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The Independence Day fireworks have faded and the Pioneer Day light show is still a week away, but the "ohs" and "ahs" were plentiful Thursday as Hogle Zoo allowed the first glimpse of its snow leopard cub.
The male cub, whose name will be announced later this month, was born on May 7 and has been in seclusion with his mother, Nema. The pair was moved to a new enclosure in the Asian Highlands exhibit at Hogle Zoo, where visitors got a look at the playful cub.
Seven-year-old Tyler Bradford of Riverton summed up the general response.
"It looks cute. It's a newborn and he is playing around with his mom," Bradford said. "He looks kind of cuddly."
The cub is the first snow leopard born at the zoo in more than 20 years and the first big cat birth since tiger cubs were born in 2003. But this birth is not just notable for Hogle Zoo. The snow leopard is listed as endangered on the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species along with pandas and tigers. According to the Snow Leopard Trust, www.snowleopard.org, there are only 3,500 to 7,000 animals in the wild.
"The birth is important for a number of reasons," said Steve Feldman, with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). "These are very rare in the wild. This birth gives people a chance to understand and connect to these magnificent animals and it allows the zoo to provide information for protecting them in the wild."
Snow leopards live at high elevation in the mountains of Central Asia in such countries as China, India, Nepal, Russia, Pakistan and Mongolia.
There are about 140 snow leopards in zoos across the United States, where an average of six cubs are born each year.
The Hogle Zoo birth came as a surprise to many visitors who believed there was only one snow leopard there. But the zoo actually has three adult snow leopards (not counting the cub), whose solitary nature means that only one is on view at any given time: Himesh, the cub's sire; the mom, Nema, 11; and the other female, 17-year-old Dawa, who was not able to have cubs.
This was the first successful birth for Nema, but she has been pregnant before. She and Himesh were placed together in winter, the breeding season for snow leopards.
Himesh is now in the enclosure just across from Nema and the cub. The zoo is advising visitors that the cub may not always be visible because a door will be left open for mother and cub to slip inside when they get too hot.
Decisions about breeding snow leopards are made not by Hogle Zoo but the AZA, through its Species Survival Plan. Zoo officials were nervous as the delivery date arrived.
"Nema was great with the birth. She did everything right," said Stephanie Jochum-Natt, primary cat keeper at Hogle Zoo. "We have been watching [the cub] with remote viewing cameras. He has not been hand-raised, just staying with his mother and growing fast."
Jocham-Natt said the cub was just over a pound when he was born in early May and that he now tips the scales at more than 11 pounds. He opened his eyes at two weeks and his favorite toy is mom's long tail, which snow leopards use for balance when navigating and jumping on the steep cliffs where they live. The cub should be close to adult size (60-120 pounds) by the time he is 6 to 8 months old.
Nema will be with her cub until he is two, when a cub typically leaves its mother in the wild, and then he will likely be sent to another zoo to become part of the snow leopard Species Survival Plan.
For the Bradford family, the chance to see the cub was unexpected, educational and memorable.
"It is a really interesting animal," said Tyler's mom, Natalie. "This has been a pretty neat experience that our kids will probably remember for a long time."
Population » An estimated 3,500 to 7,000 wild animals scattered throughout the high elevations of the Central Asia mountains.
Size » Weigh between 60 and 120 pounds and range in length from 39 to 51 inches with tails sometimes as long as their bodies.
Status » Listed as endangered on the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species, along with pandas and tigers.
Trivia » Powerful hind limbs help the snow leopard leap up to 30 feet.
Source: Snow Leopard Trust, www.snowleopard.org.