Co-Written By: Cat Ambassador Trainers Colleen Nissen and Lauren Kimbro
Prep and Planning
Gearing up for the Ocelot Conservation Festival in Brownsville, TX is one of the Cat Ambassador Department’s favorite times of the year. A lot of preparation goes into the trip, where two trainers and ocelot ambassador, Sihil, take a 1,400 mile drive to spread conservation education and awareness to the Texans who share their home with the only remaining population of ocelots in the United States. We make sure to book our pet-friendly hotels (Sihil stays in her XXL kennel in the room with us), organize our programming itinerary, and also make sure we have all of our permitting and medical checkups underway to ensure that our star is healthy and official for travel.
Day #1, #2, and some background
We hit the ground (or road) running, so to speak, on the morning of March 1st. Despite the inclement weather and threat of tornadoes the night before, trainers Lauren Kimbro and Colleen Nissen and ocelot Sihil were up before sunrise to start the long journey down to Texas. The next 50 hours of the trip involved a lot of snacks (for both trainers and Sihil, who always travels with two coolers full of daily meals and plenty of food enrichment), chatter (not just between Colleen and Lauren – ocelots make a grumbling vocalization that is often emitted when they are attentive or content), and driving!
Aside from being a 16-year-old ambassador for her species, Sihil is also a reproductive science legend. She was the first ocelot born via frozen embryo, which was then implanted into her surrogate mother (also an ocelot). The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) scientists work to learn more about genetics, reproduction, and breeding to further our knowledge to help critical species’ populations. This year’s Ocelot Conservation Festival was a special one, because CREW scientist Dr. Bill Swanson was in attendance. Dr. Swanson was the scientist behind the creation and birth of Sihil and also leads the Ocelot Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program dedicated to maintaining healthy and genetically diverse animal populations as well as bolstering species education within the zoo community.
The day started at 6:00 am to prepare for a full line-up of programming. The first stop was the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, TX. We presented two half hour presentations to the staff there because ocelots inhabit the area around the property of the center. Hilary Swarts, a biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), accompanied us to the presentations and gave information on the plight of the ocelots in the area. She touched on some important everyday changes that people who live in ocelot territory can do to make the habitat a continued safe place for these cats, such as learning the correct identification of an ocelot, driving cautiously to prevent ocelot and other local wildlife road fatalities, and finally, reporting ocelot fatalities to USFWS. Hilary was the first to speak, giving a talk on the native wildlife and conservation issues.
Next it was Sihil’s time to shine. As trainers, we set up our programs the same every time so that even though it’s a new room 1,400 miles away from the Zoo with different people, the experience is consistent which helps set our animals up for success! During each program, trainer Colleen had Sihil on leash to run through several of her behaviors, including climbing up the ocelot pole to show off the ocelot’s amazing climbing adaptations. Trainer Lauren gave the information regarding ocelot adaptations and conservation. Sihil was a rock star! During programs she was very excited to “mark her territory” in true ocelot fashion, by spraying urine! Marking territory is a cat’s way of saying “I was here” and as stinky as it may be, it is a sign reflecting that Sihil is calm and relaxed during the program.
As hard as we trainers try to make every program the same as the next, sometimes Sihil has other ideas. For example, during the second program, Sihil decided to reach over and grab a large Texas flag that was standing near her table; she brought it down with the quick efficiency of an ocelot. Luckily for us, the Texans gave her a pardon and we were able to go on with the programming.
Next we had to quickly drive over to Payne Auto Group in Weslaco, Texas. We were greeted with a video of Sihil on the Auto Group’s billboard promoting Ocelot Conservation Day, which would happen the following day. Being a major financial sponsor, they had local media, chambers of commerce and economic development companies come to the event. We teamed up with USFWS for the program, and Sihil, in front of the entire local media, seemed quite pleased with herself and decided to mark her territory again. We conducted several interviews after Sihil’s presentation and several people informed us that they would be bringing their families the next day to the Gladys Porter Zoo to see Sihil – we officially had some ocelot groupies in Texas!
The last two programs of the day were long distance presentations to broadcast to schools across Texas. The first presentation was aligned with the State Education Standards for K-6 and we had 15 classes log in to our programs. The next program was designed for grades 7-12 with 3 classes logging in. This was a great way to reach out to the local schools without having to travel to each school! These programs were very successful and the distance learning coordinator is already looking into how we can spread our ocelot program even further so that more students can learn how they can be involved in Ocelot Conservation in future years!
With five programs completed that day, it was time to head back to our home away from home at the Cactus Creek Ranch. Sihil got to go on a long leisurely walk to see the sights and sounds of the ranch. After that she was quite excited to have a prey item that we had brought from the Zoo for dinner and settle into bed early!
Happy Ocelot Conservation Day!!! We awoke early again to head to the Gladys Porter Zoo for the public demonstrations that were part of the day’s festivities! Earlier that morning, they had an Ocelot 5K with over 800 runners, including the Cincinnati Zoo’s own Dr. Bill Swanson! While traveling to the zoo we were stuck in race traffic, and all the runners were so excited to see our Cincinnati Zoo van, that they were even forgoing their race times to stop and take pictures and give us high fives! Once there, we were set up to do four programs for the zoo patrons that day! Backstage between programs, Sihil was tucked away in her “mega- suite” XXL crate so that she could cat nap until her time to be a star. Dr. Swanson attended the programs and was there to help answer questions about the future of ocelot conservation. Outside of our program room there were many volunteers doing ocelot crafts with kids and presenting biofacts so that people could learn even more about how they could be more involved. Everyone was so excited to see a live ocelot ambassador along with the USFWS and we were able to educate over 685 people that day!
Although this is a long, exhausting, and fun filled journey, it is an important one with major conservation significance. As stewards to our planet and its creatures, our trainers and animal ambassadors aim to bring awareness, education, and solutions to everyone willing to learn. This trip unifies us with various stakeholders who are in unique positions to have a positive impact on the North American ocelot, not to mention many other species of native wildlife. Seeing Sihil in person inspires the local people of South Texas in the same way that many zoo animals inspire us – to learn and explore the creatures around us, as well as make changes in our lives to help their wild counterparts. That is, after all, what being an ambassador is all about!
Your Chance to See Sihil
Now that we’re back home in Cincinnati, Sihil is gearing up for her next big appearance. That’s right, it’s your turn to see Sihil in action at the third annual Cinco de Gato event. Hosted by the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK), Cinco de Gato raises awareness and funds to support Texas ocelot conservation through Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. This year, we’ll be celebrating at Urban Artifact on May 12 starting at 4:00pm. There will be live animal encounters early in the evening, live music a bit later, raffles, merchandise, drinks and tons of fun! We hope you’ll join us!