Zoo-Based Conservation and Research of Felids

Nutrition Research for Managed Felids

Amur leopard at Audubon Zoo (Photo: Maria Difulco)

Amur leopard at Audubon Zoo (Photo: Maria Difulco)

Nutrition of exotic species in zoos can be challenging when few nutrient requirements are established.  Fortunately, the domestic cat serves as a valuable nutrition model when it comes to formulating diets for exotic cats.  Optimal nutrition for a species is essential for animal health and well-being.  With established breeding management programs in place for both small and large felids, it is essential that animal managers provide proper nutrition and continue understanding how to improve it.  While thousands of domestic cat diets are available, many exotic cats, particularly large cats will not consume them due to the level of processing.  The vast majority of exotic felid species will only consume raw meat diets and these type of diets make up the majority of diets offered to zoo managed felids.  Ensuring the safety and nutritional adequacy of these diets are primary goals for nutritionists within the AZA community including those at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Forth Worth Zoo, and the San Diego Zoo, along with collaborations with Universities such as Iowa State University’s Department of Animal Science and the University of Illinois’s Department of Animal Science.  Researchers at these facilities have conducted valuable research to enhance and promote our understanding of felid nutrition, particularly raw meat diet formulations.  Based on recent research efforts, pork-based raw meat diets have been developed, formulated and marketed to zoos.  This is valuable because traditionally, pork has not been used for zoo carnivores and this new addition helps provide valuable and much needed dietary variety for zoo-managed felids.  Additional research is being further developed to better understand the role of diet on felid behavior.  Nutrition based research is essential to proper animal husbandry and is an integral component of zoo-based conservation of felids.

Small Cat Reproductive Biology at Cincinnati Zoo

Of the 37 wild cat species in the world, 28 are small in size, weighing less than 50 lbs. Many of these small cats are threatened with extinction in the wild but have received little conservation attention compared to the larger cats. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) has established breeding management programs for several small cat species including the ocelot, fishing cat, Pallas’ cat, black-footed cat, and sand cat. Concerted, collaborative efforts of zoos and other conservation organizations will be necessary if small cats are to survive and thrive in both the wild and captivity.

Dr. Bill Swanson with Sihil, an ocelot produced by embryo transfer at the Cincinnati Zoo

Dr. Bill Swanson with Sihil, an ocelot produced by embryo transfer at the Cincinnati Zoo

As a global leader in cat conservation, the Cincinnati Zoo maintains a diverse felid population, including all five of the above-mentioned small cat species. Scientists at the Zoo’s Lindner Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) study the reproductive biology of all five small cat species to optimize captive propagation and develop assisted reproductive technologies for population management. CREW uses tools such as fecal hormone analysis and semen collection to characterize basal reproductive traits in small cats and improve breeding success. This basic  reproductive knowledge also is applied in developing techniques such as sperm and embryo freezing, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer and artificial insemination to produce viable offspring in ocelots, Pallas’ cats and sand cats.

The Small Cat Signature Project just got bigger with the announcement that CREW received a Museums for America Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2014 to improve our ability to maintain healthy captive populations of the five small cat species across the country. Working in partnership with Dr. Jason Herrick of the National Foundation for Fertility Research and the Species Survival Plan coordinators for each species, Dr. Swanson will direct the project with a focus on three goals:

– Collect and freeze semen from the most valuable cats for each species
– Produce viable offspring using artificial insemination in recommended breeding pairs that fail to reproduce naturally
– Produce offspring with frozen-thawed semen from genetically valuable or under-represented males

Building on CREW’s decades of ground-breaking research on small cat reproduction, successful completion of this project will greatly enhance the sustainability and stewardship of small cat collections in AZA zoos.

A Standardized Ethogram for the Felidae: A Tool for Behavioral Researchers

The concept of creating standardized behavioral definitions for felids was originally proposed by the Behavior/Welfare Working Group during the 2011 Felid TAG Meeting. Felid temperament assessments are becoming increasingly common in the zoological field, and as such, the Behavior/Welfare Working Group would like to develop standardized assessments for felids. The first step in achieving this goal is to construct clear behavioral definitions which can be applied to all felid species. Despite historic evidence that suggests the family Felidae share similar behavioral repertoires, no standardized ethogram providing comprehensive behavioral definitions has been created for exotic cats.

In order to achieve this, Lauren Stanton at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore conducted a thorough literature review of published articles containing felid behavioral definitions. A total of 95 articles qualified for inclusion, and each article was systematically evaluated to identify and document the terminology used in each behavioral definition, its applicability to multiple species, and any type of categorization implemented. Careful review of the behavioral definitions confirmed that researchers tend to define cat behavior in similar manners, although some divergence was found between domestic and exotic (non-domestic) cat ethograms. A preference towards certain species was observed, with the domestic cat qualifying as single most common study subject, followed by several “big cat” species. Also, the majority of studies involving exotic cats focused on either enrichment practices or building activity budgets, while research investigating social behaviors was most common in domestic cat studies.

Snow Leopard (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

Snow Leopard (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

Using information gathered from the articles, a standardized, user-friendly ethogram has been created for future felid behavioral studies. This final ethogram, which is now being prepared for publication, suggests the use of “base behaviors” that can be altered using pre-defined modifiers in order to accommodate the requirements of individual studies while retaining consistent terminology. Several common behavioral categories are also defined, and suggestions of behaviors which qualify in each are presented to further assist researchers when developing their study. It was designed to be user-friendly and coherent to most observers (such as animal keepers, students, and volunteers) in order to increase inter-observer reliability, and ease comparisons of data collected across studies.

In addition to coming a step closer to standardized felid temperament assessments, use of this ethogram can help increase our knowledge of captive felid behavior, resulting in practical management decisions that may improve felid wellness. It may also help facilitate research on poorly studied species, such as members of the “small cats”. While the ethogram may require further refinement over time with use, by treating this document as a solid starting point, there is a strong potential to unify felid research, the benefits of which could be essential to the conservation and welfare of the Felidae.

Complimentary copies of the ethogram can be downloaded at http://animalcognitionlab.org/member/lauren-stanton. Any questions regarding this research can be sent to Lauren Stanton at lstanton@uwyo.edu.