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Category — Cats

Supporting Wild Cat Conservation Education in Tamaulipas, Mexico

Mexico is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world thanks to its large size, variety of habitats, and position as a transition zone between North America’s temperate and Central America’s tropical regions. However, little is known regarding the distribution and status of Mexico’s wildlife, including the iconic and endangered jaguar. Relatively little government land in Mexico is dedicated to conservation and most of its wildlife survives outside of protected areas. In northern Mexico, much of the land is owned by private cattle ranchers. Thus, cattle ranches have a critical role in conserving the country’s wildlife.

Jaguar (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

Jaguar (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge commissioned a non-profit organization, Conservación y Desarrollo de Espacios Naturales (CDEN), to conduct a monitoring study. CDEN used motion-sensitive cameras to determine the status of the ocelot on ranchland in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas with the hopes that the population would be healthy enough to allow the transfer of an ocelot to South Texas to boost its endangered ocelot population.

One of the most exciting results of the study was a visual record of an amazing variety of wildlife in the area. The cameras captured images of over 20 mammal species, including five wild cats: jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis and bobcats. CDEN established the Wild Cats of Tamaulipas Binational Conservation Program (WCT) following the initial study to continue to monitor wild cats in the area and work with the local community and government to conserve them.

Wild Cats of Tamaulipas Poster

Wild Cats of Tamaulipas Poster

With support from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the Gladys Porter Zoo, and San Antonio Zoo, WCT established an environmental education and outreach component in 2015 to provide educational programs and materials to local communities in Tamaulipas. The goal is to make people aware of the presence of wild cats in the region and convey the importance of protecting their populations. Wild cats play important roles as predators, maintaining balanced ecosystems by keeping prey populations in check.

Between July and October, approximately 1,600 people were reached through WCT education events including:

  • an education booth at the Tamatan Zoo in Ciudad Victoria,
  • a Biology Conference at the Technological Institute of Altamira,
  • a festival at Laguna Del Carpintero Bicentennial Park in Tampico,
  • another festival in Tampico during Workforce Security, Hygiene and Environment Week,
  • and presentations at two local businesses during their annual environmental awareness week activities.

    Presenting to Biology students (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

    Presenting to Biology students (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Activities at these various events included presentations and activity stations where people could talk to CDEN leaders, Francisco Illescas and Rossana Nuñez, about wild cats and get a good look at a camera trap and various cat skulls.

CDEN leaders, Francisco Illescas and Rossana Nuñez (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

CDEN leaders, Francisco Illescas and Rossana Nuñez (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

People could also make rubbings of jaguars and take a reusable bag of educational materials with them. The bags included crayons, jaguar activity booklets, and WCT brochures/field guides to the five wild cats, which the Cincinnati Zoo helped to create.

Educational materials (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Educational materials (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

People could also take their picture in a large stand-in of one of the scenes from the jaguar booklet.

Photo opportunity (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Photo opportunity (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

And, of course, the star of each event was Alan, the new jaguar mascot.

Alan, the jaguar mascot (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Alan, the jaguar mascot (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

WCT also created and printed 10 Wild Cats of Tamaulipas posters featuring camera trap images to use at the events.

Poster featuring a camera trap image of an ocelot (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

Poster featuring a camera trap image of an ocelot (Photo: Wild Cats of Tamaulipas)

The events were successful in increasing the general public’s awareness of the rich biodiversity still present in Tamaulipas, particularly the presence of five wild cat species. In addition to continuing public education events in the future, WCT plans to meet with and present to ranch owners at livestock association meetings to garner their support.

November 19, 2015   1 Comment

Farewell to a Fishing Cat

Our ambassador fishing cat Minnow passed away last week at 12 years old.  Like many feline species, including the domestic housecat, Minnow struggled with renal disease in her older age and in the end, renal failure.  While 12 years old may seem young, fishing cat average lifespan is about 10-12 years old and Minnow lived a full life with us at the Cincinnati Zoo in the Cat Ambassador Program.

fishing-cat-Mark-Dumont
Minnow came to us at 16 days old from the Exotic Feline Breeding Center in CA. It is rare to see fishing cats in zoos and even more rare to see an ambassador fishing cat. In fact, Minnow was the last working ambassador fishing cat found in any Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoo.  We were fortunate that she was given to us because her genetics did not match with the SSP (Species Survival Plan) population.  Since she would not be fit for breeding we were allowed to try to raise her as an ambassador cat.  I say “try” because fishing cats are quite a challenge.  In the wild, they are very rare and elusive and in captivity they behave as their wild counterparts, aloof to their keepers and reluctant of any changes in their environment.

minnow with toy

The Cat Ambassador Program staff took on Minnow and met the challenge.  In her early years Minnow was one of the stars of the travelling Cat Ambassador School Program.  Trainers would take a small water tub and Minnow would show off her fishing skills for thousands of children a year across Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.  In 2007, when the Cheetah Encounter Show yard was built at the zoo, the trainers insisted on having a deep pond, to give Minnow a chance to show off her natural behavior for guests at the zoo.  True to her cautious species, Minnow was not immediately a fan of the pond and of the large wide open space in the new yard since fishing cats live in marshlands in Southeast Asia and are nocturnal.  It took a full year of training with Minnow for her to be comfortable fishing in the pond and appearing reliably in the show.  Between 2008- 2015 Minnow appeared in the summer Cheetah Encounter Show.  She appeared on sunny warm days and on days when she was interested in participating.  While she loved to fish, she was after all, a wild fishing cat, and life moved on her terms.

Minnow winter 05 2

Fishing cats are not well known so many visitors were surprised to see this small black and gray cat diving in head first into a pond.  There were many “oohs” and “aahs” when she performed her “high dive” behavior – leaping off a platform and diving into the pond after a fish.  She was a great addition to the show, giving us the opportunity to talk about the diversity and uniqueness of cat species around the world.  People also loved to see her slink down into the short green grass, pretending to camouflage, as she ignored her trainers requests to retreat out of the yard.  She was a small cat with a big attitude.  An attitude that while sometimes tough to train was the mark of her species.  As animal trainers we learned so much from Minnow.  She taught us how to work with and not against natural behavior, how to give an animal time and space when it needed it, patience, perseverance when training a “difficult” cat and above all, more patience.

fishing cat

As with all our ambassador cats, our constant hope is to inspire visitors to learn more about the species we share.  Minnow was no exception.  We hope that the hundreds of thousands of visitors that saw Minnow at a school program or at the zoo were inspired to learn more about her species and how their daily actions can help her native cousins in SE Asia.   Minnow inspired me personally as well.  Last year I took on the role of Education Advisor for the Fishing Cat SSP (Species Survival Plan). I created a Facebook page , where Minnow is often the subject, and started to work on collaborating with fishing cat researchers across SE Asia to learn how we can do more.  In the last year we have organized fishing cat fundraising events through our American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) chapter in Cincinnati to support conservation research and as I write this I am preparing to travel to Nepal next week, to meet in person with researchers from around SE Asia at the first ever Fishing Cat Symposium.  My hope is to come back with specific knowledge about the plight of the fishing cat and how we can help from across the globe, to make a difference for this unique and endangered species.  My love for fishing cats started with Minnow but it has now extended beyond her, and I am committed to global fishing cat conservation because of her.

While Minnow may no longer be around physically, she will always be in our hearts and minds. She was a unique and dynamic individual and the bond that we formed with her can never be forgotten. We will carry forth her memory as we continue to educate and inspire visitors at the Cincinnati Zoo and beyond and we will continue to work to preserve all endangered cat species, including the fishing cat.

Goodbye sweet Minnow- we are forever grateful for the 12 years you were with us. Thank you for letting us into your fishing cat world.

Minnow and her trainer, Linda

Minnow and her trainer, Linda

November 17, 2015   18 Comments

Earth Expeditions: Participating in Community-based Conservation in Kenya – Part V (Final)

For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the fifth and final post in a series about our experience. Read the previous post in this blog series here.

Day 8:

Today was Community Day! Following a wrap-up of the ecological monitoring projects and our last group discussion on balancing human land use and conservation in the morning, the afternoon brought us a special treat. Students from various local schools were transported to Lale’enok Resource Centre for a cultural day. Other community members, including Maasai elders and members of the Women’s Group, came to partake in the festivities as well. The students presented on the theme of “Water is Life” in the form of traditional song, dance, poetry and debate. They even invited us to join them in some of the dancing.

Schoolgirls singing a traditional song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Schoolgirls singing a traditional song (Photo: Shasta Bray)

I had prepared the Earth Expeditions group that they might want to come up with a presentation of their own. In years past, groups ended up singing silly songs like the Hokey Pokey. This year, one of the students, Jen, brought the idea of doing the BioBlitz Dance. The Bioblitz Dance was originally created for National Geographic’s Bioblitz Event and is a celebration of the outdoors, human diversity and biodiversity, and national parks. I’m not sure it was any less silly than the Hokey Pokey, but at least it had a connection to people and wildlife. The best thing it did was break down barriers between the local community and our students, make everyone laugh and smile, and allowed us to do something in return.

Earth Expeditions students perform the Bioblitz dance. I believe this move is called "the turkey vulture". (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Earth Expeditions students perform the Bioblitz Dance. I believe this move is called “the turkey vulture”. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Later that afternoon once the students had departed, we had the chance to mingle and have small group conversations with the community members. No topic was off limits, and they were just as curious about us and our culture as we were about theirs. We talked about marriage, family and more. Everyone was so open and friendly.

Conversation between Earth Expeditions students and local community members (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Conversation between Earth Expeditions students and local community members (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Soon, we all moved to the campfire for a traditional Maasai dinner featuring fire-roasted goat. There was much more conversation, singing, dancing and star gazing before heading to our tents for the night.

Day 9:

Our last full day in the South Rift began with an early morning walk just after sunrise to a ravine overlooking the river. We walked down to the riverbank and spent some time hanging out and reflecting on all the wonderful experiences we’d had so far. On the way back, a lone hyena burst out of the bush just ahead of us and booked it across the dirt road. Amazing!

Ewaso Ng'iro river (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Ewaso Ng’iro river (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We finished up the last of our coursework with a discussion about what the students planned to do for their Inquiry Action Projects once we returned home and how it fit into their Master Plans for those in the graduate program.

Then it was time to shop! Another way we can support the community and their conservation efforts is to support their livelihoods. As a group, we had the chance to purchase a variety of hand-crafted jewelry, belts, shukas (colorful cloths) and more directly from the women who made them.

Jen Rydzewski picking out her purchases (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Jen Rydzewski picking out her purchases (Photo: Shasta Bray)

At the Zoo, we have created a Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets program. More than 200 local Maasai women showed up to sell us bracelets made in a particular design to symbolize the coexistence of people and wildlife. Each color represents an integral component: red stands for lions, black for the Maasai people, blue for peace and white for clarity. Guests can then purchase these bracelets back at the Zoo. Revenue goes back to the Olkirimatian Women’s Group to provide tuition for local school girls and contribute to the operation of the Lale’enok Resource Centre.

Inspecting Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Inspecting Lions and Livelihoods Bracelets (Photo: Shasta Bray)

We spent our last evening having a sundowner with the Lale’enok staff on top of a hill overlooking the South Rift and Mount Shompole. There were plenty of laughs, hugs and pictures as we said our farewells. It was a fantastic, life-changing expedition that no one will soon forget.

August 27, 2015   No Comments