Leaping Leopards: Building Enrichment Playgrounds for New Arrivals

Late last year, two clouded leopard cubs, eight-month-old male, J.D., and nine-month-old female, Rukai, joined the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden animal family. As soon as the carnivore care team received confirmation that the Zoo would become the duo’s new home, preparations for their arrival began at the Cat Forest habitat.

Native to Nepal and Bangladesh, clouded leopards are known as one of the best climbers in the felid family. The species’ flexible ankle joints, short and stout legs, large paws, long tail and sharp claws with specialized padding that conforms to the shape of branches, are all unique adaptations that contribute to their impressive arboreal skills. The species is able to climb upside down, hang from branches with its hind feet and descend from trees head first.

Clouded Leopards - Photo Credit Mandi Townzen

To ensure the cubs were provided with a stimulating environment that would enable them to exhibit natural behaviors at all times, the carnivore team collaborated with the maintenance team to implement design features fitting for an arboreal species. This plan included modifications to the cubs’ outdoor habitat and indoor habitat, which is off public view.

Because the cubs’ outdoor habitat, located between the Tiger and Small Cat Interpretive Centers, was formerly home to a primarily terrestrial cat species, there were several adaptations that needed to be made in order to accommodate the new arboreal residents.  So, with the addition of elevated perching opportunities and trimming some of the existing trees and shrubbery, the outdoor habitat was ready for the cubs to explore, and it was time to begin the major task of creating an indoor climbing structure for the cubs. With a detailed plan in-hand, the maintenance team began to put their exceptional skills to work!

The indoor space’s 13-feet-tall ceiling and ample square-footage enabled the team to incorporate several lounging platforms, a large firehose hammock, detachable horizontal and vertical logs for climbing, scratching and resting - as well as attachment points for various enrichment items. The project took three weeks to complete and included all of the components needed for the cubs to do what they do best—be clouded leopards!

A bonus for the carnivore care team was the functionality of the design, which provided the flexibility to alter diet presentation, present new and engaging enrichment opportunities and work with the cubs on husbandry training behaviors. Given their young age, training will be a vital component of their adjustment to life in OKC.  Also incorporated, were blood draw training and radiograph ports to allow for voluntary participation in medical care. Completely blown away by the result, the carnivore team was eager to begin introducing the cubs to the space.

As with any new experience, there was some initial caution. J.D. was the first to check out the hard work, and he immediately began climbing on the perching platforms. Rukai watched intently from across the hallway in an adjacent den.  Once J.D. checked out the entire design, he ventured back into the den with Rukai.  When he left for a second look, she began to follow him and together, they explored every feature—wrestling in the hammock, chasing each other over the logs and eventually napping on the elevated resting platforms.

While the cubs will primarily spend time in their outdoor habitat, on public view, they may have access to their indoor space, depending on the weather. There are temperature parameters in place for the species, meaning that when temperatures fall outside the ranges specified, Rukai and J.D. will move inside. Whether they are inside or outside, the detailed design of each space allows for the cubs to be as playful as can be throughout the day.  This collaboration between the maintenance and the carnivore teams has already made a true difference for the cubs, caretakers and Zoo guests.

Rukai and J.D. are settling into their new home at the Zoo nicely, and the carnivore team is happy to report that the duo is exhibiting several natural behaviors. Be sure to come out and see the Zoo’s energetic clouded leopard cubs at their Cat Forest habitat very soon!

Tyler Boyd

-Tyler Boyd, curator of carnivores

Photo credit: Mandi Townzen

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