It's official. No more Cub #1 and Cub #2. The Akron zoo's two new snow leopard cubs are no longer incognito. At 16 weeks of age and weighing 17 pounds apiece, now they each have their own name. The results of a recent online contest ended with the names Raj and Sabu being chosen. And fitting names they are indeed. Raj, for the first male cub born on May 14, means "King" or "Rule" in Sanskrit, based on the legend of "Snow leopard rules the animals" about how the snow leopard became king. And Sabu, for the cub born a few hours later, is a Tibetan word for snow leopard.
Part of the Akron Zoo's Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan, these cubs will go on to help further propagate this endangered species nationwide. Their status as "critically endangered" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)) Red List of Threatened Species is due to several factors. First, they are seen as a threat by livestock owners and second, their pelts are valuable and in high demand while their other body parts are eagerly sought after by practitioners of traditional medicines in Asian countries. Lastly, their natural habitat is continually dwindling away due to agricultural land development.
According to Panthera, an organization of partners in wild cat conservation, there are believed to be between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards living in the wild today. They are extremely elusive and challenging to survey so the exact number is unknown. The landscapes the snow leopards inhabit are approximately 3,000 to 5,400 meters above sea level, and they have adapted to survive some of the harshest conditions on Earth. China accounts for 60 percent of the animals' habitat.
Zoo President and CEO, Patricia (Pat) Simmons said, "The Akron Zoo was very proud of the birth of our snow leopard cubs this past spring. From the time we found out Shanti was pregnant until now, everything has gone very smoothly. Because snow leopards are an endangered species, this birth was extremely significant. There have only been nine snow leopard cubs born at zoos in the U.S. this year. The birth gives the Akron Zoo an opportunity for our guests to learn about this species while enjoying the cubs being on exhibit at the zoo."
David M. Barnhardt, director of marketing and guest services said, "It's very important to be managed responsibly to make sure the species doesn't become extinct." Barnhardt explained that Akron is accredited with the AZA and these animals are part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP). "These plans are set up for critically endangered animals like snow leopards. When they are born in captivity, there is a SSP coordinator and the AZA knows all of the snow leopards in U.S. zoos. They will genetically pair up males and females to breed responsibly."
Barnhardt said the zoo has a resident adult male, Roscoe, and a resident adult female, Shanti. "They were first-time parents. Shanti was rejected by her mother when she was born and then hand-raised. So we didn't really know how she would do with the cubs because she didn't, maybe, have that maternal instinct. But she did wonderful. She was not born at the Akron zoo; she was born in Binder Park, Fla." Barnhardt went on, "So Shanti and Roscoe were genetically paired up to come here to breed. It took us about two years and these cubs will go and be paired up with females at other zoos in the hopes of breeding. So it's got to be a type of managed program," Barnhardt added.
Sarah Kirkman is a wild animal handler and the cub's primary keeper. She said they spend a lot of time together, sleeping and playing. "The mother as well, she interacts with them a lot. They do like to climb on her and bite her tail and play with her, so she does really well interacting with them, too."
Kirkman said, "They are with the mother the majority of the time. When they come out onto the exhibit the mother stays inside so she gets a break while they come out here to play and when they come back inside they will be with her the rest of the day. Once the permanent snow leopard exhibit is done with construction they will be out on that exhibit with her most of the day." But the father is out of the picture as far as the cubs are concerned, she said. "The father never goes in with the cubs because in the wild they don't have any parental responsibility in the rearing process. So the zoo follows that trend of separating the father from the cubs."
When asked when the cubs will go on full-time exhibit, Barnhardt said, "As they grow, the keepers, obviously, are concerned about their safety. Right now they are climbing, they're jumping from things, but the keepers don't want them doing anything that they can't do, but they want to try to do. Just like a human baby they want to do more than they can, sometimes. As they get more comfortable, as they grow a little bit bigger, then they will be on exhibit longer. The snow leopard exhibit should be done within the next couple of weeks. Then they'll start easing them into it." Kirkman added, "The cubs seem to play really hard for about, maybe, half an hour to an hour and then you can see them kind of slow down and they usually take a nap. Then, when they wake up from that they are usually very active for about half an hour to an hour and then they sleep again.
Earlier, Barnhardt, whose grandfather was one of the original founders of the zoo, explained the cubs are time-sharing, or trading off in the display area with the jaguar while their permanent snow leopard area is under construction.
"We did not want to delay people being able to see them and learn about them," he said. "They are a smaller species. They're about the size of a jaguar, maybe a little bit smaller. Big cats are lions and tigers. They're not the real big-big cats that you think of. They are very agile cats; they are good climbers and jumpers. They are indigenous to the Himalayan Mountains. They need to be able to navigate the side of a mountain in the snowy weather. Their exhibit that is under construction right now is very vertical. They also like to be up high. There is a lot of climbing for them. When you look at their exhibit you think 'gosh, they can't get all the way up to the top', but they do. They can climb up the side of a mountain with ease. They are very adventurous," Barnhardt said.
Known as predators, the exhibit next to theirs is called Himalayan Top. It includes species that they will prey on. That space is shown together to illustrate how these animals on the Himalayas share the same space.
As to what they eat, and how much, Kirkman said, "Right now they are still nursing from mom, but they are in the transition period so they're each eating about a pound of meat a day. In the next few weeks they're going to transition completely onto the meat and they will be fully weaned. We feed them a beef based product that looks a lot like ground meat. It also has a lot of vitamins and minerals for them already mixed in. We also supplement that with bones to chew on, which helps to keep their teeth clean, and then once a week they also get rabbits."
Asked if their food will always be delivered to them or do they get to hunt at all, Kirkman said, "Some of both. We do tong feed with them to get them used to eating off of tongs. That's how we'll give them the food when they do training. They also will eat if we put the meat inside of a box, then they have to rip open the box to get to their food. They are very destructive, they enjoy shredding things. So that's another way we can deliver the food to them. Or we can scatter it around the holding area or out in the exhibit so they have to really use their nose and search for the food. There is a variety of different ways we can deliver the food to them," she said.
The zoo keepers provide the cubs with enrichment activities on a daily basis. Kirkman said, "We dump ice cubes down here every day, that's a form of enrichment. They will come down if they get too hot and they lay on the ice and they like to eat the ice. We've given them big, solid ice blocks that they like to chew on. We also give them boxes to shred. Sometimes we give them small plastic jugs that they like to bat around, or if they're small enough they do like to pick them up in their mouths and carry them around."
Kirkman explained how the ice represents their environment in the Himalayas. "These guys, where they live in the wild, it's pretty cold year round. So in the summertime we like to provide ice or a mist that we can turn on, or a fan. Some way that if they get a little bit warm, they can cool off. And the adult, their mother, she also really enjoys ice enrichment as well. She'll play in the ice, eat the ice, and lay in it. They really do enjoy the ice cubes," she said.
In order to provide medical care to the cubs and the other animals Barnhardt said, "We have a chief veterinarian on staff, we have a vet tech on staff. We have a hospital manager, we have a part-time vet tech and we have a full-service animal hospital here in house that we are able to do any procedure on the animals. It's a big part about what we do on a daily basis. We do a lot of preventative care and they can do anything else if an animal needs surgery or something else. But preventative, just like humans, is really key; we try to treat the animals before they might get sick. As they're getting older we see those ailments, like arthritis that we get, animals get too. We try to treat that. We do have 700 animals; there are all kinds of animals, so the vet's got to know a little bit about each one."
Barnhardt said, "The keepers fill out a daily log about the animal, so we know how they were behaving that day, if they ate well, things like that. So they can look at if an animal is maybe behaving a little bit differently, or nor eating as well, then we know that something might be going on there and they can get it some care. They do a lot of observation on the animal to see how it's doing and if it's behaving like it should."
Before returning to her duties to care for the cubs, Kirkman said, "The keepers are able to go in and handle them and still pick them up and put them in a kennel to weigh them twice a week and we can hold them and put them in the different areas. We are training them to shift so we don't have to handle them as much and in the next two months, or so, we'll probably be "hands-off" with them. At that point we will never go in the enclosure with them anymore, but there will still be a lot of interaction – just through touch," she concluded.
The Akron Zoo is located at 550 Edgewood Ave. For more information on the snow leopard exhibit and zoo details, visit www.akronzoo.org