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Snow leopard cub debuts at Hogle Zoo

Published: Friday, July 17 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Hogle Zoo has a cute little new critter on display — a rare and endangered snow leopard cub in the zoo's Asian Highlands exhibit.

Born to parents Himesh and Nema in May, the cub is one of six such snow leopards born in U.S. zoos this year.

The male snow leopard cub has been out of visitors' view while bonding with his mother, according to zoo spokeswoman Holly Braithwaite.

"It is so cute," she said. "This is the first day (Thursday) it has been outdoors and on public display."

Snow leopard cubs are born helpless, with their eyes closed, and rely for several weeks on their mothers for nutrition.

Healthy cubs grow quickly. Born at less than 1 pound and about 10 inches long, the cat will likely triple his current weight in just a few months.

"By the time he's 6 months old, he will look almost like a full-sized snow leopard," said primary cat keeper Stephanie Jochum-Natt, "but for now, he's playful and feisty. He likes to pounce on his mom's head and chase her tail."

The cub hasn't received a name yet, but Braithwaite said zookeepers will likely give him one soon.

Cub and mother are together now, but the father snow leopard will not be on display until the new arrival is older.

The 2-month-old cub is a big achievement for Hogle Zoo because it is its first successful snow leopard birth in more than 20 years.

Snow leopard breeding in zoos is managed by a Species Survival Plan, a program administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums designed to maintain a genetically healthy population.

There are only about 140 snow leopards in zoos and an estimated 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards in the wild. The count is not exact because they are rarely spotted in their remote surroundings.

"They are very shy and elusive," Braithwaite said.

Jochum-Natt said, "Snow leopards in zoos are very important ambassadors to the wild population. Because snow leopards are critically endangered, every new cat born is important."

Snow leopards are medium-sized cats, weighing 60 to 120 pounds. Body length ranges from 3 to 4 feet, but their tails can be almost as long as their bodies. Snow leopards are found in Asia, extending from the southern Himalayas westward through Pakistan and north to the Russian mountain ranges. The smoky-gray fur of a snow leopard helps the cat blend into its mountainous natural setting, making it practically invisible. Gestation for snow leopards is 90 to 100 days.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com

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