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By Sean Andersen-Vie, Denver Zoo Public Relations Manager
There’s a new clouded leopard cub, in Toyota Elephant Passage. Saya, as she has been named, was born on April 10 and flew in on Frontier Airlines on May 17 from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), a veterinary and reproductive research center headquartered in Front Royal, Virginia. I had the pleasure of traveling with one of our zookeepers, Matt Lenyo, to retrieve her and document the trip.
Much like the clouded leopards that were born at Denver Zoo in mid-March, male, Pi and female, Rhu, this cub was hand-raised. We have learned it is critical for zookeepers to do this and this is a best practice for the sake of the cubs. Additionally, research has found that cubs must socialize with other cubs at an early age in order to be receptive to breeding as adults, important for a species classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Saya was born without a sibling so it became even more important to acclimate her with our cubs as soon as possible.
We arrived at SCBI on May 16 and toured the grounds to learn more about their work. The 3200-acre campus is located about 90 minutes west of Washington, D.C. Over the last century the land’s lush rolling hills have been used for a few different purposes, from supplying horses and mules for the U.S. Army to later researching cattle. In 1974, The Conservation and Research Center was founded there as an extension of the National Zoo to be used as a breeding facility. It was renamed in 2010, but its main priority is still veterinary and reproductive research. The animals in its care represent many species that are endangered and difficult to breed. In addition to clouded leopards, these include red pandas, cheetahs, maned wolves and white-naped cranes. Their methods to breed and raise young animals are very interesting, such as experimenting with artificial insemination and even letting a crane raise a chick from a different species.
After our tour, we met the cub for the first time. Pi and Rhu have been referred to as “cute” countless times and this one was certainly no different, with blue eyes that could draw people in like a siren song. We always have to remind our guests, though, that they are wild animals. Saya illustrated this perfectly when it came time to feed her. Even though she cried for milk with high-pitched, bird-like squeals, she refused to make feedings easy. Instead she chose to defiantly bite and claw the bottle’s nipple and attempt to squirm away from her handlers. Matt was the picture of patience, though and gave her chance after chance to suckle until her formula was gone. He fed her four times in the span of 14 hours, learning her eccentricities, before it was time to leave.
In a small, soft crate we whisked her through Reagan International Airport, taking her out only to stroll through the security scanners and feed her behind the scenes, and boarded our plane before anyone else. Matt nestled her crate under the seat in front of him for the entire flight and checked on her frequently. We thought for sure she would make some noise, but we never heard a peep, suspecting that the vibrations of the plane rocked her to sleep. In fact, no passengers would have ever known about our exotic companion had we not asked the flight attendant to make a special announcement.
We arrived at the zoo late in the evening of Saturday, May 17 and Matt fed her once more. Since then she has been getting to know her new surroundings and zookeepers have allowed her brief, well-monitored “play dates” with Pi and Rhu, but because she is still only about half their weight and they are a little too rough with her, they aren’t kept together for long. Eventually, though, she will join them on a regular basis to socialize. It isn’t known how long any of the three cubs will remain at Denver Zoo, but she could also very well breed with Pi in the future.
It was a really a privilege to be part of this project and to be able to share it with the public. Our trip could potentially make a difference in the decline of her species. I’m proud to say that our staff work at this cause every day and strive to secure a better for world animals through human understanding.