Is snow leopard expecting cubs? Cincinnati Zoo has high hopes

CINCINNATI -- Can visitors expect to see adorable snow leopard cubs at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in the near future?

The answer is a definite maybe.

Visitors got a chance Wednesday to see the care team in action conducting an ultrasound on possibly pregnant female snow leopard Renji outdoors in her habitat. If Renji is expecting, cubs could be born in late May or early June. The births would be the first snow leopards born at the Cincinnati Zoo since 1986.

Renji's ultrasound team, (from left) Elizabeth Donelan, Ronda Planck and Lindsey Vansandt. (Christine Charlson | Special to WCPO)

For the ultrasound, senior keeper of Night Hunters Ronda Planck explained Renji voluntarily stands on her hind legs and props her front paws up, which allows the ultrasound tech access to her belly. The leopard then moves to other positions upon request.

While many may cringe at the idea of training a cat, regardless of size, Planck said Renji took to the activity immediately. 

“I think part of it for her is that training has always been fun,” Planck said. “She always has a choice if it’s something she wants to do, and if not she can just walk away any time.”

Renji seems to enjoy the activity, as she sees the equipment and is ready and waiting when the team arrives, said Lindsey Vansandt, theriogenologist for the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW).

Vansandt said Renji behaves a bit like an excited puppy when playtime is over.

“You can see in Renji it’s like a dog that sort of wants another treat -- ‘No, I’m ready to be done!’” she said. “So I think it’s great for the public to see such a wonderful relationship between the cat and her care staff and how this is so much fun for her.”

The biggest challenge, Vansandt explained, is trying to get a reading through the cat’s incredibly thick coat. She said another zoo trained a snow leopard for an ultrasound but took a shortcut by shaving their female’s belly. She said their team is determined to leave Renji’s hair intact, especially as the snow leopard doesn’t seem to mind ultrasound gel. She said Renji has been extremely tolerant while they’ve tried to assess the right amount, but the leopard only chooses to stand for so long as it's not a natural position for her.

“You have to put a lot of this gel on her abdomen -- a lot. I know because I’m a scientist, and it sounds funny but I’ve spent my days trying to figure out how can I get more gel on this snow leopard,” she said with a laugh.

As very little is documented about ultrasounding the species, the whole procedure is a bit of learning curve, Vansandt said. While they’ve located Renji’s bladder in previous attempts, Vansandt explained it’s extremely difficult to see a healthy uterus unless in case of illness or pregnancy. 

However, she said that means the upside is there’s no such thing as a false positive.

“If we see a baby, it’s a baby,” she said. “You can see the structure and the heartbeat, and if you’re lucky it will kind of move around and be adorable and catlike. So you know when it’s positive.”

The team is especially encouraged about this year for cubs as Renji and Nubo, the male snow leopard, showed multiple indicators of positive breeding, Planck said.

The team got confirmation when they watched footage from an infrared camera of the two snow leopards in action. Planck said they knew love was in the air when the pair went off food so they could remain outside in the yard overnight together.

“When the male, who is extremely motivated, when he doesn’t want to come in we know something is going on,” she said. “This is the first year this happened. They didn’t want to be separated at all, even to come in for food.”

The pair came together six years ago as 1-year-old cubs, Renji from the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee and Nubo from Cape May Zoo in New Jersey. Planck said the two snow leopards bonded in their youth and share an uncommon affection for each other, an action that is unique for the species. Other than being fed separately, she said the male and female choose to spend the majority of their time together both night and day.

“In the wild they are solitary species, but we have to remember, I love all the information that we get but not every snow leopard has read the book,” she said. “[Nubo] just adores [Renji] and he’s amazing as well. They’re both complete characters with incredible personalities.”

Both Renji and Nubo are 7 years old, giving the pair plenty of time to breed naturally, Vansandt said. If a few more breeding seasons pass without cubs, she said they may decide to assist with in vitro fertilization. She explained part of CREW’s mission is to work with small cats, as they’re frequently overlooked for reproduction technology, but she said big cats are often ignored as well. She said scientists tend to be "one and done" with larger feline species: proving it’s possible, then moving on.

“So that’s kind of my charge, if you will, is I’m trying to move back into some of the big cats to systematically figure this out,” she said. “We don’t want to go there yet with Renji and Nubo, and hopefully we won’t have to, but that may be in the pipeline someday.”

For now the team is excited about the possibility of seeing snow leopard cubs in the not-too-distant future. Either way, Planck said, they will continue to hone their ultrasound skills, not only for Renji but to help other zoos across the world actualize the process.

“I think we are definitely on the right track,” she said. “And that’s part of what it’s all about; the zoo’s big message is education. And it’s for guests, but it’s also for us to help educate other zoos and share the knowledge that we discover with them.”

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