Three-month-old clouded leopard cubs, “Aiya” and “Shigu,” born Feb. 29 at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, have a new role: animal ambassadors-in-training.
Leap Year Leopard Cubs Learning A New Role
TAMPA, Fla. (June 10, 2016) – Three-month-old clouded leopard cubs, “Aiya” and “Shigu,” born Feb. 29 at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, have a new role: animal ambassadors-in-training. The Zoo hopes the small siblings will make a big impression on Zoo guests -- and eventually offsite audiences during outreach programs -- about the needs and perils of this rare and vulnerable species.
One of the first steps in the transition to their new educational role is introducing the cubs to a variety of different natural environments to encourage socialization and facilitate adaptation. Trainers are currently using the Zoo’s pathways and gardens as a “classroom” for the siblings to practice harness training – walking on a lead with a trainer. Soon the charismatic cats will be taking strolls through Zoo grounds, at various times during the day, for exercise and conditioning.
As with all of the Zoo’s animal ambassadors who participate in educational programs, trainers will use operant conditioning and positive reinforcement training to encourage desired natural behaviors. During training sessions like walks round the Zoo, trainers will use whistles and food rewards to reinforce desired behaviors. Since clouded leopards are skilled climbers and jumpers, the feisty felines will continue to have access to the main habitat to practice those motor skills independently.
Learning to be a cat ambassador will take time -- the animals must master a number of critical behaviors, as well as exhibit personality traits that facilitate engagement. Since the cubs are young and new to this process, the animals will be allowed to advance at their own rate. Both have been very eager to participate in training sessions thus far, and enjoy being “out and about” with their trainers.
Aiya and Shigu are the first set of multiples for the Zoo’s pair of 5-year-old adult leopards. When their birth mother became anxious and stopped caring for them, the Zoo’s animal care team intervened to provide necessary assistance. As hand-reared and well-bonded females, the siblings were ideal candidates for the animal ambassador program.
Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Clouded Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP) designed to support the conservation of select wildlife at risk of extinction. The SSP recently granted permission for the leopard sisters to stay together and continue to live at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo as ambassador animals.
Clouded leopards are the smallest of the “big cats,” weighing 30-60 pounds in adulthood and measuring about five feet long (including the long tail). Native to Southeast Asia, clouded leopards are found in forests and rainforests. In their native range, they are shy and reclusive cats. As a forest-dependent species, the leopard’s native range is undergoing the world's fastest regional deforestation rates, highly due to expansion of palm oil plantations. High levels of hunting and poaching also make the species vulnerable to extinction.