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Ontario zoo specializes in cats

Jun 14, 2007 12:31 AM
PETER GORRIE
STAFF WRITER

It’s as if Sasha is a ghost. We are outside her cage, watching her pace back and forth. We walk around to the other side, where a 10-centimetre feeding hole has been cut out of the plastic-coated steel mesh.

By the time we get there, she has already arrived, the movements that carried her unseen and silent.

It’s exactly how Amur leopards stalk and attack deer and hares in the dense forest and deep winter snow of a territory that stretches across the Russian Far East, the Korean peninsula and the mountains of Northeast China.

Quick, quiet and deadly.

Hunting prowess, though, is not enough to ensure the big cat’s survival. Scientists estimate that no more than 40 remain in the wild, their ranks decimated by poachers, farmers, and loggers.

Despite the hard work of anti-poaching teams and compensation for farmers who lose livestock, they remain on the list of critically endangered species – the final step before they disappear forever from their long-time home.

Sasha, an eight-year-old female, is one of two Amur leopards at Jungle Cat World, just south of Peterborough.

She is among about 200 of the spotted cats in zoos around the world, part of an effort to keep them alive in captivity in hope they’ll continue to exist somewhere and might, eventually, be returned to the wild.

Sasha – raised by humans, fed a dead chicken each early afternoon, gawked at constantly – is too accustomed to people to ever go back into the bush.

On this day, once she’s sussed out her visitors, she rolls around on her back like a housecat demanding a belly rub. Nobody, however, goes inside the cage with her.

The cats might look tame, perhaps even friendly. But “it’s hard for us to judge,” says a zoo employee who calls herself Tekar – the female version of a name that means strong and powerful. “They could turn at any time.”

The Amur leopards aren’t the only star attractions at the small zoo, located on Concession Rd. 6 at Orono, just east of Highway 35/115.

The biggest cage on the sixhectare site is home to three Siberian tigers, the heaviest and longest members of the cat family, who share some of their dwindling wild territory with the leopards. They, too, are critically threatened: only 200 to 250 exist in their natural state.

The zoo is also home to lions, several smaller cats, Arctic wolves, a cougar and a host of less-imposing animals and birds.

It’s open to visitors year-round: The most popular time is the feeding tour, which starts at 1:30 p.m. daily.

The zoo also offers weeklong summer camps for children and teens, evening “safaris” that include overnight stays in small cabins, and a bed and breakfast.

Peter and Christa Klose opened Jungle Cat World in 1983. Six years later, it became a fully accredited zoo.

It began by happenstance, Christa says. They operated a dog training business and, on a visit to the nearby Bowmanville Zoo, traded a guard dog for a lion cub.

They kept the cub like a house pet for a while. Eventually, it needed a cage and a mate. They acquired a second lion. It came with a tiger, which soon required its own cage, and the enterprise was on its way.

“One day we sat down and said we don’t need weekends, we don’t need vacations, we don’t need to make money – let’s start a zoo,” Christa says, laughing, in the cramped office.

She’s feeding Nazira, a twoweek- old ring-tailed lemur, which clings to a stuffed doll as tightly as it would to its mother in the wild.

All the zoo animals – even the big tigers – are hand-reared, she says. They must be removed from their parents within two weeks. Any later and they’ll never be tamed.

At first, they stay in a baby bed in the Klose’s home on the property. As they grow, they move into increasingly large cages. At about six weeks, they’re brought out to be handled by the zookeeper. After several months, they’re ready for the main enclosure.

Rearing them is a delicate balance, Christa says. “They need to be socialized.” Otherwise they’d be too stressed in the cages and among so many people. But they are not pets: “They don’t like to be smothered.”

Socialization actually makes them less predictable, she says. If wild, they’d probably shy away from humans. If raised, “it sees you as part of its family, and you need to play by its rules.”

The zoo has a firm rule: “Once an animal is too big to be handled by one person, you shouldn’t take it out.”

To ensure a good genetic stock, the breeding program excludes animals that have congenital flaws or been bred several times. The aim is to reintroduce leopards into the wild. They’ll likely be put into a part of the Russian Far East where they disappeared 30 years ago, says a conservation group called the Tigris Foundation. But that event is years away.

In the meantime, Sasha will do her part; prowling and playing to make visitors care about the precarious position of her relatives.

http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/article/224959