levels back at the Behavioral Biology endocrinology lab. Stay tuned for my next blog post detailing the laboratory approaches I use to determine reproductive hormone levels in cheetahs and my determination (via hormone levels) of whether Lindiwe was truly in estrus during this breeding attempt.

Corinne Pisacane is a senior research technician in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Clouded Leopards: Beautiful Boys Arrive

Clouded leopard cub Riki-san

I sat waiting in the dark, searching the various doors on the gigantic FedEx plane for signs that Nicki Boyd, behavior husbandry manager, was about to emerge. Nicki had safely landed in San Diego on this cargo-only flight from Tennessee, bringing very precious cargo from the Nashville Zoo’s clouded leopard breeding program. Suddenly, one of the security guards approached my vehicle, knocked on the window, and said, “Here they come.” Nicki and a FedEx employee carried a large airline crate across the tarmac. Inside were two beautiful clouded leopard brothers, only 14 weeks old. They were hand raised at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere and were coming to the San Diego Zoo as ambassadors for our Backstage Pass program.

All new animals to our collection must undergo a period of quarantine, necessary to ensure that they not have any infectious disease. So, before the boys could join the gang at Backstage Pass, we had to keep them segregated while our veterinarians cleared them for a variety of infectious agents. Since the boys were young and needed TLC, we decided to quarantine them inside our Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU), known as the nursery by many, facility rather than at our Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine as we usually do.

For the NACU keepers, this was something new and exciting! We hadn’t had a chance to work with clouded leopard cubs since 1990, and these cats had always been a favorite species of ours. We prepared everything in advance: our unit was clean and ready for the boys’ arrival.

The two cubs were surprisingly calm in the transfer crate, curious about their surroundings and greeting me with a shrill chirp. They cried just a few times on the drive to the Zoo but were calm and patient. We carried the crate to the nursery area and opened the crate door. As each cub was released, we weighed him and held him awhile for reassurance, then released him into his new, temporary home. We had constructed a climbing structure for the cubs to play on and placed soft towels, rugs, cat trees, toys, and other enrichment items around the nursery. The cubs sniffed around tentatively at first but were playing with each other and exploring their new climbing structure and toys almost immediately.

NACU keeper Mary Dural prepared their evening diet as directed; she weighed out a portion of raw meat-based zoo carnivore food. Nicki brought some of the meat with her from Nashville, since our zoo does not use the same product. Our Nutritional Services department will change the diet for the cubs, transitioning them from the product they are currently on to our zoo carnivore diet. Since all diet changes are made gradually, we will make the transition slowly, increasing the new diet a little bit on each successive day.

That night each cub ate heartily and drank fresh water. We watched as they played, explored, and attacked each other until they began to tire and flopped themselves down on the floor. It was time to turn out the light and put the cubs to bed. They had arrived safe and sound, but it had been a long day for them.

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, No Babies? What Do Nursery Keepers Do?


Orson: Two Decades As Jaguar Ambassador

Orson checks out a colorful popsicle.

This October 21 is a milestone birthday for our black jaguar, Orson. The elder statesman of Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo will hit the ripe old age of 20. In zoos, only about 15 percent of jaguars reach the age of 20; for comparison, about 15 percent of Americans live to the age of 90! Orson may have slowed a little over time and sprouts a few more gray hairs every day, but he is still an impressive sight to see.

Orson came to the San Diego Zoo 15 years ago and in that time has educated, entertained, and amazed literally millions of Zoo visitors. Thousands more have been able to get inches away from him during our behind-the-scenes tours and summer camp programs. Unlike many cats that like to find a distant hidden part of their habitat to watch the world go by, Orson has always preferred to plop himself front and center in his exhibit where all can get an up-close look at him. This has made Orson one of the most popular animals at the Zoo.

On a recent behind-the-scenes tour, a young teenager told me that meeting Orson up close was “a life-changing experience.” Maybe that young lady will study jaguars and develop better conservation techniques to help them, maybe she will invent a renewable fuel source, or maybe she will become a hardcore recycler. Any way, Orson has done his “job,” inspiring people to become passionate about conserving both jaguars and our natural world.

On your next visit to the Zoo make sure to stop by and visit Orson. You may get to hear his roar filling the canyon or see him devouring a beef shank with his massive jaws. Just don’t forget to wish him many happy returns.

Update: On Sunday, October 21, at 11:30 a.m., Orson will receive some special birthday enrichment.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, The World’s Rarest Cats: Growing Up.


Lions: The Good Life

M’Bari: It’s good to be king!

We’ve had a lot of interest in an update on the San Diego Zoo’s largest felid pair, and since we just passed the three-year anniversary for the two lions here, it seemed like an appropriate time. When I think about the last few years for M’Bari and Etosha, the phrase “smooth sailing” comes to mind (see The Pride of Elephant Odyssey). The last three years with these two have been pretty tranquil. More than anyone, I think that the lions have enjoyed the quiet constants in their lives. At nearly nine years old, much of the playful behaviors of their days at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Lion Camp have been replaced with more mature endeavors.

M’Bari is a guy who appreciates his routine. As a creature of habit myself, I often feel a kinship with his way of life. His time spent on exhibit involves copious amounts of sleep broken up by the occasional need to eat, drink, or remind all of his adoring fans that he is big and you are in his house. During Nighttime Zoo, our guests get a special treat as he wakes from his slumber to enjoy his evening stroll. His evening routine includes patrolling his territory, calling loudly, and scent marking anything (or anyone) unlucky enough to get in his path.

M’Bari is maintaining much of the great husbandry behaviors he learned as a little guy through daily training sessions. He recently received his necessary vaccinations through a voluntary process in which he places his hip up against the fence to accept an injection. M’Bari is a great student…as long as you remember that he is the KING.

Etosha is definitely my choice for Miss Congeniality. This girl is as sweet as pie! Etosha is always happy to see her keepers, and she is always happy to see food. Her daily training sessions are met with great enthusiasm as she works to get the treats from the bucket to her mouth as quickly as possible. Etosha is also a champion sleeper, but she does take the opportunity to get a rise out of M’Bari from time to time. Particularly just following morning feedings, we see her rambunctious side come out. She stalks slowly toward M’Bari, creeping around the rockwork, and as quickly as her legs will take her, she rushes in and jumps on his back. M’Bari, feeling way too dignified for this kind of play, shuts these sessions down quickly by moving away and giving a little growl.

After three years working with Etosha, I am still amazed at just how well she can read her long-time mate. I often tell guests that we can read M’Bari pretty well, but Etosha can read him like a book. She always knows just how much she can get away with. Whether it be jumping on his back, choosing to lie down right in his spot, or pushing him aside to get to treats, she knows what he will tolerate and when she should lay low.

I would like to invite you all to come by and spend some time with M’Bari and Etosha. Whether you catch a feeding, a quick play session, or silent slumber, you will surely take away a sense of awe and maybe even a reminder to enjoy the quiet constants in your own life.

Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Jaguar Cubs at One Month.