Michigan zoo aims to open snow leopard exhibit in 2008

More natural enclosure for Binder Park Zoo pair should aid education efforts

Tuesday, December 5, 2006
By Santosh Rao srao@kalamazoogazette.com 388-7777

In about a year and a half, Capron and his female companion, Lotus, will be bounding off specially constructed elevated platforms amid plush foliage in a new home at Battle Creek’s Binder Park Zoo.

The two snow leopards will be the main beneficiaries of $500,000 given to the zoo by Battle Creek natives and brothers Jeff and Doug Smith in honor of their parents, Wendell “Pete” and Leona Smith, who had long ties to Battle Creek.

Twelve-year-old Capron and his 9-year-old mate should feel more at home in the darker nooks and hideouts that will be incorporated into the new 6,000-square-foot Smith Snow Leopard Exhibit, said Andi Kornak, the zoo’s curator of collections and one of the pair’s caretakers.

“Snow leopards are generally very secretive and reclusive animals, and it’s very difficult and rare to see them active like other wild cats,” Kornak said. “They usually stay hidden behind thick trees and large rock formations.”

Male snow leopards are generally more standoffish, while the females are a little more receptive to humans, she said.

“The males are more likely to hide away and pay extra vigilance to their environment and surroundings,” she said.

“In the wild, snow leopards might actually be able to see us before we see them, but when they are in captivity, they are unlikely to show off their full capabilities and personalities,” Kornak said.

Dangerous predators

While snow leopards are not entirely nocturnal animals, they are generally more active during the early morning and evening, when they hunt for food.

Snow leopards are known to be one of the most dangerous members of the wild-cat family, having the ability to capture and kill prey up to three times their own weight.

“It is very important that we keep a safe distance from them (the Binder Park Zoo pair) when we need to,” Kornak said, noting that Capron and Lotus are transferred between their cages with the aid of shift-sliding doors that limit direct interaction between the animals and caretakers.

“If we need to really get up close to them, we temporarily immobilize them by sedating them with a blow dart,” she said, such as when the snow leopards, like most of the other animals at the zoo, undergo their annual health exams.

“The two of them know when we are around them, but they are also fully aware if there’s anyone around them for any unusual circumstances, like if a veterinarian is around to administer some vaccinations,” Kornak said.

Capron is more likely to be vocal about unfamiliar visitors.

“He’ll growl fiercely and bare his teeth, which is quite normal behavior,” Kornak said.

Jenny Barnett, Binder Park Zoo’s director of wildlife management, said the leopards in the wild prefer to move around singly or in pairs to reduce competition for territory and food.

“Because they are solitary … animals, it makes it difficult to keep track of them in the wild and for us to know how many of them are actually out there,” Barnett said. Estimates are that 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards exist in the wild.

“Their stronghold is in Central and North Asia, like in China, India, Pakistan and Nepal,” Barnett said. “They thrive in pretty rough and rocky mountainous terrain with temperate climates.”

The Nature Conservancy, a leading global environmental organization that works to protect and preserve plant, animal and natural communities worldwide, has identified the cats as “endangered” based on its conservation-status-ranking system.

Snow leopard pelts are commonly sought after for making coats and other garments, while their bones and other body parts are in demand for use in traditional Asian medicines. They also are sometimes captured from the wild for private animal collections in Central Asia.

The cats also die at the hands of sheep and goat herders in retaliation when snow leopards kill domestic livestock. The cats are drawn to domestic animals when the number of wild sheep and goats are depleted as the domestic animals advance in an area.

Nourishing body and mind

At Binder Park Zoo, Capron and Lotus are fed a well-balanced diet, which consists of 2.5 pounds to 5 pounds of ground meats once daily, Kornack said. The amounts they are fed are determined by their ages and weights. None of their food is alive.

“As these are animals in captivity, they may not have the appropriate skills for hunting, which is why we don’t provide them with live food. They risk injury if they aren’t skilled enough to hunt for their food,” Kornak said.

The leopards are given cow bones and deer hide to chew on, and in the summer they’re put on a fast on Sundays because in the hot weather they don’t require the extra energy the food would provide, she said.

Capron and Lotus also have been involved in a program to teach them to obey various commands, Kornak said.

“We use positive reinforcements, like little snacks, to get them to stand on a scale for us to measure their weight so we can see they are healthy,” she said. “It’s also a mental stimulation of the mind, as we’ve been training them for about a year-and-a-half. It allows for a stress-free environment — for them and the caretakers.”

The animals’ caretakers are continuously learning about the cats.

“We’re just beginning to understand their various behaviors, so we try and simulate the environments to as close as their environments in the wild,” Kornak said.

“This allows us to educate the public about them, their behaviors, and the need for us to preserve their species and be empathic about their environments.”

Conservation education

Efforts to educate visitors about snow leopards are made continuously, according to Kari Parker, the zoo’s marketing manager.

The new exhibit for the cats will aid education.

“The new enclosures will be designed to closely resemble the natural environment of the snow leopards, will give our visitors a better viewing experience — with strong glass partitions that allow them to be as close as possible to the leopards and see how they behave in their natural environment,” Parker said.

The $500,000 donation also will help finance the development of the new Smith Wildlife Discovery Theater, which will seat about 300 people and be used for the zoo’s daily programs.

“This is a very significant contribution for us, because it’s these donations that are our foundation,” Parker said. “They help us progress toward our mission to nurture empathy, understanding and conservation of nature.”

The zoo also works in cooperation with about 125 zoos across the United States, Parker said, with hopes of increasing endangered animal populations.

http://www.mlive.com/news/kzgazette/index.ssf?/ base/features-1/1165337403131570.xml&coll=7

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