Worth the Trip: Behind the Scenes with Snow Leopards at Woodland Park Zoo
British artist Jackie Morris, author of the magnificent children’s book “The Snow Leopard” and a long-time partner of the Snow Leopard Trust, didn’t like the idea of flying all the way from Wales to Seattle for a three-day conference very much – until she found out that the Woodland Park Zoo would be taking her on a behind-the-scenes tour to see their snow leopards! We went along with Jackie as she got up, close and personal with the cats.
We met at the gates of Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle on one of the gloomy, wet January mornings that are so typical for the local climate – and Jackie Morris and her partner Robin felt right at home. “We’re Welsh, we’d feel out of place in sunshine”, she joked, as Sara Manetti, a former Woodland Park Zoo keeper and Snow Leopard Trust volunteer, led our small group through the sleepy zoo grounds toward the snow leopard exhibit; home to adult cats Tom and Helen as well as the cubs Asha and Shanti.
An unassuming door led to the ‘backstage area’ of the snow leopard exhibit, where keeper James Scott introduced us to Asha, Shanti and Helen, who were relaxing out of sight of the public. Patriarch Tom, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen. As we got closer to the cats, James warned us to resist the temptation of reaching through the mesh and petting them, which, in the interest of our fingers, we all did. Still, being within arm’s reach of a snow leopard family was a breathtaking experience. “She’s astonishing”, Jackie whispered, as she locked eyes with Asha.
With a hint of something resembling fatherly pride, James Scott showed us where Helen had given birth to her offspring, and explained how the cubs had received special care after being diagnosed with congenital eyelid defects, also known as colobomas, shortly after their birth. Sadly, a third, male cub had also suffered from severe heart defects and had to be euthanized. His sisters, however, seem to have made it through their early struggles rather well: “They’re doing really great”. James said, “after their early challenges, we’re happy and relieved to see these two girls grow up and lead a quality life.”
I wish I had a tail, too
We spent several minutes ‘backstage’, just watching the cubs and their mother; a pleasure James Scott is privileged to enjoy almost every day. “I don’t ever get tired of watching snow leopards”, he said. “I’ve once had a scientist from India visit us here, and he confessed that after a few hours of observing a wild snow leopard, he had gotten a little bored. That’s never happened to me!”
Jackie Morris, meanwhile, was transfixed by Shanti’s long, furry tail. “I wish I had one of these”, she joked. “I’d just lean on it all day. Or wrap myself into it.”
After saying goodbye to Helen, Asha and Shanti, we made our way to the public part of the snow leopard exhibit. Sheltered in a small cave near the rear of the exhibit, we finally spotted Tom, the old male cat. He was utterly unimpressed with his visitors though, and continued to preside over his habitat without so much as raising a whisker to acknowledge us as we strolled away.
“This was by far the highlight of our trip”, both Jackie and Robin exclaimed while we walked towards the exit. Short as it may have been, our British guest’s trip to Seattle seems to have paid off – thanks to the amazing staff at Woodland Park Zoo!
An accomplished artist, illustrator and author of children’s books, Jackie Morris discovered the Snow Leopard Trust while doing research for her own book on snow leopards in 2008. She wanted to help save these magnificent cats and got in touch. Jackie has been generously donating artwork, books and proceeds from the sale of snow leopard paintings and prints ever since. You can purchase some of her work in our online shop or on her website, www.jackiemorris.co.uk
Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle has been a partner of the Snow Leopard Trust and a leader in snow leopard conservation and research for many years. The late Helen Freeman was a staff member of Woodland Park Zoo when she founded the Snow Leopard Trust in 1981 as a direct response to the threats that faced the cats in the wild.
Woodland Park Zoo has been supporting our conservation efforts ever since, and the partnership is about to enter a new exciting phase as the two organizations team up to develop a comprehensive conservation strategy for snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan.
Learn more about the zoo at www.zoo.org