It’s 4:45 a.m. Why am I up so early? I still have jet lag (Thailand is 14 hours ahead of San Diego). A fantastically bright lightening storm just ended, and I need some time to wrap my mind around taking a very cold shower. I’ve acquired 3 new bug bites from my recent activities, bringing the total to 15, a new record, even for me. There are two constants here in Thailand: daily rainstorms and bug bites. Our day now begins at the breeding center at 6:30 a.m. Ken and I are taking advantage of the quiet mornings as well as the calm evenings to increase the contact time between the two breeding pairs we are managing. This makes for a very long but very rewarding 12-hour work day.
It is amazing how quickly these cats learn the routines we have set in place. After one short session, we heard chuffing from both male clouded leopards when we arrived to open their pens into the adjoining females’ yard. Chuffing is a vocalization large cats make when they seem content; purring would be the equivalent from a small cat. Dawk Mai and No Name bred in the tree the first time they were put together. It did not take. Since then we have put these cats together two more times, and they have attempted to breed three or four more times. Each contact offered a different set of circumstances.
Usually No Name cooly waits for Dawk Mai to approach him on the ground; he has now abandoned mating in the tree. This strategy has worked well for him, except the hangup seems to be getting himself to line up properly; he either comes in too high or she is too low. A female clouded leopard’s estrous cycle can last from three to nine days and profoundly affects the female’s attitude. It is important in a captive breeding situation to maximize time spent together, for obvious reasons. We have found 30-minute sessions work well for this pair. Dawk Mai approaches No Name, an attempt at breeding occurs, and then the couple separates. The Khao Kheow Open Zoo’s director is so thrilled by this breeding activity that he has promised to name an eventual cub after the San Diego Zoo.
The second set of leopards we are working with is completely different. Sen Yai (meaning “big noodle”) is a 24-pound (11 kilograms) 2-year-old female who has never bred before. Her potential mate, named Sak-Daa (meaning “power”), is an 8-year-old male who weighs 46 pounds (21 kilograms). He has never bred before either. Sak-Daa is the son of wild-born No Name, which means he has important genes.
Pairing virgin older cats is risky. There are a variety of things that can go wrong during the introduction, but the valuable cubs this pair could produce far outweigh the dangers involved. Careful planning and accurate behavioral observation are important. Before each introduction, the female clouded leopard must show signs of willingness: body posture that is low to the ground, tail in the air or off to the side, bedroom eyes, and cheek rubbing. She presents this posture to him over and over again, with the fence as a barrier between them.
We lift a small sliding door very slowly, but only when she is watching. Thus far Sak-Daa takes after his gentle giant father and confidently saunters through the opening before spending time on the floor of the pen smelling Sen Yai’s urine. The male approaches the female to breed based on the information he gathers from her urine and her behavior. Since both cats don’t really know what they are doing, Ken and I must be available to halt or promote the different responses the two have toward one another. We do this by talking to them and/or chuffing to them, the same way they would communicate with each other.
We are on day 6 of introductions, putting the cats together twice a day for a total of 12 interactions. The progress is remarkable! Sak-Daa has closed the gap from not being able to approach Sen Yai to napping two feet from her. While we would like them to actually breed instead of sleep, we realize successful breeding may take several estrous cycles; she must trust him to let this happen. Male clouded leopards bite the back of the female’s neck while breeding, holding her in place until the act is complete. A great deal of trust needs to be established between the pair before breeding can safely occur. Taking the time to let them get to know one another and ALWAYS ending sessions on a positive note helps build trust.
Where did the day go? It’s now time for dinner, which means another very cold shower before meeting up with other staff members. They have taken me into their family, so much so that they make a special meal just for me, without the hot spices. I love this place!
Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.