Two critically endangered Amur leopard cubs were born at the Saint Louis Zoo on April 21, 2022. The little females are the first cubs born at the Zoo since 2010 and their births are a significant contribution to the population of Amur leopards in North American zoos. This species is considered one of the most endangered cats in the world.
The cubs were named Anya (pronounced AH-na) and Irina (pronounced eye-REE-na), which mean "grace" and "peace," respectively, by the Zoo's Carnivore Care Team.
Dot and Samson
This is the first litter for mother Dorothy, or Dot, age 4, and father Samson, also age 4. Mother and cubs are doing well and will remain in their private, indoor maternity den inside Big Cat Country for the next few months to allow time for the cubs to grow large enough to safely navigate all of the obstacles in the outdoor habitat. Samson can be seen by Zoo guests in his habitat at Big Cat Country.
"Dot is an excellent mother. It's exciting to see this first-time mom providing great care to her cubs," said Steve Bircher, Kevin Beckmann Curator of Carnivores, Saint Louis Zoo. "There are so few of these rare big cats left in the world and each birth is extremely important for the survival of the species."
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The first few months of life are critical for newborn leopards. The animal care team is closely monitoring the family and it appears that both cubs are healthy. On May 5, at 2 weeks old, the cubs had their first well-baby check by the Zoo veterinary care team where they were briefly examined and weighed, then returned to Dot in the maternity den. Each cub weighed nearly 2.5 pounds at that time, which is normal for their age, according to Zoo veterinarians. Adult Amur leopards can weigh between 60 and 125 pounds.
Species Survival Plan
Dot was born at San Diego Zoo and moved to the Saint Louis Zoo in fall 2020. Samson was born at Chicago Zoological Society's Brookfield Zoo and moved to the Zoo in fall 2021. The two were paired on a breeding recommendation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Amur Leopard Species Survival Plan, a program responsible for maintaining a genetically healthy population of Amur leopards in North American zoos.
There have been four other cubs in three litters born at the Saint Louis Zoo since 1991: Anastasia (female, 2010), Sofiya (female, 2008), and Sergi and Dimitri (males, 1991).
Fewer than 100 Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis) remain in the coniferous forests of Primorye Province in far eastern Russia.
"There are more Amur leopards in human care than exist in the wild," said Bircher. "In all, the population of Amur leopards in zoos all around the world numbers just about 300 individuals. Without the conservation effort of zoos, this species could go extinct, due to loss of genetic diversity and other threats to its survival in the wild, including habitat loss due to logging activities, human encroachment and poaching."
Amur leopard cubs are born after a gestation period of approximately 100 days. In the wild, cubs stay with their mother for about 1½ years. Young females may continue to share the mother's territory as they mature. Young males must establish their own territories elsewhere.
Playing is the most important job! Over a month old, Anya and Irina are already building curious personalities with their environment and each other. Dot often moves her cubs by gently picking them up in her mouth. This is a common action between adult cats and cubs, and it keeps the young cats safe. With two adventurous cubs, Dot is finding that keeping them in the box is an ongoing effort.
The sisters enjoy climbing out of their box (even if only for a few moments before Dot puts them back in), catching Dot’s tail, wrestling with each other and moving around their space. The wood box is an important part of helping Dot transition into motherhood. It provides a feeling of security for the new mom and will be removed only when she feels comfortable with having her cubs roam more freely. At 5 weeks old, Anya and Irina are still nursing from Dot and spending all of their time together. Exploration is the name of the game for a young cat, and we are happy to see they are both exploring as much as Dot allows!
Amur leopards Anya and Irina are healthy and growing! At their recent health check-up around 5 weeks old, they each weighed 5.5 pounds. They were about 18 inches long. Their lungs, heart, eyes and weight are a few of the health points that were checked.
They each have a few teeth coming through. They are tiny right now, but eventually these teeth will grow into large canines used for shredding and eating meat.
As Anya and Irina are getting bigger, their confidence with each other and in their home is growing. They climb on top of Dot, swipe at each other, lightly bite each other's ears, and do more fun, playful activities. They even explore Dot's food, though currently they are only nursing. In this video taken from the maternity den camera, after a bath from Dot, Anya and Irina decide to wrestle with their mom and each other.
Our feisty, Amur leopard cub twins Irina and Anya got the zoomies! (They are 9 weeks old in this video. They were born April 21, 2022.)
Play is serious business for young cats. These rambunctious games of chase, tag, and hide-and-seek help them practice the skills they will need as adults, such as stalking, pouncing, and socializing.
Momma Dot is patient while teaching her babies how to be leopards. She lets them climb on her to play "king of the hill," teases them with her tail, and will gently bite and swipe as a sparring partner. When she needs a break, she will give them "time out" by briefly holding them down with her big paw. In between the play sessions are bouts of nursing and sleeping. All that play wears them out – but it is both fun and important for their development!
The cubs have tasted meat but still nurse consistently from Dot. They have begun grooming themselves, just like Dot has shown them.