Brookfield Zoo welcomes snow leopard cubs


Courtesy Chicago Zoological Society

Two snow leopard cubs, with names still to be determined, were born June 16 at the Brookfield Zoo.

By McKayla Braid, Metro Reporter

Officials at Brookfield Zoo, 8400 W. 31st St. in Brookfield, announced in an Aug. 28 press release the birth of two snow leopard cubs—the first new birth at the zoo for the species in two years.

Snow leopards are an endangered species, with an estimated 4,000–6,500 left in the wild and approximately 600 in zoos worldwide, according to the Snow Leopard Trust website.

Dr. Michelle Rafacz,an assistant professor in the Science & Mathematics Department and  an adjunct scientist at Lincoln Park Zoo, said the births are significant because  the species’ endangerment status means there are ever-fewer breeding pairs.

 “[The cubs] are also significant because people relate to them. People get excited about young snow leopards. They’re very attractive, engaging and, like a lot of young animals, they’re entertaining, so they’re good ambassadors for their wild counterparts,” said Jay Petersen, curator of carnivores and primates at Brookfield Zoo .

Though there are births in captivity, there are still many factors that play into the species’ placement on the endangered species list, such as retribution killing and  the habitat-shrinking effects of mining.

Jennifer Snell Rullman, assistant director of Conservation for the Snow Leopard Trust, refers to retribution killing—when farmers kill a snow leopard that killed their livestock—“as the biggest threat facing snow leopards.”

Rullman said snow leopards do not usually kill livestock, but as farmers move their pastures further up on mountains, they displace the wild animals snow leopards usually hunt.

“When they push wild prey out of their natural habitat, snow leopards will then prey on livestock,” Rullman said.

These farmers are living in poverty and losing even one animal is detrimental to their livelihood, Rullman said, adding that they sometimes retaliate and kill the snow leopard.

The declining number of snow leopards in the wild  makes it difficult for them to reproduce, which is another factor in the decrease of the snow leopard population, Rafacz said.

Petersen said snow leopard endangerment is the result of human behavior, so people have to help restore their numbers.

The cubs are not yet named, but Brookfield Zoo gives the first opportunity to name the cubs to the donor community.

“If you or anybody would like to name them, get in touch with the development office at Brookfield Zoo,” Petersen said.

Rullman said one way to protect the species is by being aware and educated about  its endangerment status.

“I think zoos are great about giving you the opportunity to get close and personal with the cats, coming to understand that [they are] endangered and wanting to make a difference,” Rullman said. “It creates the sense that a snow leopard is more than just a predator. It has feelings and emotions. You get a sense of coming to know these animals a little differently and caring about them, and once people start to care about them, they look for ways they can make a difference.”

Rullman said those who want to make a difference can also do so by purchasing items from zoo gift shops, which she said will go directly to the community members helping to protect the endangered species.