The Amur leopard is the most endangered big cat in the world.
Only 93 live in accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and there another hundred or so in other zoos worldwide. Far fewer — maybe 35 or so — are known to exist in the wild.
Two of these rare cats are at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, but they are not the same two that were here earlier this year.
Some zoo patrons became worried this summer when they realized that Usurri, the zoo's male leopard, was no longer in Omaha. In fact, he had been sent to the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.
But there were good reasons for sending him away, and it was done with the approval of the AZA and its Species Survival Plan.
Because the Amur leopard is so endangered, breeding them in captivity is imperative, said Dan Cassidy, general curator at the Omaha zoo. But Usurri spurned Natalia, the zoo's 11-year-old female leopard.
“In fact, he tried to kill her,” Cassidy said.
So he was sent to an accredited zoo that had no interest in breeding him.
Meanwhile, the Henry Doorly Zoo, which has a strong and historic background in breeding big cats, wanted to breed Natalia before she got too old.
The zoo found a potential mate at the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Ind. Its male leopard, Preston, is father material; he was bred successfully in 2007 and 2010. Preston, 16, arrived in Omaha in mid-July and just recently got out of quarantine.
Preston is getting a “howdy” — or slow introduction — to Natalia. They are housed in the same place at night, “so they are aware of each other,” Cassidy said.
Eventually, they will be in the same enclosure but separated by mesh. If they show appropriate behavior, Cassidy said, then it's on to “supervised play time.”
“We'll know in a couple of minutes whether they are compatible.”
If the pair take to each other, they will be allowed to mate when Natalia goes into heat.
“Once they start, they can breed 20 or 30 times a day,” Cassidy said. “It's not for the faint of heart. It's straightforward stuff, but there can be a lot of noise.”
After breeding, they will be separated again, Cassidy said. “Males and females rarely stay together.”
Zoo officials hope Natalia could have one or two litters. But even if the mating plans fail, Preston will have a permanent home in Omaha.
Because of its widely known success in breeding big cats, the Henry Doorly Zoo is often consulted by other institutions.
“Fewer and fewer people have the knack” for successful breeding, Cassidy said.
The number of times cats are allowed to breed in captivity, at least at AZA institutions, depends a lot on the species. Because Amur leopards are so endangered, they are allowed to breed whenever it's healthy (the small gene pool has to be taken into consideration).
The breeding of lions, which are more numerous in zoos, is more strictly monitored and controlled, he said.
Much of the planning is done at annual meetings, when curators gather to figure out which species need to or can be bred, and which to control. They follow SSP guidelines.
It's all done scientifically, Cassidy said. “We try to match well. It can get to be a dating game.”
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