Everyone knows a leopard can't change its spots, but at the Santa Barbara zoo they know how to multiply them.
The zoo's resident leopard couple produced three kittens in April, and visitors can now see them tumble around their jungle-like enclosure, climbing tree trunks and wrestling with each other.
The rare, endangered Amur leopard kittens aren't the only new arrivals at the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens. Two baby toco toucans hatched here this summer, and 10 new brightly colored macaws now perch together on tree limbs in the enclosure for capybaras, partially web-footed, South American rodents.
But the kittens are getting the lion's share of the attention. The three females, weighing in at 3 1/2 pounds at birth, have bulked up to a hefty 20-25 pounds--about double the size of a house cat, says Susan Hoegeman, the zoo's staff veterinarian and general curator.
It may sound simple for a cat to have kittens, but not in the case of these rare, endangered leopards. Found in parts of China, Russia and Korea, these cats number less than 500 in the wilds and in captivity, according to estimates.
Because zoos don't snatch animals from the wilds any more, the trio of kittens in Santa Barbara is the product of a captive breeding program. Called the Species Survival Plan, it's a cross between a zoological Planned Parenthood and what has been called "a computer dating service for animals."
The Santa Barbara zoo is among 175 North American zoos and aquariums participating in the program, which is aimed at bringing 134 species back from the brink of extinction.
They shuttle endangered animals among themselves for carefully orchestrated pairing to prevent inbreeding and genetic mutation that comes with incest. Program officials keep studbooks on each endangered species to track the breeding.
"They sit around a big table and decide what to breed," Hoegeman said. The zoo participates in the captive breeding of several other rare animals including the Asian elephant and gorilla.
As for the Amur leopards, so named for the Amur River in northeast Asia, about 100 have been born in captivity through the breeding program. One of Santa Barbara zoo's two leopards is on loan to another zoo. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Zoological Garden's female leopard was routed to Santa Barbara to breed with the zoo's remaining male leopard.
The three kittens, owned by the two zoos, will remain in Santa Barbara until they are full grown--about two years--then they'll be shipped to other zoos. Just where isn't certain right now. For now, visitors at the Santa Barbara zoo can watch the kittens scramble around the exhibit with its little pond. But they're more likely to see them napping since they sleep about 20 hours a day.
"About 10 a.m. is a great time to see them," Hoegeman said. The kittens are still nursing but that will end this month. They're developing an appetite for raw meat--beef, an occasional chicken, nothing live. They nibble playfully on their mother's legs, and she is teaching them stalking techniques.
"They investigate everything in the exhibit," she said. For variety, keepers will sometimes hide a feather for them to find or sprinkle an herb in the exhibit to give them a new smell to track. Already their paws are huge, and when they reach full growth they will weigh about 150 pounds. And to answer that age-old question of how the leopard gets its spots--he is born with them, although they become more vivid as he grows.
In the capybara exhibit, 10 bright green and blue military macaws recently joined the huge rodents. These rare exotic birds, found in the Mexican range, were about to be smuggled into the U.S. when they were confiscated at the Mexican border by fish and game officials. The bird gets its name from the crescent-shaped coloring on its head, which resembles a military uniform epaulet.
If you don't know a toucan from a macaw, the goofy-looking huge-billed bird is a toucan. The toco toucans born at the zoo are also a big success story, according to Hoegeman. "They're amazing birds," she said. Unlike other birds, they are born fully feathered. With such a cumbersome beak, they eat by tossing their food in the air and catching it in their mouths.
Watch for another impending zoo birth: The anteater is pregnant and due within a month.
Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens, 500 Ninos Drive, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children 2-12 years. For information, call 962-5339.