By JOHN BURGESON
Updated: 12/02/2008 12:24:54 AM EST
BRIDGEPORT — A feisty 1.7-pound baby ocelot, born Halloween night, had his first checkup Monday at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.
The brief encounter, witnessed only by zoo staffers and the press, was done to check on the health of the kitten and also to determine its sex.
Although most in the examination room let out a collective, “Awwwww!” the kitten wasn’t one you’d want in your lap. Hissing and extending its claws, the exotic cat left no doubt he had little affection for human beings.
“It went beautifully,” said Dr. Harold Hochman, the veterinarian who performed the examination. “The kitten looks as normal as can be, his health is sound and he has a bad attitude. His mom is a good mom.”
The birth was improbable for several reasons, according to Gregg Dancho, the zoo director. The baby’s conception and birth marks only the third time artificial insemination has been successful worldwide with the species. Also, the baby’s mother, 4-year-old Kuma, is missing her left-rear leg owing to an encounter with her mother soon after her birth at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo.
“Kuma’s mother had parenting issues,” Dancho said.
And to further complicate matters, this is Kuma’s first birth, and first-time mothers not infrequently reject their offspring, especially in a zoo setting.
Don Goff, the assistant zoo director, said it’s best to leave the mother alone with her kitten, tempting as it may be to pick up the little ocelot. In fact,
Monday’s encounter was the first time the kitten was handled by humans, much to the dismay of Kuma.
Separating mother and son involved a degree of trickery, the zoo staffers said. The mother had to be lured to another part of her enclosure, after which a partition was lowered to separate the two.
“We let mom and baby do a lot of bonding,” Goff said. “We take a hands-off approach, and let that bond get real secure so we can go in later and do what we need to do.”
Dancho said both Kuma and her baby will remain at the zoo at least another year. After that, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — the governing body of accredited zoos — will determine the best opportunities for mating with other ocelots in captivity. There are fewer than 30 Brazilian ocelots in North American zoos. The father might be traded off to another zoo, too, Dancho said.
“But we won’t put the father, the mother and the baby in the same enclosure,” he said, noting the species’ infamous reputation for mutual hatred.
He cautioned visitors that it will be another four weeks or so before Kuma and her son will be ready for zoo visitors. “We hope to have the mother and baby on display soon after New Year’s Day.”
Dancho said the artificial insemination procedure was performed in August by Dr. William F. Swanson of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. While this is the third “AI” ocelot in the world, it the first one to be born for “species management” purposes, and the first one since 2000. The first two were for research purposes.
In the wild, the ocelot — Leopardus pardalis, as it is known scientifically — grows to a length of about 3 feet, not including its 18-inch tail, and is about twice to three times the size of a domestic cat. It weighs between 20 and 35 pounds and lives for about 11 years. Its range extends from Uruguay and northern Argentina, through Brazil, Colombia and Central America and as far north as northern Mexico. It has been rarely seen in Texas and Arizona, as its presence in the U.S. is made all but impossible by highways and domestic dogs. Fences built to stop illegal immigrants keep the ocelot from moving through its traditional range, another impediment to its survival.
According to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, fewer than 100 individuals live in that state.
Fiercely territorial, an ocelot requires a range of about 18 square miles. It generally hunts mammals smaller than itself — rabbits and rodents and smaller deer — as well as reptiles, fish, monkeys and birds. It spend much of its time in the trees.
Listed as endangered, the cat is threatened by depletion of its habitat. In the mid-20th century, it was nearly hunted to extinction as its beautiful coat was widely sought after. It took 25 pelts to make one coat. About 130,000 pelts were imported into the U.S. annually at the peak of the ocelot trade in the late 1960s. Imports of ocelot pelts became illegal in 1972.
It was also popular as an exotic pet, after being descented and defanged.
Scientific name: Leopardus pardalis Adult size: about 3 feet long, not including tail Weight: 20-30 pounds Range: Most of South America, Central America and Mexico. A few live in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. There are 10 sub-species Status: Endangered Diet: rodents, rabbits, snakes, monkeys, birds and the occasional fawn Lifespan: 8-10 years
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org