Cat of the Month ~ August 2009
Meo, a Snow Leopard Mother and her Cubs
Photographs courtesy Carnivore Keeper Melbourne Zoo - Adrian Howard
These cubs were born in Melbourne Zoo, Australia, as a result of an international matchmaking effort by the studbook keeper for this endangered species international studbook keeper, based at Helsinki Zoo in Finland.
Zoo endangered species breeding programs aim to maintain the maximum genetic diversity within the group of that species living in the participating zoos worldwide. Taronga Zoo, Mogo Zoo, and the National Zoo are the other three Australian zoos currently exhibiting Snow Leopards.
Melbourne Zoo's new mother ‘Meo' came to Melbourne in June 2003 from her birthplace in the Stuttgart Zoo in Germany. Her mate Leon was born at Taronga Zoo in October 2001 and arrived at Melbourne Zoo in October 2007.
Carnivore keepers initially displayed the two Snow Leopards separately, where they could see, smell, and hear each other. They carefully monitored the reactions the Snow Leopards were having to each other before gradually introducing them when the time was right.
Six-year-old Meo gave birth for the first time on December 7th 2008, and until now the cubs have led a very sheltered life, initially spending all their time in a dark and quiet nesting box. Meo has been bringing her cubs out into the adjacent night yards, so the cubs are slowly getting used to the wider world around them. On March 5th Zoo veterinarians and keepers separated Meo from the cubs for a brief period, so Dr Michael Lynch could give the cubs a health check and vaccinate them against cat flu and feline enteritis.
Afterwards, keepers opened the access doors between the exhibit and the behind-the-scenes areas, so Meo and the cubs could move between the two areas. It's expected that they will spend more and more time out in the exhibit as they become increasingly confident.
[from the Melbourne zoo website - link above]
Snow Leopards are native to the mountainous regions of 12 countries stretching from Afghanistan east through the Himalayas and Central Asia to Russia.
Their pale colouration is excellent summer camouflage against the rocky mountain slopes, with their lighter-coloured winter coat blending in with the surrounding snow.
But sadly those beautiful coats have made them prime targets for hunters, with Snow Leopard skins bringing high prices in the illegal wildlife trade.