Last year, for the first time, I created two calendars. There had been so many adorable babies born in 2015-16 that I really wanted to feature photos of them; however, it didn’t seem fair to my “regulars” to change the calendar format to exclusively babies and melding babies and adults together didn’t really make me very happy, so I decided to make one “normal” calendar and one dedicated to just babies and let everyone decide for themselves which they’d prefer. It was a resounding success, so this year I decided to have a second choice again. I was really hoping to make the “Option B” calendar one full of photos of the Toronto Zookeepers at work, but I knew I’d want to get each Keeper’s permission before using a photo of them and I simply ran out of time once the “regular” calendar was finished. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I was going to make any calendars for 2018 but I was convinced by a great many friends to continue the tradition, and so I did – but I got rather a late start. In any event, once it became clear there would not be time to do the Keeper Calendar, I decided to put out another edition full of nothing but baby animals. The problem was, there simply weren’t enough births in Toronto in 2017 to fill 12 months, so I used photos from various other Zoos as well – and some from birds who wander the grounds of the Toronto Zoo, both in their collection and “non-inventory” types.
There was, however, a “mini=explosion” of babies (10 in all) within the family Felidae – and all of them born within a period of just over two weeks. Here, then, is the story of not the first to be born, but the first to be featured in this year’s calendar: the clouded leopards.
On May 11 of last year, CUPE Local 1600 Zookeepers Union went out on strike, taking with it all the non-management personnel from every department at the Toronto Zoo. Cheetah babies had been born to Laini on April 30 (more about them in a later post), but two more births were imminent: snow leopards were due to Ena and clouded leopards from Pivarti. As reported by ZooBorns last June (warning: click on that link at your own risk as you might faint from the cuteness), the birth of clouded leopard cubs was to be the first time ever in Toronto and it must have been nearly unbearably hard for Pivarti’s Keepers to hit the bricks right before the big event. But in the end, the Greater Good prevailed and so it was that the May 13 arrival of the “cloudie sisters” was handled by Supervisors and Health Centre Management.
All went well in the very beginning, but soon it became apparent that Pivarti, a first-time mom, was beginning to abandon the wee ones. Veterinary staff stepped in and gave the kittens fluids for the better part of 24 hours, but finally decided – when one cub began to “crash” to move them to the Health Centre to be hand-raised… assuming, that is, that they survived the next couple of days. This is where the story takes an incredible turn; I could write an entire blog piece on just this incident, but in the interests of moving this story along I will simply lay out the events as I understand them – and I have received my information firsthand, so I have no reason whatsoever to doubt its veracity.
If you clicked on the ZooBorns link or on the photo in the preceding paragraph, you will have been given the information that the Zoo had developed a clouded leopard hand-rearing protocol for just such a situation, based on best-practices shared by other Zoos with experience hand-raising these animals. What you will not have been told is that the woman in the photo at right who is standing nearest to the photo of the clouded kittens is the Vet Tech who developed that very protocol. In other words, she literally “wrote the book” for the Toronto Zoo. And, unfortunately, she was on strike when the cubs were rushed to the Health Centre. It was at this point that someone in the Zoo’s upper management (I’ve never been completely clear who it was) reached out to that very same Vet Tech and asked her to get permission to cross the lines and help save these babies. Permission was immediately granted, and in the wee small hours of May 15, she entered the Health Centre and began to perform her life-saving magic which she continued for the next eight hours or so. When she left the building, the kittens were out of the woods and, other than the discovery of a heart murmur in Levy last autumn, have progressed wonderfully and without incident ever since then.
It’s been nearly a year since all that happened and I still am in awe of the teamwork and bipartisanship in that story. I mentioned the later discovery of Levy’s heart murmur; at left is her sister, Charlotte, undergoing an ultrasound in December (pictured is Dr. Pauline Delnatte) to provide a baseline before Levy was probed a few minutes later. We were lucky enough to be granted access to the first procedure as Zoo Members, but we had to leave the viewing area before Levy made her appearance as the shift of the Volunteer who was accompanying us was coming to an end. The towel wrapped around her tail, the little booties/socks placed over all four of her feet, the image of Keeper Ryan hovering over the whole thing like a mother hen – all of these things helped make for a fascinating and enriching experience that day.
The very first glimpse I got of the babies was actually a fluke. The brand-new Wildlife Health Centre was being prepared to be open to the public on the Canada Day weekend last summer, and before that happened there were preview days – first for Staff and Volunteers, then two days for Members leading into the weekend. I showed up right at 2:00 on the first day (the earliest we could get in) with my friend, Sue Maynard, who wrote a couple of guest posts on my other blog a few years back. On our travel through the “Behind the Scenes” areas of the WHC, we happened upon a Volunteer friend of mine. After a moment of casual chitchat he said to us, “Oh, by the way, if you’re interested, I think they’re feeding the clou–” and that’s as far as he got. I left a vapour trail behind me as I raced from there to the nursery near the back of the building and pressed myself up against the glass to watch the Vet Techs take care of the two tiny, wriggling, always-moving little balls of brown and black and pink and fur and okay I have to stop typing because I’m melting into a puddle just thinking about them. As the area in front of the windows began to fill up, Sue reached me and we stood there together off to one side for the entire feeding. There was a Staffer there who was telling everyone not to take any pictures, but of course the only one listening to him was yours truly and it was very frustrating indeed. Sue came to the rescue, though: at one point she tapped me on the arm, pointed at her phone, and said, “I got you covered.” The photo here is one of the two she sent me from their post-feeding presentation to the crowd; clearly, she absolutely had me covered. Because their feeding schedule was regular (every three hours) I knew they’d be getting another session with the Techs at 2:00 the next day, so I returned – this time with Sarah – and once again stood off to the side so I could stay as long as I wanted. And before I left the area, Amanda (one of the Indo Keepers who saw me there) brought Charlotte over to my window area as a special treat (most of the displays were in the centre window). She held Charlotte on the ledge near my face and I locked eyes with the fur baby. She opened up her beautiful little pink mouth and meowed at me. I don’t recall much of the day after that!
Eventually, they grew strong enough to leave the Health Centre and they were moved to their new home in the exhibit which formerly housed the lion-tailed macaques, across from the greater one-horned rhino house and beside the Malayan Woods pavilion. For the first few months there they would need constant supervision while out on exhibit (they could stay inside the house on their own) to make sure they didn’t fall from any great heights or get stuck anywhere. Furthermore, having a Keeper or two (or three or four – they were very popular!) often helped to get them out of their cubbyhole and out into view. Well, it helped get one of them out, at least: Levy. She loved to play with the humans; her sister only came out after her to play with her. Also, they only came out for an hour at a time, twice a day (if memory serves, they were out from 11:30-12:30 and then 2:30-3:30). So I made darn sure I was there at 11:30 on August 27, when they made their public debut. The photos I took that day were not fantastic – it was crowded and the exhibit is not well-lit under the roof – but one of the better ones is featured here, above left.
By the way, about those names: the one named “Levy” was given that moniker as a joke nickname because of what appeared to be bushy eyebrows on her face (an affectionate nod to Canadian comedy legend Eugene Levy). It wasn’t supposed to stick; in fact, the Keepers thought there would be a naming contest for the sisters. Once their names (Levy and Charlotte) appeared in print in an edition of the Member’s Magazine Wild for Life, it was pretty much a done deal, much to the dismay of the Keeper who gave them their names in the first place. It’s also been difficult dissuading people of the notion that Levy is a boy, so there’s that, too. But, to the cats’ credit, they took to their names and definitely respond to them when called. Of course, it’s more often that Levy will respond than Charlotte. She’s still the one who prefers humans. As they’ve grown, it’s become harder to tell them apart. In the photo here, Levy is on the left: she still has a little “smudge” of extra eyebrows, whereas even though Charlotte’s are quite pronounced as well, hers are quite a bit “sharper” and point down rather than across.
Well, at this point I’m basically just looking through all my photos and trying to work out if I have any more stories to tell about the cubs. And it occurs to me that, story or no story, I have enough photos to keep you reading this post for probably the next week or so. I guess I’ll have to whittle the choices down a bit a present another “mosaic” for you to look at. If you still crave more shots after this piece is done – and you have a Facebook account – you can find many more from the middle of February 2018 onward via my site “The Grumpy Penguin.” Any pictures from before that time were posted on my personal Facebook site; because I made most of my albums “Public” you can access them without having to “friend” me, but you do need a Facebook account (or access to someone else’s).
First, though, I want to show you that it’s not always “fun and games” when the “kittens” you’re playing with possess extremely sharp claws for climbing. Here’s Keeper Sarah trying to convince Levy (I think) not to pounce on her. Let’s see how that worked out!
Nice hands, Sarah!
Well, it’s going to be extremely difficult choosing just a few photos to display as I leave you here. I know for sure I’m going to come back and look at this next array several times and wondering why I didn’t choose such-and-such a photo, but that’s the way it goes. I hope you like the ones I’ve picked out for you. Next month: a shot taken at a different Toronto-based Zoo, of a baby with “celebrity” parents. Thanks for keeping up! See you in June!
Postscript: I was right. I ended up with 52 photos in that mosaic. Don’t judge me.