big cat


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.


Treasures for Lioness Tango

Tango check out one of her birthday presents.

Happy birthday, Tango! Our oldest lion turned 20 on August 12, 2012, and is doing great.

It was hard to pick which of Tango’s many treasures we should offer her on her big day. Our big cat fans already know she loves her bones and many rope toys, but she also loves pumpkins. Yes, pumpkins! She responds to them in the same manner she does to ropes and bones.

We recently placed one on exhibit for her. Once she spotted it out front, she went right for it and carried it back to her bed, where she likes to keep her treasures. She also has a fire hose toy, which, of course, always ends up in one of her “beds.” She collects boxes as well. This summer we have been putting more beds around her exhibit. Currently she has been favoring the bed in her grass area. She carries her treasures around with her from bed to bed, depending on the time of day and her preference.

A new rope toy for Tango!

We also have been playing tug-o-war with her. There is one rope toy in particular she loves to tug on. We have a special chute in her door that allows us to safely play tug-o-war with her. She gets very excited and vocal, chattering away while we put her rope in place. She continues to talk while she’s playing and after she wins. Tango always wins. I have to admit that it is not much of a war when playing with Tango—she is super strong for her old age! Tango uses her whole body to tug, which gives her great exercise that strengthens her muscles.

Since it was hard to pick just one of Tango’s treasures to give on her birthday, we offered her a birthday box containing a rope toy, her bone, and as many ropes as she could carry! Tango had a great day, moving from bed to bed with her treasures. The hardest part of her day was deciding which treasure to take where!

Beth McDonald is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Lioness Tango: A Girl and Her Toys.


The World’s Rarest Cats: Growing Up

There is estimated to be about 30 Amur leopards left in the wild.

It’s been over three months since our trio of Amur leopard siblings debuted (watch the video) on Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. Personally it has been very rewarding to work with these cats, both because of their extreme rarity and because at this young age they are always very engaging!

With an estimated wild population of only 30 animals, the Amur leopard is literally on the razor’s edge of extinction. For comparison, our beloved and also endangered giant pandas have a wild population of approximately 1,500 individuals. The current plight of the Amur leopard makes our job of both breeding this species and raising awareness of its conservation that much more important. With hard work, it is hoped that the Amur leopard can follow in the footsteps of the California condor, a species who’s numbers were at one time equally as low but through dedicated work have now risen to become a conservation success story.

We have many reasons for hope for this species. Early this year, after urging from various conservation organizations, Russia established a new national park specifically for the purpose of protecting the Amur leopard. These rare cats have also recently been seen during camera-trap surveys in China, the first time they have been observed in China in recent history. If nothing else, viewing our youngsters’ escapades is sure to bring a smile to your face.

Zeya, the little girl, is the troublemaker of the bunch. She is most likely to start a playful tussle with one of her brothers, often using her patented “death from above” move. Primorye is the most affectionate of the group, often soliciting attention from the keepers. He’s also a bit of a goof ball and is the most likely to randomly fall off of something, with or without the help of one of his siblings. Koshka has a classical “cat attitude,” which some might consider grumpy or aloof, but he still has a playful side. During behind-the-scenes tours, he often hangs back until the antics of his siblings have the tour group totally engrossed. Then he springs forward, pounces, and hangs from the side of the exhibit for a while, just like a house cat on a screen door.

A lot of this play behavior is actually training for behaviors they would need to be successful living as adults in the wild. When the youngsters are play fighting, you may notice that they most commonly bite at each other’s necks. The neck is the most vulnerable spot on prey and a leopard’s preferred method of dispatching a future meal. You can also see them lugging around and stashing over-sized burlap bags stuffed full of hay. In the wild, a smart leopard goes to great lengths to conceal its kill, which often outweighs the leopard. Other predators such as the Amur tiger wouldn’t hesitate to steal away the meal the leopard worked so hard for.

These rambunctious felines are growing by leaps and bounds and are soon approaching the age that they would naturally disperse away from both their mother and siblings. I hope they will eventually be paired with mates to produce a next generation. Make sure to stop by and see these extraordinary cats while they are still in rare form.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Snow Leopards: Love at Second Sight?


Big Cat Preferences, Part 3

Thanks to our dedicated animal care staff, we have now completed all the initial preference trials (see Big Cat Preferences and Big Cat Preferences, Part 2) with lions, tigers, and cheetahs. Our findings reveal that there are both species and individual differences in enrichment preference, which will help us make educated decisions when providing enrichment for our felids. Ensuring the highest quality of care for every animal in the collection is our top priority, and this is just one project leading toward that goal.

The next phase of this project is being completed by Erin Lane, our Neeper Endowed Fellow, with the assistance of some of our wonderful volunteers. The project includes examining the effects of enrichment (scents and objects) on the 24-hour behavior of lions. We have installed cameras throughout the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s lion exhibit to observe what the effects of the enrichment are both during the day and at night. This will also provide some insight into the activity budgets of the animals. For example, throughout the day a person might spend about 8 hours sleeping (33%), 1 hour commuting to and from work (4.2%), 9 hours working (37.5%), 2 hours cooking/eating (8.3%), 3 hours watching tv (12.5%), and 1 hour exercising (4.2%). We want to know what percentage of time the lions eat, sleep, rest, socialize, and play. This information will help us make sure that our enrichment program is keeping the animals active and healthy.

We will also be recording different behaviors such as scent marking, sniffing, and clawing to make sure we are providing opportunities for these behaviors, which are part of their natural behavior. Keep in mind that lions in the wild typically sleep between 16 and 20 hours a day (66.6% to 83.3%), and we hope our lions spend their time in a similar fashion. If you have been to the Safari Park’s Lion Camp before, you probably already know that they spend a good portion of their time sleeping just the way a lion should. The question is: how much?

Lance Miller is a scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Snow Leopards: Love At Second Sight?

Beau needed some romantic persuasion from Anna.

Early this year we received a new snow leopard male, Beauregard, with the hopes of introducing him to our female, Anna (see post A New Snow Leopard Beau). The couple and updates on the pair’s status have been the hot topic on Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo. Initially, we tried an introduction just prior to breeding season. Neither cat took much of a liking to the other, which was not surprising. In the wild, these cats live highly solitary lives and only come together for short periods during breeding season.

Shortly thereafter, Anna started showing signs of entering estrous. This time her mood made an expected 180-degree turn as she immediately approached Beau with friendly chuffing and flirtatious behavior. Strangely, Beau was not receptive, and he either ignored her advances or aggressively repelled them. Anna became increasingly frustrated with Beau’s behavior. Eventually, as Anna’s cycle passed, she became less interested in Beau, and we halted introductions.

Fortunately, snow leopards have more than one chance to breed per season, and three weeks later Anna started showing interest in Beau again. We re-introduced the pair, and Anna tried to solicit attention from Beau again, and again Beau was either indifferent or aggressive toward her. We started to lose hope that this couple just might not be compatible. Yet Anna was not as easily dissuaded. On this go around, she got more and more insistent with her advances toward Beau. Finally something clicked, and we observed several days of successful breeding. Anna’s persistence had paid off! Even after the end of their breeding cycle, we were able to keep the pair together. A bond seemed to have formed, and they would even greet each other with mutual grooming first thing in the morning.

Breeding season is now waning, and the pair is separated again. Now all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and monitor Anna’s behavior for possible indications of pregnancy. Researchers at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are also monitoring her hormones for pregnancy by analyzing her feces (imagine buying that at-home test at your local drug store!). Since neither cat has reproduced before, the possibility of them passing on their genes to ensure a more diverse and healthy future population of these rare, elusive, and endangered animals is very exciting.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Habitat for Hyenas.


Eau de Felid: Large Cat Scent Trial

Izu "wears" some of the scented wood shavings well, doesn't he?

As the year comes to a close, I wanted to update everyone on our scent studies. At the beginning of the year we were accepting donations of cologne and perfume to test preferences for our large felids (see Cologne, Perfume Needed for Cats!).  Thanks to all your donations, we had over 200 different types of perfumes and colognes to choose from for the scent trials. We ran the trials this summer with the lions and tigers at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and tigers at the San Diego Zoo. The trials were a huge success, and we saw differences between perfumes and also different reactions between the tigers and the lions. What was really exciting is that the tigers at the Zoo showed very similar preferences overall to the tigers at the Safari Park. Similar to previous enrichment studies (see Big Cat Preferences, Part 2), it is quite clear that both species have types of scents that they prefer.

We are currently in the process of trying to raise the rest of the money to conduct a chemical analysis on the preferred perfumes. The analysis will help determine the chemical components of preferred perfumes so that we can make a “tiger” scent or “lion” scent with only the components that overlap from the top perfumes. Next year, we hope to then take the created scents to study the effects as enrichment with the lions and tigers. We also hope to do the same with cheetahs and other felid species in our collection.

Providing environmental enrichment for animals helps keep them both physically and psychologically healthy by promoting species-appropriate behavior and providing the animals some control within their environment. Only through good science can we continue to learn about the animals and their enrichment preferences to provide the highest quality of care for animals within the collection.

I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season, and a happy new year!

Lance Miller is a scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Mountain Lions and Palm Trees

Can you see the 2nd pair of eyes?

Did you ever think about how palm trees might move mountain lions (pumas) and jaguars around? Where we’re working in Southeast Peru with the Botanical Institute of Texas, remote camera photos of mountain lions aren’t really common, but they’re not rare, either (see post Mountain Lion: Sensing Humans). Earlier this year we started seeing more mountain lion feces than usual on one trail, and we also started seeing photos of jaguars, which we hadn’t photographed there for several months.

Our working hypothesis (our best guess) was that the big cats were moving back into the area because a lot of white-collared peccaries moved into the area to feed on ripe palm fruits, and the big cats hunt peccaries. In other words, we think that perhaps the palms indirectly influenced the movements of the big cats. Of course there are many reasons why a mountain lion might decide to walk up one trail versus another. One reason is to improve its chance of finding food, as I just described. Another reason a mountain lion might walk up a trail is to follow a sexy mountain lion!

One series of photos (see below), taken by a remote camera, shows two adult mountain lions traveling together. The first two photos show an adult mountain lion walking down a trail with two eyes visible in the distant background; the second two photos illustrate that the second pair of eyes belonged to another adult puma.

The only reason I can imagine that these adults would be together is that it was mating season. The odds are pretty low that we’ll eventually obtain images of a mother mountain lion walking down a trail with her cubs, but wouldn’t that be neat? If we do get photos like that, I’ll be sure to share them with you!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, leading our Andean bear conservation program.


Cologne, Perfume Needed for Cats!

A tiger sniffs scent left by a cub.

Environmental enrichment is utilized within zoological institutions to ensure animals are physically and psychologically healthy. The goal of an enrichment program is to promote species-typical behavior while allowing some control for animals within their environment. The Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is currently conducting a research project examining individual and species enrichment preferences for large felids (lions, tigers, and cheetahs) at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (see post, Big Cat Preferences, Part 2). Based on some preliminary results, we are interested in learning more about different scents (perfumes) that attract the animals and promote the behavior of exploration.

The research project will include examining the behavior of our large felids when presented with a variety of colognes and perfumes. The goal of these scents is to increase our cats’ exploration and activity levels. At the same time, we will send samples of these scents to a chemist to determine their chemical make-up to learn the properties that animals respond to the most. Through this research, we hope to discover the elements of these scents that encourage species-typical behavior so that we can continue to enrich the lives of the animals within our facilities. In addition, information gained from this study can be used to enrich felids at other zoological institutions. With the link between animal welfare and reproductive success, it is important to ensure the highest levels of care for the animals within zoological institutions as many of these species are conservation dependent.

We can’t do this alone. We’re once again calling upon the generosity of our fans and fellow conservationists to help us in this cause by donating old or unused cologne and perfume. If you have colognes and perfumes that you would like to donate to the study, please send them to:

San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research
Attn: Lance Miller
15600 San Pasqual Valley Road
Escondido, California 92027

Thanks so much for your support. Your generosity will improve the lives of our animals and help us work for a better future for the wildlife of our planet!

Lance Miller is a scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Update: You may also bring your perfume and cologne donations to the Zoo or the Safari Park! Just take them to our Guest Services window. We are also accepting monetary donations for the study through our Animal Care Wish List.

Update from Lance, January 31, 2011: I would like to say thank you again to everyone in the San Diego region and throughout the United States who has sent in perfumes and colognes.  The cats will ultimately benefit from all your kind donations as we continue to learn more about environmental enrichment for these amazing animals.


Winter Camp 2010

Papagayo demonstrates her nut-cracking ability.

Despite the downpour of rain on San Diego this week, Winter Camp at the San Diego Zoo is off to a GREAT start! Campers can come to the Zoo for one day or more, and each day brings something exciting and new. Camp is open to kids in grades K–5. This year’s theme—The Winter Express—takes us to stops throughout the Zoo.

My name is Kim, and I am the teacher for the kindergarten class this year. We have had quite a good time so far. On Monday we learned all about how animals eat. We met a scarlet macaw named Papagayo that uses her strong beak to crack open nuts and rip apart fruits and played games with Roberta, a digital puppet that looks like a cartoon but can see you, talk to you, and answer your questions, too. We made a snowman snaft (snack-craft) using powdered donuts, a licorice scarf, and chocolate chip eyes before visiting the reindeer that live at Polar Bear Plunge. Keeper Tammy even coaxed Boris, the baby reindeer, out into the open for us to see.

On Tuesday, we boarded our own private bus to the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. On the way, campers spotted the locomotion of creatures all over the Zoo: we saw swinging, jumping, running, huddling, stretching, flying, catching, and snuggling. Our destination was the Elephant Care Center, where zookeeper Nora talked to us about Tembo, the African elephant. We got to see Tembo do a training session; boy, is she BIG! In the afternoon we met an armadillo named Cocoa, a snake, and a hedgehog named Thula. We also made a sock snake to take home using a sock, recycled paper, googly eyes, and a red paper tongue.

Wednesday was “Expert Eyes.” We took another bus (our taxi in the rain) to see Jama, the north Chinese leopard. Zookeeper Karen talked to us about his eyesight and all of his other amazing adaptations. We got to see him munch on his meat. We then met a screech owl named Ohos, saw a Dr. Zoolittle magic show, and took a stroll through Discovery Outpost. Our favorite sights were the otter cave and the naked mole-rat exhibit. Campers went home with a lot of goodies today: a reindeer game, 101 Things to Do at the San Diego Zoo booklet, and a homemade frame with a camp picture from our trip to the big cats.

Today’s theme is “Hanging Around.” We are heading to the koala exhibit to go behind the scenes. I bet we’ll meet a koala up close! I can’t wait.

Come join in on the fun! There are still spots available for next week’s Winter Camp.

Kimberly Carroll is an educator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Behind the Scenes with Birds.


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.