Students Help with Endangered Cat Birth at National Zoo Campus

Posted: March 8, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: March 11, 2010 at 3:39 pm

By Tara Laskowski

The tiny cubs fit into the palm of a hand when they were born. Photo by Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian's National Zoo

Several Mason students got a sweet surprise on Valentine’s Day at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Va. A clouded leopard, an endangered animal, gave birth to two cubs on Feb. 14, and some conservation studies students were able to be part of the excitement.

Staff members and students at the SCBI were on a pregnancy watch of three-and-a-half-year-old Jao Chu for four days, observing her behavior and making sure she was comfortable.

This opportunity was possible because of the unique partnership between Mason and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Through the Smithsonian-Mason Global Conservation Education Studies, established in 2008, students live and study at the 3,200-acre SCBI near Front Royal, where the zoo cares for and conducts research on more than 30 critically endangered species.

The program provides academic opportunities for 20 undergraduate students per semester and accommodates an additional 100 participants in professional training and graduate certificate programs.

Sophomore Lauren Peery, a conservation studies student in New Century College, is currently studying in the Smithsonian-Mason Semester in Front Royal and was excited about the opportunity to observe the impending birth mother.

Photo by Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian's National Zoo

“I volunteered during three, two-hour shifts to watch Jao Chu on the camera monitor during the critical time of her expected parturition,” says Perry.

“The most exciting time was during the 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. shift on the morning of Valentine’s Day. Jao Chu was very active, and then I had the opportunity of watching her lie in her nest box for long periods of time, which was a sign that the time of birth was possibly near.”

Anne Marchant, associate director of the Mason Center for Conservation Studies, also got to participate in the cub watch.

“In general, watching a cat sleep is pretty soporific, but in this case, I was on the edge of my seat. These cats are just incredibly elegant, intelligent and athletic. It was a privilege for me, and for the students, to be given the responsibility to participate in this rare event.”

After the births, students were allowed to watch the cubs being fed by Ken Lang, animal keeper supervisor, and his staff.

The students observed the procedures and careful documentation that goes into hand-rearing a genetically valuable endangered animal.

The breeding of clouded leopards has been a challenge, primarily due to male aggression, decreased mating activity between paired animals and high cub mortality.

Because of deforestation and hunting, clouded leopards are listed as “vulnerable to extinction.”

National Zoo scientists have been working with clouded leopards at the Front Royal campus since 1978, with the goal of creating a genetically diverse population.

In the past 30 years, more than 76 clouded leopards have been born there.

Mason graduate student Jilian Fazio is one of those National Zoo scientists who has been studying the mating behaviors of clouded leopards for many years.

Working on a master’s degree in environmental science and policy, Fazio is also trying to conserve the clouded leopard population by developing a test that looks at behavioral and personality traits of the animals to help pair them for more successful reproduction.

As for the cub watch, it was an experience that Marchant says will stay with the students throughout their careers.

“The experience has been amazing,” agrees Gabrielle Baiman, a student enrolled at Union College but “studying abroad” this semester in the Smithsonian-Mason Semester.

“I based my decision to come here on the goals of the facility and the opportunities the Smithsonian-Mason program has to learn about conservation biology.”

And the bonus, according to students: the cubs are completely adorable.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu