By Brenda Flanagan
Their demanding little screeches match their fuzzy little kitten bodies. Born just a couple of months ago, two enchanting female snow leopard cubs stepped outside for the first time today, under Mom Tysa’s protective scowl, at the Cape May County Zoo to the crowd’s utter delight.
“We’ve just been extraordinarily lucky with snow leopard breeding here at the Cape May County Zoo,” said Associate Veterinarian at Cape May County Zoo, Alex Ernst.
Vets at Cape May County Zoo began breeding snow leopards more than seven years ago following an official global species survival plan. These babies make nine born in Cape May, five litters, a significant contribution given that across the U.S. over the past two years, only 27 cubs have been born in captive breeding programs.
“It creates a population in captivity that is genetically strong and genetically diverse. It’s almost like an insurance policy against extinction,” said Ernst.
“Snow leopards in the wild are considered endangered. Today there is probably somewhere between 4,500 and as many as 10,000 in the wild. But, it’s very difficult for us to put an exact number to that because they’re so elusive, they’re so shy,” said Panthera Snow Leopard Program Director Tom McCarthy.
The big cat conservation group Panthera says the snow leopard’s natural range spans 12 countries where Panthera works to preserve leopard habitat and reduce conflict with humans. Some 600 snow leopards like Tysa live at accredited zoos worldwide, including 250 in the U.S.
“New Jersey is a perfectly good place to have captive snow leopards, we have them all over the United States. They do quite well in captivity and they breed pretty well in captivity and I think the more places we have snow leopards, the better chance we have of sharing the message of the plight of snow leopards in the wild with the general public,” said McCarthy.
“Should that time come that these guys become so rare in the wild or extinct, there would be a genetically viable population to pull genetics from captivity for reintroduction efforts,” said Ernst.
“While snow leopards especially the cubs are interesting to watch, they serve to help educate the public and to highlight the profile of the snow leopard and the awareness of the plight through education,” said Cape May County Freeholder E. Marie Hayes.
When they’re old enough, the little ambassadors go to other zoos to share their precious DNA. One female ended up at Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange.
“Some of them went to New York zoos, some of them went out west, I mean they went to various places for other breeding programs,” said Cape May County Zoo Director Hubert Paluch.
In the wild, snow leopard cubs usually stay with their moms for up to two years. Not these babies. They will probably be sent to other zoos at as early as six months of age to take their place in other breeding programs.