Ocelot of ground to cover: Cincinnati Zoo's special cat again heads southwest for conservation push

Texas festival welcomes 17-year-old star Sihil
Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-04 23:50:35-05

CINCINNATI -- For National Ocelot Conservation Day today, there's no better way for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden to celebrate than by taking a 1,200-mile road trip to the festival with its own special ocelot.

For the 10th consecutive year, the Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program ocelot, Sihil, will represent her species at the National Ocelot Festival at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. The event will feature information and education sessions on conservation as well as onstage appearances by Sihil.

The famed feline made history 17 years ago by being the first ocelot to be born using transferred frozen embryos.

Sihil the ocelot (photo provided by Cincinnati Zoo

“Sihil would be like Miss Congeniality in a pageant,” said Cincinnati Zoo cat ambassador trainer Lauren Kimbro. “Seventeen is getting old for an ocelot, but you would never know it to see her, she’s in great shape, tons of personality and super bold and spunky. She’s an amazing animal.”

While spending more than 24 hours on the road may sound tedious to most humans, Sihil (pronounced CL) seems to enjoy the outing, Kimbro said. To help make the trip more engaging, she said they equip the zoo van with an extra-large carrier complete with steps to a platform where Sihil can watch traffic and scenery go by through the window. Kimbro said they know she’s entertained because ocelots vocalize when they’re content or use a distinct noise they call "chatter," which can be described as a low excited growl.

“It sounds ferocious but it’s really not, it’s like they’re talking to themselves and they’re talking to you,” Kimbro said. “She chatters the whole way down and she gets really excited if we chatter back to her. She’ll just do this back and forth vocalization to you. So you can tell on the way down she’s obviously enjoying the trip.”

Just as parents prepare for long rides with kids, Cincinnati Zoo cat ambassador trainer Colleen Nissen said they bring games, toys and the different foods to make the journey fun for Sihil. She said they plan their overnights well in advance as just like traveling with domestic animals, they need to make reservations at pet-friendly hotels. Oddly enough, she said she’s yet to have a hotel reservation agent or a desk clerk actually ask what kind of pet they’re bringing in.

“Which I’m always really shocked about because we pull up in this giant van and the wrapping on the van has a big cat on it,” Nissen said. “Sometimes we have our zoo shirts on, and then we’re carrying in crates and nobody seems to care. Obviously we get a lot of stares, but not much more reaction than that, believe it or not.”

After they arrive in Texas, Kimbro said Sihil gets to go for long walks on the grounds of the privately owned ranch where they stay. She said the next two days are booked solid with outreach and appearances to help educate the public and intergovernmental agencies such as the Border Patrol and the Department of Transportation on how to recognize ocelots and their habitat.

“They’re actually in ocelot territory and may not even realize it,” Kimbro said. “So it’s so important to know how to ID an animal, because if they see one, they can report to the Department of Fish and Wildlife so they can keep track of numbers and the population.”

During the Gladys Porter Zoo festival, Nissen said Sihil takes center stage with multiple shows during the day. She said while many locals know they share their lands with ocelots, others may know little about the species. She said the event allows them to help educate and empower residents on how to support the endangered population by converting unused farmland to scrub territory to help increase ocelot habitat. She said every year locals have been overwhelmingly supportive.

“A lot of times when we talk about conservation it seems like this abstract thing that happens in another country,” she said. “But here is a group of people who feel like they have ownership of being able to make something good happen for that animal and hopefully help with conservation.”

Once abundant in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, only about 100 ocelots remain in the wild and on private lands, said Cincinnati Zoo’s Conservation and Research for Endangered Wildlife director of animal research and ocelot Species Survival Plan coordinator Bill Swanson. He said the species became critically endangered primarily due to the fur trade and habitat loss. The small swath of land near Brownsville is the only area in North America where the animals remains in the wild, he said, making it of the utmost importance to educate area residents.

“People in Cincinnati aren’t going to see an ocelot run across the street, but they might down in Brownsville,” he said. “One of the biggest threats to them now is getting hit by cars, so you want people to be aware that when you’re driving down the highway at night at 70 mph, an ocelot may be coming out in front of you and you need to be cautious when you go through ocelot habitat.”

Swanson explained sometimes people fail to realize the Cincinnati Zoo’s conservation efforts extend well beyond their Avondale location. He praised both Kimbro and Nissen for literally going the extra mile to help raise awareness to aid in survival of the species. He also praised Sihil for her special ability to make people care.

“She’s pretty unique for a lot of reasons,” Swanson said. “I think she’s educated more people about ocelots than any other ocelot in the world, because she’s been doing this for 17 years. She went on Good Morning America when she was a few weeks old and it’s been all shows and presentations since then.”

During their leisurely three-day return to Cincinnati, Nissen said Sihil sleeps for most of the drive home to recover from her busy weekend. She said the chatter that was nonstop on the way down pretty much only happens on the way back to remind her drivers to keep it down.

“She’ll be sleeping and we’ll hit a pothole or we’ll start laughing about something and it will wake her up and she lets out an angry growl,” she said. “She’s really funny, never a dull moment.”