Zoo vets harvest eggs of rare black-footed cat

Avatar BCR | September 28, 2006 3 Views 0 Likes 0 Ratings

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Scott Huddleston
Express-News Staff Writer
Web Posted: 09/27/2006 11:08 PM CDT

Buffy doesn’t know it — she’s sound asleep, after all — but she might just be helping save her species.

In an in vitro procedure that’s been around for only two years, zoo veterinarians removed eggs from her ovaries Wednesday in a procedure aimed at helping protect black-footed cats like Buffy. Only about 30 of the little cats live in U.S. zoos, and many others in their native habitat in southern Africa are endangered by habitat destruction.

Buffy is prepared for surgery at the San Antonio Zoo. Vets and staffers removed 10 of the black-footed cat’s eggs on Wednesday.

“They’re sort of small, but a mighty little creature,” said Dr. Danelle Okeson, a veterinarian at the San Antonio Zoo.

Buffy and her companion, Dijan, a male, have been together for three months on display in the zoo’s African Rift Valley, near the cheetah exhibit. As is too common for this little-understood, typically nocturnal cat, Buffy and Dijan haven’t bred.

“We’d prefer for them to breed naturally, as much as possible,” said Dr. Jason Herrick, of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife.

But unlike domestic cats, which quickly become mature sexually and breed, black-footed cats have little contact between the sexes — even in courtship.

Working under a species survival plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Herrick removed 10 eggs from Buffy’s ovaries. Using an endoscope to see video images of the cat’s inner organs, he carefully took out the tiny black eggs, each measuring about one-tenth of a millimeter, with a suction needle.

The 3-year-old, 4-pound cat, fully anesthetized for the procedure, will likely be back in her enclosure today, Okeson said. A patch of skin on her belly where hair was shaved will be the only visible sign of the procedure on her exotic patched and striped coat, Okeson said.

Herrick also extracted sperm from Dijan and placed it with the eggs in petri dishes. He may know today how many eggs have developed into embryos.

Since the process for implanting embryos into female black-footed cats is still in development, embryos of the species are kept frozen with liquid nitrogen. There now are 22 frozen embryos in storage.”Plus whatever we get out of these,” Herrick said, smiling.

There are only two breeding pairs of the species nationwide, he said. More than half of the black-footed cats at U.S. zoos are first- or second-generation offspring of the same pair.

Though the cats aren’t popular in zoos because of their size and tendency to hide, they’re fierce hunters and strong diggers that can survive on little water. They’ve been known to leap into the air to catch birds and even bring down sheep by attacking the throat.

Embryos have successfully been transferred into female domestic cats, ocelots, tigers and African wildcats, Herrick said.

“Hopefully, black-footed cats will be on the list soon,” he said. “They’re really cool cats if you take the time to study them.”



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