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Pallas cats find temporary home at Virginia Zoo

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mill Mountain Zoo welcomes feisty felines
By Kevin Kittredge
981-3323

Chin-Li was shy.

Alexey was cranky.

“If you want to breed, you’re going to have to be a little nicer,” advised Lisa Uhl, Mill Mountain Zoo’s public relations manager.

Say hello to the two newest cats at Mill Mountain Zoo. Chin-Li and Alexey are Pallas cats. They look quite a bit like house cats, with more fluff.

If the animals seemed a little overwhelmed by their surroundings last week, well, they had reason. The 7-year-old cats arrived here recently from the Denver Zoo, which is undergoing renovation, said Dave Orndorff, Mill Mountain Zoo director and general curator. They are expected to breed here as well — assuming Alexey gets over his attitude.

From the zoo’s off-exhibit holding area, where they will remain until the zoo completes the cats’ new exhibit space in the spring, Alexey glared at a photographer Friday morning. He bared his teeth. He made a variety of sounds, some distinctly catlike, others not so much. The mating call of a Pallas cat is said to resemble a cross between a dog barking and the hoot of an owl.

“They have some very bizarre vocalizations,” Orndorff said.

Chin-Li, meanwhile, stayed mostly in her box, peeking out with one eye from time to time. Despite her shyness, she can take care of herself. When Alexey tried to come in, she swatted him away.

Pallas cats are named after German naturalist Peter Pallas, who discovered them in 1776. Also known as manuls and steppe cats, they are native to central Asia, and live in high altitudes on a diet of small rodents and birds. They were once thought to be the ancestors of Persian cats, which they resemble, but that is not true, Orndorff said.

The cats were long hunted for their fur, but have protected status now in most of their natural habitat. International trade of their fur has largely ceased, according to various sources, including catsg.org, an international group of cat specialists.

The cats are considered threatened, but not endangered, Orndorff said.

There are only 53 Pallas cats in North America, however, and only five breeding pairs, Orndorff said. Alexey and Chin-Li have produced kittens together in the past.

The cats arrive at a time when the zoo’s cat population has suffered losses. Ruby the tiger, perhaps the zoo’s best-known inhabitant, died in 2006, and Natasha, a snow leopard, died this week. Both animals lived long lives and died of natural causes.

Despite the resemblance of Pallas cats to house cats, they aren’t very cuddly. Orndorff said the cats can be very aggressive.

“I just want to go in there and feel their fur,” said Uhl, watching the new cats in their cage. But she added, “That’s probably not a good idea.”

http://www.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/wb/229484

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

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