When we refer to carnivores at the Zoo, we’re usually talking about our big and small cats, such as tigers, ocelots, snow leopards, jaguars and caracals, just to name a few, that live in Cat Forest. Each of these beautiful, powerful and diverse animals requires distinctive health care, food and enrichment. Most are solitary by nature and only come together to breed, which can make their encounters pretty intense but very significant for their species.
Breeding and reproduction are important, natural behaviors and normal aspects of the lifecycle for all animals. The Zoo supports the natural breeding behavior of these cats, as it promotes the physical health of the animals and a quality well-being. A lot of careful planning and preparation go into a breeding plan at the Zoo. We will encourage our cats to breed when we have a compatible pair that are recommended to breed by the Species Survival Plan (SSP) through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The SSP is a planned breeding effort that ensures a healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied population of each species among AZA-accredited zoos.
Once the Zoo receives a breeding recommendation for one of our cat pairs, we carefully observe the signs of the female going into heat. A few of those signs include more vocal/calling, rolling around on the ground and rubbing up against her habitat. During this time, we will observe the male producing a “flehmen” response. This response of curling back his upper lip occurs upon smelling the female’s urine and pheromones.
At the proper time, we start the process of putting the male and female cats (and other carnivores) together with a “howdy” door, which is a door that enables them to interact right next to each other but with a barrier between them. Once we observe that they are being receptive to each other, we begin the process of putting them together in the same area without the barrier. This phase is the most intense as they begin sizing up each other and often demonstrating aggressive behaviors. Usually after this initial aggressiveness wears off, the pair will become interested in breeding. During this time, keepers are constantly monitoring the cats for safety and well-being. Though the process may take some time, the results of helping these incredible species to survive and thrive is a reward all its own.
Just recently, the Zoo announced the birth of an adorable male ocelot, the result of a successful breeding process. We look forward to you and your family watching “Ignacio” grow with us here at the Zoo! Click here to read more about Ignacio.
--Shawn Sims, animal caretaker