Snow Leopard Baby Boom Continues in American Zoos

ZooTube video by Woodland Park Zoo

Endangered in the wild, snow leopards are evidently stable and thriving in a breeding program managed cooperatively and carefully by North American zoos.


Photo by Ric Brewer, courtesy Woodland Park Zoo

Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo gave its new snow leopards their first physical check-up this week.

“We’re pleased to announce that both cubs appear to be progressing normally. They’re healthy and vigorous, and maternal care appears to be very good,” said Woodland Park Zoo Associate Veterinarian Kelly Helmick. The cubs, a male and a female, currently weigh between 3.6 and 4 lbs.

The cubs are the first offspring for the 4-year-old mother, Helen, and 3-year-old father, Tom. The first-time mom and cubs are off public exhibit to allow bonding and proper nursing. “Since snow leopards are solitary animals in the wild, the father has been separated and is on public view with the zoo’s other adult female, Nadia, in the snow leopard exhibit,” the zoo said.

Nine Snow Leopards Born This Year

The last birth of snow leopards at Woodland Park Zoo was in 2000. A total of nine snow leopards have been born this year in five AZA zoos.

“The birth marks another milestone for Woodland Park Zoo and North American zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), as the cubs will help bolster the genetic diversity of the endangered species,” noted zoo Interim Curator Tina Mullett in a news statement.

“These beautiful conservation ambassadors help visitors connect with snow leopards and become inspired to learn about and take action to help preserve their future in their range countries.”


Photo by Ric Brewer, courtesy Woodland Park Zoo

The North American breeding program aims to maintain a stable population of captive snow leopards of around 300 cats, ensuring genetic diversity. There is a similar program in Europe.

Some 700 snow leopards are thought to live in captivity worldwide. Estimates of how many snow leopards are in the wild vary between 3,500 and 7,000.

Captive leopards not only retain a breeding pool for the endangered species in zoos, but they can also serve as ambassadors for their wild relatives, helping raise awareness and funding for wildlife conservation.

Snow Leopard Trust

As part of Woodland Park Zoo’s partnership with field conservation projects around the world, the zoo partners with the Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust. The Trust was created in 1981 by the late Woodland Park Zoo staff member Helen Freeman, the namesake of the mother of the cubs, Helen.

“Through innovative programs, effective partnerships and the latest science, the Snow Leopard Trust is saving these magnificent cats and improving the lives of people who live in the snow leopard countries of Central Asia,” the zoo said.

“Woodland Park Zoo has a long history of caring for snow leopards and conserving them in the wild, since the zoo’s first snow leopards arrived in 1972 from the USSR. Under the Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP), managed by AZA, 28 cubs have been born at the zoo and sent to zoos worldwide to help diversify the genetic pool of the managed population.”

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Snow leopard cubs are born helpless, with their eyes closed, and rely for several weeks on their mothers for nutrition.

Monitoring Snow Leopards by Web Cam

“To minimize disturbance, staff have minimal physical contact with the new family and are monitoring mother and cubs in a birthing den via a web cam,” the zoo said.

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The new parents, Helen and Tom, arrived last year from Tautphaus Park Zoo in Idaho Falls and Los Angeles Zoo, respectively, under a breeding recommendation made by the SSP for snow leopards. “Introducing new animals, especially with the important goal of breeding, requires a methodical strategy. Matchmaking doesn’t always work out for animals, just like it doesn’t always work out for humans,” explained Mullet.

“Our keeper staff invested many hours into daily observations of visual introductions between the adults before introducing them together physically. The expertise and patience of our staff and, of course, letting nature take its course, have paid off with a successful introduction, breeding and these precious cubs.”

Photos of the neonatal exam can be found on the zoo’s blog.

The Snow Leopard is among 39 Species Survival Plans that Woodland Park Zoo participates in, including the western lowland gorilla, Humboldt penguin, Komodo dragon and red panda. Under the auspices of AZA, SSPs also involve a variety of other collaborative conservation activities such as research, public education, reintroduction and field projects.

Related blog entries about snow leopards :

Snow Leopards Take Up Manhattan Residence

Snow Leopards, 32 Other Species Receive Protection in Afghanistan

Changing Planet

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