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Heather Tuttle
One of the keepers at Hogle Zoo during a training sessions with the snow leopards. During the training they are able to check the animals over for any signs of health problems.

Mascots have been an official part of the Olympics since the Summer Games in Munich in 1972. Over the years, mascots have become a popular ambassador — and marketing tool — for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

This year is the first time Russia will host the Winter Olympics and the first time the general public of the host country got the final say in choosing their Olympic mascots.

After designs for the mascots were narrowed down to 10, the Russian people voted by sending a text message or calling into a free phone line. The results were revealed on a live television show on Feb. 26, 2011. The snow leopard came out on top by collecting 28 percent of the votes. The polar bear came in next with 18 percent of the votes, followed by the hare, which picked up 16 percent.

Some feel the voting was swayed when then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated his preference for the “strong, fast and beautiful” snow leopard just prior to the public vote. Afterward, Putin stated, “It (Russia) is beautiful for its diversity, and the fact that one of the symbols of the Olympics has become an animal that we are reviving, and which was destroyed by humans in the ’50s of the last century, suggests that Russia is becoming different.”

The following questions were submitted to the Deseret News by children ages 4-12. Stephanie Natt, a senior keeper at Hogle Zoo’s Asian Highlands, sat down with the Deseret News last week to answer the questions.

Deseret News: Are snow leopards endangered?

— TJ, age 8

Stephanie Natt: Yes, they are threatened.

DN: What is their main predator, or is it on the top of the food chain?

— Logan Olsen, age 11

SN: They are at the top of their food chain, primarily due to the fact that they live high in the mountains. It’s possible there could be some bears in those high altitudes, but they really don’t have a predator other than man.

DN: How many are there?

— Savana Anderson, age 11

SN: Today, there are approximately 5,000-7,000 in the wild. Snow leopards are fairly elusive, and it is so hard to get into the areas where they live to really check. The current zoo population is about 500 worldwide, with 150 in the U.S.

DN: How many babies do snow leopards have?

— Cairo, age 6

SN: Their litters range from one to four cubs. Typically, though, a snow leopard will have one to two offspring in a litter. Nema, here at Hogle, has only had single births.

DN: What do snow leopards like to eat?

— Sami, age 4

SN: In the wild they prefer wild sheep and goats. At the zoo they eat rabbit, though Chim has recently been introduced to rats.

DN: How do they get water? And how much do they sleep?

— Charles Adair, age 10

SN: Streams and rain runoff. Their territory must include three things: food, shelter and water. The size of their territory is dictated by these needs.

They will sleep about 20 hours a day, but they don’t sleep for 20 hours straight. They will sleep in short periods and get up for short periods.

DN: How old do they get?

— Mallory Caldwell, age 10

SN: Eight to 12 years in the wild, though males generally have shorter life spans, living an average of six to eight years. At zoos, snow leopards live to their late teens. In the wild, if they break a leg, they can no longer hunt and feed. But at the zoo, injuries will be seen to and the animal will be cared for while it heals.

DN: In the summertime, how does the snow leopard adapt to its environment in its natural habitat?

— Kate De Groote, age 12

SN: One of the big threats to snow leopards is global warming. They can’t sweat, so they pant like a dog in warmer seasons. Also, they shed in the hot summers. But their territory is so high up that it doesn’t get really hot.

At Hogle, one of our old leopards didn’t groom well or shed as much as needed, so she was brought into an air-conditioned area during the hot months.

DN: How is a snow leopard different from a regular leopard?

— Ellie De Groote, age 10

SN: Snow leopards aren’t a part of the same genus as other leopards. They have their own category, Uncia.

Heather Tuttle: Are they the only big cats that have paws covered in fur?

SN: No. Any of the cats that live in extreme temperature have fur covering the bottom of their paws. Sand cats and black-footed cats that live in the desert do, as well as cold-climate cats such as the leopards and bobcats.

Heather Tuttle: I’ve noticed at the zoo that the leopard has a softer voice. How do they communicate with each other in the wild?

SN: They do have a moan-like call that carries. They mark their territory with pugmarks — marks left by the glands in their feet, or with urine and scat.

One fun fact about the leopard is that it has been said that the calls of snow leopards have been responsible for the yeti myths.

Heather Tuttle: What would you like kids to know about snow leopards?

SN: As individuals, they can do something here to help the leopards in the wild. Simple things such as not letting your car idle make a difference. They can support the Snow Leopard Trust, which is a great organization that works to protect the leopard. The trust helps provide an income to the people living in the snow leopard’s region by selling their handmade goods to prevent poaching. Hogle Zoo has been a longtime supporter of the Snow Leopard Trust. Check out the website at snowleopard.org.

Do you have a question for a keeper? The next topic will be polar bears. Submit questions with your name and age to heather@deseretnews.com by Jan. 24.

Basic facts about the snow leopard

Range: According to snowleopard.org, “Snow leopards live in the high, rugged mountains of central Asia. Their habitat extends through 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. While their habitat range covers an area approximately the size of Greenland or Mexico, there are only between 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild.”

Class: Mammal

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae

Genus: Uncia

Species: Uncia

Length: Body: 3-4 feet. Tail: 3 feet

Height at shoulder: 2 feet

Weight: 70-120 pounds. Males are approximately 30 percent larger than females.

Average lifespan: 15-20 years

Wild diet: According to hoglezoo.org, “Blue sheep, deer, ibex, markhor, marmots, pheasants” are part of the snow leopard’s diet. “Now also domestic stock because villagers are going higher into the mountains to find grazing land for their sheep and goats.”

Predators: Man

Meet Hogle Zoo’s snow leopards

Nema (female): Born May 4, 1998. She has been at Hogle Zoo since Dec. 6, 2007. Of the two, Nema is more wary and cautious. She does not like the tigers.

Chimeegui “Chim” (male): Nema’s offspring was born April 16, 2012, at Hogle Zoo. Chim is still very much a youngster. He is very playful and energetic. Occasionally, you might see him carrying his tail in his mouth. Chim was born with eyelid dysgenesis — similar to a cleft palate of the eyelid. He underwent surgery at 5 months old to correct the defect.

Cats and Cocoa event: Jan. 18, 10 a.m.-noon

Enjoy free cocoa at Hogle Zoo’s Cats and Cocoa event. There will be Eco-Explorers out with biofacts (pelts, skull replicas, etc.) and answering questions about all the big cats of Asian Highlands.

Keepers will do Enrichment with the tiger at 11 a.m.; they’ll also come out and answer questions. Plus there will be a free bird-feeder craft for the kids.

For more inforatmion on snow leopards, visit snowleopard.org.

Fundraising event:

Collect vertical feet to help save the snow leopards this Saturday, Jan. 18.

According to Alta's website, "This is a fund raising event to benefit the Snow Leopard Trust. Dynafit will contribute 5 cents to the Trust for every food of vertical accumulated by uphill skiers during the five-hour event."

Where: Alta Ski Area, 210 Little Cottonwood Canyon Road, Alta, Utah

When: Jan. 18, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.

Cost: $25 (includes $10 lunch coupon valid at any Alta restaurant).

Registration deadline: Jan. 15, 5 p.m.

For more information, visit thesportloft.com.