Critically-Endangered (and Dangerously Cute) Leopard Cubs Born at Connecticut Zoo

Brother to the left, sister to the right. Cuties all around.
Photo: Courtesy of Beardsley Zoo

Fewer than 100 Amur leopards roam the wild. The critically endangered subspecies, which lives in the snowy regions of Russia’s far east near the Chinese border, faces constant threats in the form of poaching and habitat loss in the wild. Which is what makes the birth of two Amur leopard cubs at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo so important.

The cubs were born in January, with the celebratory news reaching the public just last week. The mom, Freya, mated naturally with Sochi, a male leopard at the zoo. She gave birth to three cubs—her first litter!—but one of the males was lost after suffering injuries as a result of his mother’s hyper-grooming behavior.

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The other male cub and his sister are faring well so far, but they’ve been separated from their mother to ensure she wouldn’t continue over-licking them, which can cause their skin to tear. Freya wound up injuring the female cub a bit, so zoo officials had to remove her tail after birth. She’s doing fine now.

MY HEART.
Photo: Courtesy of Beardsley Zoo

“You have to be a little extra careful with first-time moms,” Don Goff, the zoo’s deputy director, told Earther. “You never know how they’re going to react. It’s not like someone told them they are pregnant or why they’re going through all these changes.”

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A female leopard may lose her first litter—both in the wild and captivity—said Goff, so the behavior wasn’t considered abnormal. Either way, the cubs are doing well now. And they’re both super adorable. The female cub’s rare black coloration is a result of the overproduction of the pigment melanin, an unusual quality in Amur leopards.

The cubs don’t have names yet, but they’ll have some soon enough if they continue to grow into healthy mature leopards. While these cats are unlikely to ever see the wild, breeding efforts like this, which have resulted in a captive population of roughly 200 Amur leopards, are key to ensuring the subspecies’ continued existence. Unfortunately, the female’s melanism might disqualify her from breeding in the future, but her extraordinary beauty will help her be a one-of-a-kind advocate for her species.

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BABYGIRL!
Photo: Courtesy of Beardsley Zoo

The zoo bred the leopards through the Species Survival Plan Program, which manages the breeding of animals in captivity to protect their relatives in the wild. Through the program, specific individual animals are selected to maximize the species’ genetic diversity.

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“Every birth that’s recommended is an important birth because it may boost the overall gene diversity of the entire population,” said Goff. “That gene diversity is what’s going to make that species adaptable to the environment. Because behavior is genetic, you want to create the best possible methodology for them to survive.”

Think of it this way: In a worst-case, apocalyptic scenario where the leopard’s wild population is totally decimated, the animals in captivity have enough genetic diversity to keep the species afloat.

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With only 84 Amur leopards in the wild, conservationists must do everything they can to ensure the animals survive.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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