On May 2, Woodland Park Zoo staff members were pleased to welcome three endangered snow leopard cubs born to mother, Helen, and father, Tom. Since snow leopards are solitary animals, Helen assumed the role of being a good, attentive mother while Tom continues to be housed separately. The arrival of newborns is always cause for great excitement, but as any animal keeper will tell you, when working with a live collection, some things take unexpected twists and turns.
Female cubs, Shanti and Asha, are currently in need of special care. They were born with multiple ocular coloboma, a condition that results in eye and eyelid defects. While the male cub was born with this condition, veterinary staff discovered that he also had severe heart defects that were causing heart failure, and he was humanely euthanized. As a result, keepers and veterinary staff are devoting extra attention to the health and well-being of Shanti and Asha.
As a precautionary measure, the zoo’s volunteer veterinary cardiologist, Dr. Jerry Woodfield of Northwest Cardiology Consultants in Seattle, recently performed cardiac ultrasounds on the cubs. Test results revealed mild functional deficiencies in several heart valves, but Woodland Park Zoo’s Director of Animal Health, Dr. Darin Collins, says the function of their hearts does not appear to be compromised and there are no health concerns related to their hearts at this time.
However, both cubs have impaired vision and remain under close observation. According to Woodland Park Zoo staff, the cubs continue to receive eye examinations by Dr. Tom Sullivan, the zoo’s volunteer veterinary ophthalmologist with the Animal Eye Clinic in Seattle, who performed the first of multiple minor procedures to the eyelids last month. While the overall health of the cubs appears stable, their long-term prognosis (particularly their visual capabilities), remains unknown.
The cubs’ father, Tom, was also born with multiple ocular coloboma. The two cubs born in his first litter of offspring (with the same mother) were healthy and normal. The coloboma condition has been seen in snow leopards at other zoos, but the cause of coloboma–and its incidence in the wild snow leopard population–remains unknown.
Zoo professionals are monitoring the situation and addressing the issue through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan® (SSP), the components of which include maintaining the genetic diversity of zoo animals in organized breeding programs, research, public education and, when possible, plans for reintroduction of species back into the wild. An official snow leopard studbook is used to track the ancestry and breeding of individual animals and may be used to determine the possibility of the inheritance of the defect. Next week, Woodland Park Zoo staff will also attend a national meeting of zoo professionals to discuss the disease impacts on the overall snow leopard population.
Woodland Park Zoo has a long history of caring for snow leopards and conserving them in the wild. The zoo’s first snow leopards arrived from the USSR in 1972. Under the AZA’s Snow Leopard SSP, more than two dozen cubs have since been born at the zoo and sent to zoos worldwide to help diversify the genetic pool of the managed population.
Woodland Park Zoo also partners with the Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust (SLT). The Trust was created in 1981 by the late Woodland Park Zoo staff member Helen Freeman, the namesake of the mother of the newborn cubs. Through innovative programs, effective partnerships and the latest science, the SLT is saving these endangered cats and working to improve the lives of people who live in the areas of snow leopard habitat.
The snow leopard is native to the high mountain ranges of Central Asia and Russia, including in Afghanistan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan. Snow leopard scientists estimate there to be as few as 3,500 remaining in the wild.
Gigi Allianic, Woodland Park Zoo, http://woodlandparkzblog.blogspot.com/2012/07/snow-leopard-cubs-under-veterinary-care.html
Christina Wilsdon, Woodland Park Zoo Examiner, http://www.examiner.com/article/10-week-old-snow-leopard-cubs-receive-state-of-art-care-at-woodland-park-zoo