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cheetah.gif (5254 bytes)There are thirty five recognised species of cats and a whole host of subspecies or races. They range from the massive Siberian tiger (the largest recorded was a 348 Kg/ 845 lb male) down to the rusty spotted cat of Southern India and Sri Lanka which averages less than 1.5 kg / 3 Ibs in weight. For this reason zoologists tend to talk about ‘big cats’ and ‘small cats’, and there is general agreement about which cat falls into which category.

There are seven big cats: lions (most zoo lions are African lions, but some zoos keep the endangered Asiatic lion), tigers (the most common of the seven surviving subspecies is the Indian or Bengal tiger, the rarest are the Javan tiger, the South Chinese tiger, and the Caspian tiger all of which may well now be extinct), leopards (there are seven sub species, all endangered), jaguars (eight sub species all vulnerable to extinction), snow leopards (endangered), cheetah (vulnerable), and the smallest of the ‘big’ cats, the clouded leopards (vulnerable).

Lions and tigers are among the staple ‘nursery book’ species at practically every zoo. Very few animals can arouse the same feelings of awe and majesty as these great beasts. Yet lions and tigers have often fared appallingly in zoos, have been kept in tiny, squalid cages, and have had little or no veterinary care. Much of their troubles came from their reputation, which understandable portrayed them as immensely powerful ruthless killers. Stories of animals like the Champawat man eater, a tigress who was reputed to have killed 438 people in eight years (and was finally shot by Jim Corbett in 191 1) added to the grotesque fascination shown towards these animals.

Lions and tigers are much better treated today. Once zoos and safari parks had recognised that big cats did not need great iron bars to keep them out of harm’s way, this lead to the provision of much more space. Chester Zoo was the first British zoo to make the radical, and at the time highly controversial, move of keeping lions behind chain-link fencing. The technique worked, despite the worst fears of its critics, and it started a move away from traditional cages towards today’s open safari parks and moated lion dens.

Today it has been estimated that there are more lions per square mile in Britain than there are in Africa, and anyone who has visited Longleat and seen the huge prides that stalk the lion park will probably accept the truth of that statement. But it does illustrate a catch-22 of zoo conservation: in order to attract visitors an animal has to be well known and easily recognised (like lions); but to become well known the animal is likely to be common (unlike clouded leopards); and if the animal is common and breeds well then there is less justification for keeping huge numbers of them in captivity (like lions). The upshot of all this is that most zoos, good and bad, produce a surplus of animals like African lions, and in reality there is not enough room for them all. Most zoos will have to ‘put down’ its surplus animals from time to time. The tabloid newspapers may make a sensation of this, but in reality it is no different to our annual destruction of tens of thousands of unwanted puppies and kittens. In the end it may be the best management policy. What is more questionable, and harder to prove, is whether bad zoos deliberately breed lion cubs every spring as an attraction to visitors, only to destroy them at the end of the season once their usefulness is over. Good zoos protect against this by the old fashioned but reliable technique of contraception. But isn’t it equally strange that even as we hear about the need for zoos to act as refuges for hundreds of disappearing species, so many European and American zoos have big cats who are neutered or on the pill.

Look out for some of the other big cats when you visit a zoo. The tables in the Guide list some of the rarer or lesser seen cats. Consider rewarding a zoo with a visit if it keeps and breeds snow leopards, or cheetah. Cheetah have been kept by man for possibly two thousand years. Arabs, Abyssinians, and Mogul emperors used cheetah to hunt antelope. And yet for centuries no cheetah was ever recorded as having cubs in captivity. In 1950 Professor Hediger of Zurich zoo declared that the cheetah was a ‘non-breeder’ in zoos. Not long after this, an Italian who owned a female cheetah as a pet, ignorant of the fact that captive cheetahs would never breed, took her to his local zoo to meet their male. She rewarded him with a cub. The mould had been broken, and zoos began to try to repeat the success. Now many zoos have bred cheetah, among them Philadelphia, Oklahoma, Toledo, and Longleat; but none have had the success of Whipsnade which has now bred well over one hundred and thirty cheetah. Their formula for success seems to depend upon their respect for the independent, solitary nature of the cheetah. The sexes are not introduced too often, the enclosures are well away from other species that might disturb them, and their dens are rarely cleaned out. Above all, Whipsnade has dedicated itself towards the breeding programme, unlike other zoos with cheetah which still seem resigned to their non-breeding status. Fota Wildlife Park in Ireland is another zoo that has recorded remarkable successes with cheetah.

The small cats include some of the most delightful animals you will see in a zoo: animals like the delicate margay, the beautiful ocelot, the lithe jaguarundi. Almost all the small cats have suffered as a result of the demand for their furs, and many are now vulnerable or endangered in the wild. Zoos could almost certainly play a useful role in holding a population of the smaller cats, but with so many species and so few individuals, the future of many in zoos is uncertain.  

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