big cat keeper


Zoo Legend Finds New Home

jaguar_orsonFor more than a decade, one of the most memorable and recognizable faces on our Big Cat Trail has been an amazing black jaguar named Orson. Practically a San Diego Zoo mascot, Orson is known and loved by not only our Zoo community but also by anyone who has had the privilege to gaze upon this majestic animal. Many of our Zoo members include a visit with Orson in his Big Cat Trail exhibit as part of their regular route through the Zoo. Well, for many of our members, their routes are about to change!

This past week, Orson’s world just grew a whole lot bigger with a move up to the brand-new jaguar exhibit in Elephant Odyssey. His new home includes ample climbing structures, a large pool stocked with live fish for the taking, a cave featuring a toasty “hot rock,” and a larger exhibit footprint than his previous space. The always level-headed Orson took the move in stride, and after a little apprehension he began exploring his new surroundings. His inquisitive nature had him learning about the properties of glass in the viewing windows, something that he had not experienced in his previous exhibit, and wading into the large pool on his very first day. The bus road behind the exhibit also became an early source of entertainment as Orson began stalking the vehicles that passed by his new home.

The previous jaguar housed in this exhibit, a two-year-old female named Nindiri, had also left a lot of female Jaguar smells to investigate (read Jaguar: Meet Nindiri). The work of covering up those smells with his own scent began almost immediately. The move provides a high degree of enrichment as it is likely that Orson, an older cat with a touch of arthritis, will enjoy the more direct sun of Elephant Odyssey’s jaguar exhibit, particularly during the cooler winter months.

This first move is actually a part of a bigger plan to provide a little more excitement in the lives of both of our jaguars. Both the Elephant Odyssey exhibit and their Big Cat Trail home serve as nice accommodations, offering up something different at each part of the Zoo. Therefore, in the name of providing the best for both of our jaguars, the ultimate goal will be to put in place a kind of regular rotation that will allow both cats to enjoy both exhibits, thereby expanding the territories for both of them. The frequency of moves and seasonality of the changes will be dictated by our cats, but the hope is that both cats get the most out of their exhibits by experiencing them intermittently, much like wild jaguars can experience portions of their range at different times throughout the year.

For now, though, I would like to invite all of you devoted Orson fans to come up to Elephant Odyssey to visit an old friend and get your “Orson fix.” Watch him enjoy his change of scenery and possibly get a new perspective on a San Diego Zoo staple. And as we move forward, keep an eye out for some upcoming moves between our jaguar exhibits as we strive to provide the most fulfilling and enriching life for both of our beautiful jaguar ambassadors.

Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, The Pride of Elephant Odyssey.


Meet the Snow Leopards



I chuckled as I arrived at the snow leopard exhibit along the Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo during my first check of the day. Everett was on his side on a rock at the front of the exhibit, Anna was sitting on him: an example of the bond between these two.

Everett and Anna came to the Zoo in the spring of 2006. Everett is 12 years old, Anna is 6. You can easily tell them apart: Everett is larger and his left eye appears slightly enlarged and seems to view the world from a different angle than the right one. Anna has a kink in her tail about six inches from the end.

In the wild, adults lead solitary lives. However, Everett and Anna live together quite happily. In fact, they are so well bonded, they become nervous if separated for a long time. The other paired cats along the Big Cat Trail must be separated to be fed in order to reduce competition. However, the snows will eat peacefully side by side, each pausing now and then to lick the other’s head. I should add that this goes for their basic carnivore diet: a ground-beef diet with extra nutrients specially formulated for zoo carnivores. When they are given their whole-food items, like a beef shank or rack of ribs, these items are placed at opposite ends of the bedrooms. Upon separation and release from each end of the bedrooms, each cat retires to a distant location with its treat.

As one would expect of an animal native to a harsh climate, they are seasonal breeders. Since their arrival, they have bred many times. Unfortunately, no cubs have resulted. It is possible that Everett is too old. Older snow leopard males in managed care have a poor track record when it comes to siring young. We will report back to the snow leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP), which manages snow leopards across North America using complex computer programs to rank individuals genetically and makes breeding recommendations.

As I care for the different species in my care, I am interested to learn about their different mind-sets and behaviors. For example, the cougars seem very quick in both their movements and thinking; one can almost see the wheels turning. But the snows seem less engaged in their environment, somehow: quieter, gentler, more passive.

I’m told that Anna was very shy and nervous when she first arrived but has calmed greatly. Even so, she can be reluctant to shift off exhibit, often appearing to wait for Everett to shift first. And yet she’ll go through periods when she is first to leap into the bedrooms while Everett hangs back. In general, she is more food motivated than he is.

Everett sometimes makes an earnest-sounding vocalization, but one doesn’t know what it is he wants. He enjoys tactile enrichment, though, and sometimes rubs his head against the enclosure’s wire. He will then remain still while his head is scratched with a back scratcher. When Anna cycled, Everett often had little appetite; this enabled her to monopolize the whole-food items on exhibit. Sometimes, I’d give these items in the bedrooms while they were separated. One day, as I was releasing Everett, I noticed he had the remains of food on his chin. Perhaps there are other reasons why the breeding hasn’t gone so well…?

They are less interactive with toys provided for enrichment. However, scents generally result in a strong reaction, especially from Everett. We grow fresh herbs on Zoo grounds to be used as enrichment, as well as using spices or colognes. Even a handful of fresh hay will produce a strong reaction. One day I placed hay into a large plastic bowl. Everett did a face plant into the bowl, sniffing, rubbing his head, and even nibbling the hay. He lifted his head with a small pile of hay on top with a blissful look on his face.

These cats are one of my favorites. Stop by their exhibit and enjoy these beautiful and enigmatic carnivores.

Karen Barnes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Favorite Jaguar Moments.