As Karen Rice raised the first of three cubs out of its cage, the whines of the newborn echoed off of the white walls of the room. Making her way to the feeding table, she gently stroked the agitated cub as she prepared for one of six daily feedings.
Rice, the carnivore supervisor, has been caring for animals at the Nashville Zoo for 11 years, so for her, this was just another day feeding the three clouded leopard cubs recently born at the Nashville Zoo.
After laying the pale brown-and-black cub down on a blanket covering the metal table, she guided the bottle to the uncooperative cub’s mouth. “This might take a few tries,” Rice said. After a few more brief moments of struggling and whining, the restless cub suddenly became relaxed and docile, as if a switch was simply flipped once the bottle was taken.
The whining ceased, the fidgeting ended, and the only sound in the room was the muted sucking of a hungry cub.
The birth of three new clouded leopards on March 26 marked the 16th, 17th and 18th births of clouded leopards at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere since 2009. This year the three cubs came from two different litters. Seven-year-old Jing Jai gave birth to one female cub, and 4-year-old Baylie gave birth to one male and one female.
After birth the cubs are hand-reared, fed seven times per day immediately following birth, and gradually weaned after that. The hand-rearing process has not only proven effective in getting the cubs the necessary nutrients, but also helping socialize the cats to become more comfortable and have less stress around humans, according to Rice.
So how is it that Nashville became home for this endangered species, indigenous to forests halfway around the world?
The answer can be summed up in two words: Rick Schwartz.
“I have been fascinated by clouded leopards since before I was a kid, so when I came to the zoo in 1990 I brought 16 clouded leopards with me,” said Schwartz, zoo president. “Having so many clouded leopards here in Nashville is very purposeful.”
Schwartz, who has served as the zoo’s president for the past 23 years, is one of the world’s leading experts on clouded leopards.
His efforts have turned Nashville, along with the Smithsonian/National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash., into stateside homes for what he calls his favorite animal in the world.
According to Rice, the species, which is native to Southeast Asia and China, is a “bridge species,” a middle link between bigger and smaller cats in the wild.
“What makes the clouded leopard so unique is that they are much more of a tree-dwelling species,” said mammal curator Connie Philipp. “Most of our habitats here at the zoo are at least 23-foot-high structures. We’ve tried to create a jungle-gym effect for the leopards so they can have a micro habitat of what they would have out in the wild.”
Clouded leopards are considered the most adept climbers of any large or small cat.
“What makes them able to climb in ways other cats simply cannot is largely due to the fact that their hind feet can twist, whereas other cats’ (feet) cannot,” said Rice. “That enables them to hang upside down from branches and scale tall trees or descend them head-first, similar to how a squirrel would.”
The full-grown clouded male will weigh up to 50 pounds and stretch 3 to 4 feet in length, while females weigh 25 to 35 pounds. Both sexes have exceptionally lengthy tails — measuring almost as long as their bodies — to help them balance high in the treetops of the Asian forest. Another interesting feature is the size of some of their teeth relative to their jaws and the rest of their bodies. Their canine teeth are unusually large, which has led to speculation that clouded leopards may have a genealogical link to the saber-tooth tiger of the past.
The zoo’s offsite-exhibit breeding facility has produced 18 clouded leopard cubs in the past four years; when you consider there are only 65 to 70 clouded leopards in U.S. zoos, Philipp said it’s easy to see why Nashville is viewed as a hotbed for the species in the United States.
Schwartz began looking for ways to ensure the longevity of the species in 1998, when he realized captive leopard population was in desperate need of genetic diversity.
“At that time, every single cat in the United States was as closely related, if not closer, than a brother and sister. As a result of that inbreeding, we started to see a lot of genetic deformities. It was imperative that we get new animals to inject some new bloodlines and achieve that genetic diversity.”
Schwartz, however, encountered difficulty getting these new bloodlines into the country.
“At the time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates the import and export of endangered species, would not allow the import of wild clouded leopards,” Schwartz said.
After looking for help in Laos, Malaysia and Cambodia, Schwartz finally arrived in Thailand and discovered five government-run zoos that had a total of 27 clouded leopards. It was there in Thailand, with Schwartz leading the charge, that efforts to create the Thailand Clouded Leopard Consortium began.
Since that day, the Nashville Zoo and the Thai government have recruited the help of the Smithsonian/National Zoo and the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma to help breed the clouded leopards in captivity and attempt to create some of the genetic diversity the population still lacks.
While Schwartz has had success in recent years recruiting new zoos to help with the effort to preserve the future of this endangered species, the process has by no means been an easy one.
“We came over a big hump back in the ’90s and early 2000s, but now we have another mountain to climb. It was seven years of really hard work and a lot of money before we brought the first clouded leopards in, and so now it’s pretty clear we’re going to have to find another population to inject more new bloodlines into the species.”
Schwartz said he would characterize his outlook on the future prospects of the clouded leopard here in the United States first, but also on a global scale, as “conservatively optimistic.” The biggest hurdle, he said, is the lack of people willing to put in the time and effort necessary to make a real impact on the future of the species.
The next step for the three new unnamed cubs isn’t yet clear. The primary goal is the preservation of the species, so if the cubs are needed to breed here in Nashville, that’s where they’ll stay. But if the zoo in D.C. or Tacoma needs a cub for breeding, it’s possible they could be sent there.
The breeding process is difficult in captivity, according to Rice, who explained that if leopards who are set to mate are not introduced before they reach the adolescent period, problems can arise. The most serious risk is potentially deadly aggression by the male toward the female. To avoid such situations, decisions about the cubs’ future must be made relatively quickly.
As Karen Rice finished feeding the third and final ornery cub at the 2 p.m. feeding time, she stared fondly at the unnamed cubs she has cared for since birth. For all she knows, a year from now, any or all of the cubs could be halfway around the world. This is a fact that anybody working with an endangered species understands and accepts.
With the future of the clouded leopard species still very much in doubt, it is this kind of work — one cub at a time — that Schwartz, Rice and Philip hope will help the species endure.