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Kansas zoo’s snow leopards enjoying the cooler weather

Snow leopards waiting for a visit

Published 11/20/2009 in Commentary : Columns

This is a great time of the year to visit the zoo. As the weather starts to cool down, many of our animals become more active.

I’m sure we have all experienced the overwhelming heat of summer when the only thing that sounds good is relaxing in a shady pool of water. At the zoo, we make sure to provide many opportunities for our animals to do just that.

We also give them special ice treats and indoor areas to keep them comfortable through the hot summer days. No matter how enjoyable that summer soak might be, our hairier animals are always excited when the temperature drops.

Our snow leopards probably are one of the zoo’s biggest lovers of the cooler weather. These beautiful cats are native to the mountains of Asia, from Bhutan and Nepal in the south to the upper reaches of Mongolia and even Russia in the North.

They live at elevations of more than 10,000 feet where the terrain is rugged and the weather is cold and dry. Snow leopards are well suited to their names, not only because of their white fur, but also because of the snowy regions they inhabit.

A snow leopard’s body is perfectly adapted for its lifestyle. The most obvious adaptation is its thick and fluffy coat. This fur provides incredible insulation against temperatures that regularly drop to 20 degrees below zero and have been recorded as low as 60 degrees below zero. When these temperatures are combined with deep snow and blowing wind, it is important to cover every inch of exposed skin.

Luckily, that long tail is more than just decoration. It is used for covering up sensitive noses from chilling breezes, as well as for balance.

If you ever have a chance to look at a snow leopard’s feet, you might think they look just a little odd. In order to stay on top of the snow, these cats have over-sized paws that act like kitty snowshoes.

Of course, they don’t suffer from any of the awkwardness most first time snowshoers experience.

The leopard’s short forelegs and long hind legs combine with their powerful build to allow them to leap from one rocky ledge to another in search of their favorite prey — mountain sheep and goats, all while staying on top of deep snow drifts. If you have ever been amazed by the sight of a mountain goat standing on the side of an almost vertical slope, just imagine the agility of the cat that hunts it.

Of course these cats are more than meets the eye. They also have enormous lungs and nasal cavities. The lungs help them get enough oxygen from the high mountain air. Their enlarged nasal cavities make sure the air gets warmed before it reaches their delicate lung tissue.

Unfortunately, these cats are endangered in the wild. It is difficult to get an exact count, but there are likely only a few thousand individuals left in their natural range.

This decline is due to a number of factors including poaching for their fur, habitat loss and loss of prey due to land development. The good news is that zoos around the world are working to ensure the future of these animals in the wild.

If you are interested in more information about snow leopards or would like to learn how you can help, there are a number of things you can do. Visit www.snowleopard.org to get more information.

You also can bundle up and stop by the zoo! Our snow leopards are here to help inspire people to take action, and we are always more than happy to answer any questions you may have.

Visit our award winning Web site at www.garden-city.org/zoo

http://www.gctelegram.com/news/zoo-col-tyson-11-20-09

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org

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