Cape May County Zoo shows off newborn snow leopard cubs

Himani, the zoo's 9-year-old female, watches over her two new cubs, a male and a female, during their introduction to the public at the Cape May County Zoo. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Himani, the zoo's 9-year-old female, watches over her two new cubs, a male and a female, during their introduction to the public at the Cape May County Zoo. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 14, 2012

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — After the third consecutive year of snow leopard cubs being born to the same parents at the Cape May County Zoo — such births being as rare in captivity as the animals themselves — speculation abounded Wednesday about just why this habitat at the Jersey Shore seems so well-suited for breeding the species.

As the cubs, born April 10, were introduced to the public Wednesday, it was another moment of pride for the medium-size zoo. It recently had a chance to puff up its chest against bigger contenders such as the Philadelphia Zoo and the San Diego Zoo when it was ranked the third most popular in the nation by reviewers on the travel website TripAdvisor. Cape May followed the Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska and the St. Louis Zoo in the website's Top 10 list.

The leopard cubs — a male and a female with fluffy, soft gray spotted fur and white bellies — sprinted to the edge of their wire-fenced habitat to get a better look at the camera-laden crowd gathered on the raised boardwalk to observe them, stealing the show Wednesday. Mom kept a close watch on the pair, grooming them and then playfully allowing them to climb on her back as the crowd watched.

"They are really cute ... like kittens," said Kylie Morris, 7, of Cinnaminson, visiting the zoo with her family.

The facility, about 10 miles north of Cape May, is home to more than 250 species of animals and hundreds of individual creatures that live mostly in a lush, tree-filled habitat where trails and walkways allow visitors to see the animals without disturbing them.

The zoo and adjacent picnic park are open to the public year-round and charge no admission fee, relying on donations to operate. The zoo draws 500,000 visitors each year, about half as many as the 1.1 million who visit the Philadelphia Zoo.

There are only 147 snow leopards in captivity worldwide, and the endangered species in the wild has dwindled to as few as 3,500 because of threats to their habitat in their native Central Asia region, according to the Snow Leopard Trust in Seattle. The leopards live about 15 years.

So the apparent May-December romance between 9-year-old mother Himani and the cubs' 13-year old father, Vijay, is a much-discussed factor. After being brought to the zoo as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Program, the pair produced their first progeny in 2010, with two male cubs born at the zoo, followed by the birth of a male last year, when only 11 snow leopards were born in captivity in the United States.

Those cubs have been sent to other facilities, including the Cincinnati Zoo, to help with breeding programs.

The parents "really seem to get along well. He can be a grumbly old male, but not when he's around her," observed one county official. "It's been interesting to watch."

And then there are the jokes about zookeepers furnishing wine and candles and piping in Barry White music. But this publicly run zoo's successful participation in the species survival plan is serious business, said Alex Ernst, the zoo's associate veterinarian.

"We are truly helping this species in the wild by being successful here," he said.

The species survival program operates at 300 zoos worldwide that develop comprehensive population management plans to ensure a healthy, genetically diverse, and varied animal population, Ernst said.

He said the Cape May County Zoo was particularly enthused about the latest births because one of the cubs is female and most of those born in zoos are male. Both of the cubs, when they are grown, will be shipped out to breed at other zoos, he said.

Last June, two snow leopard cubs born at the Philadelphia Zoo were hailed as "precious, precious children" by zookeepers there because of their rarity. It was the first time snow leopards had been born at the zoo since the species first arrived there in 1914. One was later shipped to the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kan.

The secret to Cape May County Zoo's snow leopard breeding success?

"All the conditions have to be right: the female needs to feel safe in her nest box, secure in her habitat," said Vince Sonetto, supervisory animal keeper at the zoo for the last 30 years. "She can see the male, but she has her own space when she wants it."

Sonetto wouldn't say whether a set of speakers nestled in the branches of some nearby trees was for piped-in mood music ... or just routine park announcements.

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.

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