t’s 3:30 am. Why am I up even earlier than usual? It is my last working day in Thailand at the Clouded Leopard Breeding Center. Hard to believe three weeks have passed. Today we began our duties two hours earlier: two breeding pairs of clouded leopards seem to be more active and relaxed in the morning than in the evening. While I’m still here to help, Ken decided to take advantage!
Dawk Mai is still in her estrous cycle. When we run these two cats together, No Name smells the ground, completes his flehmen response, and lies down, patiently awaiting his mate’s approach. He hasn’t had a mate in over eight years, yet he does not rush—Mr. No Name is just too cool! In a one-hour period, we watched four copulations, each time with Dawk Mai ending the contact. The interaction begins with him mounting her and securing his position with a neck bite. After a couple of minutes, she starts t a low, guttural growl. If he doesn’t dismount shortly after this vocalization, she reproaches him with teeth, claws, and louder growling. That does the trick! No Name not only moves aside—he runs for cover! This little female clouded leopard prompts this big male clouded leopard to run for safety. She then performs the back-rolling response, rests for a couple of minutes, and then it’s back to the ground to seek out No Name’s company for another round. These two have bred a total of 12 times over a 3-day period. There is a strong possibility Dawk Mai is now pregnant. Time will tell. Clouded leopards have an 86- to 92-day gestation, a short time to wait before cubs are on the ground. Job well done, you crazy kids!
Sen Yai and Sak-Daa, our young and inexperienced couple, seem to be following instincts without too much trouble and have attempted breeding postures but have not completed the act…yet! Building the foundation can be a slow, tedious process; however, if done correctly, and once in place, the cats take over, and our involvement is no longer necessary. These cats pair bond for life in captivity. When the bonds are fortified, the danger of misreading one another’s behavior is eliminated. If this couple stays on course, the pair will be breeding within the next two or three estrous cycles.
The adorable Lek and Yai are four months old now. They have been microchipped and vaccinated. Lek was born with a few birth defects and has to be watched and monitored carefully. Her desire to eat isn’t as strong as her sister’s. As such, we have been separating them into different nest boxes during feeding times, ensuring their dietary needs are met. While both cubs are gaining weight as expected, Lek is much smaller than her sister and is growing at a slower pace. There have been 50 cubs born in Thailand at the Clouded Leopard Breeding Center. Raising clouded leopard cubs is what this program is all about. The project manager of the program also happens to be a veterinarian; his original diagnosis of Lek’s problems was prompt, accurate, and saved her life. While her defects won’t affect the quality of her life, they will prove to be a hindrance in her contribution to the breeding pool.
The personalities of the two cubs are very different as well. Lek chuffs after eating her meals, a way of thanking us. Yai, on the other hand, plans an ambush after she is done eating, which seems to be, at least in her mind, her way of securing yet another meal! When entering the pen during non-feeding times, Lek runs up to us and licks our leg or hand and then licks some more and chuffs, a very sweet way of saying hello. Yai, however, has a habit of running into our legs with her head, and then she licks, licks some more, and then “chomps” whereever she was licking! Lek gets eye contact and then jumps forward, allowing us time to catch her in mid-air, or at least give us time to bend and offer our backs as a landing pad. Yai prefers to ambush us and tries to stay attached to the human body part she has landed on. Both cats have a full set of very sharp, needle-point claws that can do some harm. It’s a tough job, playing with these two cubs, but someone has to do it!
As I reflect on my experience in Thailand, I feel a sense of pride. Via my mission here, San Diego Zoo Global has contributed to a very successful breeding program and forged wonderful relationships with the animals and humans. Clouded leopards are recognized as an endangered species, yet thankfully, with the work being done in their native habitat of Thailand, conservationists can rest easier knowing these beautiful cats have a future in our world not only for this generation to enjoy but for our children and our children’s children as well.
Time to sign off…and scratch a few more bug bites!
Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.