Standing at the glass of the snow leopard exhibit at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ) you might see Nadia, the zoo’s female snow leopard, tossing a big round cantaloupe in the air, rolling it, batting it, rubbing on it, and finally—the grand finale – eating it all up! What a treat—for cat and visitor. What you most likely won’t see is the man behind all that excitement, WPZ’s snow leopard keeper James Scott. To find out more about the lives of snow leopards in zoos, and the humans who care for these beautiful cats, Trust Conservation Program Coordinator Jennifer Snell Rullman recently interviewed James about his work.
How long have you been a keeper?
21 years! I can’t believe it! I started at the Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska, then worked at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, and have been here at WPZ for 16 years. I have worked with a wide variety of animals, from—carnivores to farm animals, primates, nocturnal animals, and even herps [reptiles]!
How did you become a keeper?
In an act of desperation I think! I was in my third year of college, with really no direction, and as fate had it I guess, I saw this add for a two-year “Teaching Zoo Program” offered at the Santa Fe College in Gainsville, Florida. I went through the program and that was that. But today you really need to have a four-year degree to become a keeper. There are so many more options out there today for people interested in becoming a keeper, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) website lists a great variety of training programs.
How long have you taken care of snow leopards?
I have worked with snow leopards for about 12 years, and I do have a connection with them. I like to think that I develop a connection with whatever animal I am working with—but I have always been a cat person! It’s impossible not to look into the eyes of a snow leopard and fall in love, there is just something about them.
How many snow leopards have you “known”?
I’ve worked with nine snow leopards. And in the spring we will get a new female, which will make 10. I also worked a little bit with them in Brookfield, where they had about 8 cats then.
So, you just got a new little cub at WPZ and I understand another female will come in the spring. Will Nadia stay?
The new little guy arrived in late December. His name is Tom and he is going to be 2 years old in May. I’ve been caring for him now for about 3 weeks. He was shy when he came, but he is coming out of his shyness. Sunday he took food from me close, and he seems to be calming down and settling in. The female that will arrive in the spring will be 3 years old in May. We hope to introduce them as a breeding pair. And yes, Nadia will stay with us!
Who makes those decisions about what cats come to which zoos?
The AZA has a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for all endangered species in zoos. It helps all North American zoos manage the genetic diversity to keep the captive populations healthy. We report on our cats and space and make requests for new cats if we have room. The snow leopard SSP committee makes the final decisions once a year, looking at all the cats and deciding where they should go in order to breed for the best genetic matches (but moving cats from one zoo to another only if necessary).
What are some of the fun, unique things you have had a chance to observe about snow leopards and their behavior?
They are great jumpers of course. The coolest thing I have seen is when they leap into the air and “helicopter.” I’ve seen this when we give them a particular fun scent for enrichment and they get excited and jump into the air and do a circle like a helicopter blade!
You said you give them a scent for enrichment, can you tell us more about what that means?
Well, as keepers we are of course concerned with making sure the cats’ physical needs are met. But we are also doing more and more to make sure their behavioral needs are met—mental and emotional needs, providing more stimulation. So, we do different things for them. When the elk at the zoo shed their antlers, we collect the velvet from them and give it to the cats. They rub all over it, toss it around, and get really spacey and playful just like a cat with catnip. Eventually they eat the velvet. And yes, they like catnip too, and react just like your average house cat, but bigger. We also give them other spices like nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, and coffee—they love them. One of Nadia’s favorite things is when I give her a whole cantaloupe. And of course, now she is very “enriched” by Tom, the new arrival.
Do you have any great memories or stories about snow leopards that you can share with us?
Well, there are many, but it is hard to beat the memory of being there when the three baby snow leopards were born to Nadia. We let her raise them, but it is our policy here to socialize the cubs a lot to the presence of humans so we can monitor them more easily. They were so small, fitting into the palm of my hand—and Nadia let us easily take them out to hold them, weigh them, check them all over. Once they were about 6 months old I remember this day when we were still going in with them and one of the babies started stalking me. I could see her, but she thought she was invisible, and stalked me until she was under a bush and when I came near she pounced! So cute. Another thing I remember that was so amazing to watch was when they would be playing on the rocks and they would fall off—falling down the rocks! But instead of tumbling or bouncing down the rocks, they would go limp and then flow like water. It was so amazing….and I really wish I had taken the time to videotape it.
So, what do snow leopards in zoos eat (other than cantaloupe and coffee)?
We feed them a processed large carnivore diet called Nebraska Brand. Many zoos feed this and it is a complete diet with all the goodies they need, vitamins and minerals—but it is boring! So, we also feed them “whole foods” to make it less mundane. They get a rabbit once a week, a whole chicken once a week, and bones twice a week.
What is a typical “day in the life” of a snow leopard keeper?’’ What do you like about it most?
Well, I come in and check the cats in the morning. I give them meatballs (raw of course), putting them close to the edge of the cage so the cats will come in near me and I can look them over well. Then I am off to take care of the wolves and elk, and when I am finished with that, I come mid-morning to give the cats their full breakfast. When they start eating, I pull the cords to shut them inside so I can go outside to clean the exhibit and set up the enrichment activities. Once that is all set and they finish eating, I let them back out. It is a routine, but the best part is the opportunity to work with these animals so closely. Once you start to work with them, you learn more about them and appreciate them more. I’ve also worked with some really great colleagues.
What role do you see your snow leopards having in conservation?
I think the main thing is that the snow leopard is so little known. Everyone knows cheetahs and lions and tigers, but so few people know about snow leopards. We have the chance to just let people see them and let them know they are here! But, here at WPZ, we are lucky we have Trust just down the road, and so I see these cats as ambassadors to support the Trust and their work. I love the association we have with the Trust. I mean, Helen Freeman was the founder of the Trust and worked as the keeper for the first snow leopards were shipped from Pakistan to the US. I really like being associated with that history. I tell everyone that Nadia is related to that original pair—I think she is the great-granddaughter 5 times removed. I remember when I went to the Snow Leopard Trust annual dinner last year, even though I know what the Trust does, it was amazing to hear all of the work and programs that you are implementing. It gave me goosebumps to hear it all and made me proud to be playing the small part I am with Nadia and the zoo.