First Time’s the Charm

It’s hard to believe that it was only six months ago that I checked the monitor to our den camera and saw that Satka, our female Amur leopard, had delivered two fuzzy babies. Dorothy and Maryanne are the first Amur leopards ever born at the San Diego Zoo.

Satka has proved to be an excellent mother, even though she is a first-time mom. Imagine how challenging being a first-time mom would be without the luxuries of parenting classes or a birth coach. Then imagine, as a solitary animal, Satka can’t even rely on the advice of her mother or an experienced sister; her parenting skills come from her memories of the couple of years she lived with her mother and her natural instinct. Of course we helped as much as we could, by preparing her den area and altering our work practices, to make her feel safe and comfortable. All Satka’s hard work is paying off, as her girls have grown to be healthy and active cats who are full of attitude—and are already at half of their adult weight.

When the cubs started becoming mobile, Satka was ever alert to keep them close to the safety of their cozy nest box. Unfortunately for Satka, this became more and more of a chore as the kids’ mobility and bravery increased. There was a period of over a week that the cubs spent all their waking moments toddling through the den toward the door leading outside, and Satka spent all her waking moments lugging them back to the safety of their nest box. One morning, we came in to find that Satka had given the cubs a “time out”—she had moved them onto the top of the nest box, over three feet off the ground. This gave Satka a 48-hour respite from cub corraling duty, until the cubs learned to jump (actually more of a controlled fall) to the ground. At this point, Satka had to yield outdoor access to the cubs.

One of the most amazing things to witness is the amount of verbal communication Satka does with her cubs. Yowls, grunts, rumbles, chirps, whines… there’s an amazing variety of vocalizations Satka makes at the cubs. Sometimes you can even tell what she is saying. One of the first days that the cubs were exploring their outside habitat, it caught the interest of their next-door neighbor, snow leopard Anna. She made her way down in the habitat next door and watched the cubs’ antics calmly. This, in turn, grabbed one of the cub’s attention, and she bravely made her way toward Anna to investigate. Once Satka noticed, she let out a yowl, which clearly meant something along the lines of “stranger danger,” while reaching a paw out to try to corral her cub. The cub responded as any good child would, by picking up her pace, avoiding her mom’s grasp, and meeting her new neighbor.

Make sure to spend some time with the Asian leopards on your next Zoo visit, and marvel at supermom Satka and her energetic kids.

Todd Speis is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous blog, My Days Herding Leopards.