Limited Gene Pool of Zoo Cats

Liz picked out a story of the birth, in November 2012 of two jaguar cubs in Milwaukee Zoo. This was a particularly good event because the father is a wild jaguar that was captured in Central America and placed in the Belize Zoo before being shipped to Milwaukee. It is a rare event and not one that should be repeated. I’ll explain what I mean.

Jaguar cubs

Photo Milwaukee County Zoo / AP – Note I have taken the liberty of publishing this photo here under fair use.

In general captive wild cats are unhappy in cages. They are often ill probably due to stress and they breed poorly. Seidensticker and Lumpkin who edited Great Cats (ISBN 0-87857-965-6) say that;

“the captive populations of most species of small cats in both North America and Europe are headed towards extinction”. Their book was first published in 1991.

The sand cat is “highly inbred” – Jill D. Melden (Great Cats – Majestic Creatures of the Wild)

This leads to inbreeding in zoos and dangerously narrow gene pools. That causes sterility in wild cat species which further narrows the gene pool until the game is up and captive cats are extinct.

The idea is to inject fresh genes into captive cat populations. The only way to do this is to go outside the zoo network and get a true wild cat of a certain species to father cubs. That single act immediately transforms the gene pool and health. The problem is it is self-defeating to capture a true wild cat, for example a jaguar and put it in a zoo. The idea behind zoos or the only real justification for there existence is to preserve and conserve wild life, in this instance wild cat species in the wild, ideally. Capturing cats and putting them behind bars is not meeting that objective.

The ideal for zoo keepers is to collect sperm from wild cats, freeze it and use it to impregnate captive female cats. That leaves the wild cat in the wild, while introducing fresh genes to captive cats.

So the Milwaukee Zoo cubs are a great success except for the fact the father who was captured from the wild was captured because he was “deemed” a problem jaguar because he was attacking cattle. Whose fault is that, I wonder? Perhaps farmers logged forest where the jaguar lived and then farmed on the open land created. The jaguar had no prey to catch because the jaguar’s prey also lives in the forest. Without a home (forest) or prey the jaguar attacked cattle and was captured and made a zoo cat as a consequence.

You can see that the whole thing is very human orientated. When we see tigers in zoos they are often what is called “generic” tigers meaning hybrids, cats of no species. Also often the wild cats we see in zoos are not the same as the “real” ones in the wild. They are not as robust and/or not purebred. They may have congenital defects. The white tigers are famous for their congenital defects due to inbreeding as all white tigers come from one tiger: Mohan.

I realise I am painting a negative and pessimistic picture but there is something that is inherently a failure about captive wild cats in zoos across the planet. Wild cats don’t like being in cages. They have huge home ranges, very often of 10 to 1000 square kilometers depending on the species. Even small wild cats have large “homes” in the wild forest.

I argue that this need for large ranges is hard wired into their brains. Some zoo keepers would argue that if a wild cat is born into a cage he knows nothing else and so will feel fine. I disagree and the proof is in the pudding. Wild cats don’t do well in zoos and some species do appallingly badly.

Argument for use of photo: this is an educational page. Publishing the photo here will have no detrimental commercial impact on the zoo.

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Limited Gene Pool of Zoo Cats — 4 Comments

  1. This is all very depressing. It really is. It just looks like all will eventually be extinct, both captive and wild. It’s a tragedy words cannot begin to describe. Words are human. It really makes us look incredibly incompetent. Our abilities go to destroying our own habitat. Sometimes I just think that for whatever is lost and whatever gained, if humans could become extinct without taking the whole planet with them, it would be the one last helpful thing we could do to begin to say sorry. Then species would live without humans on earth.

    • Sorry Marc, if I upset you. I wrote this article pretty much off he cuff except for the quotes because I learned about captive wild cats from the guys who keep them captive and they say how bad it is. This is not me but the experts. The public, by and large, have no idea about the gradual extinction of wild cats in the wild nor about the hopelessness of keeping wild cats in zoos. Total human failure, almost. There is no doubt the planet would be far healthier and have a much brighter future if homo sapiens became extinct asap.

      • Michael, no need to apologise, actually I learn’t something here which is that even in captivity it is a disaster.
        I was once in Guatemala and I thought it was very interesting that their currency was named after a bird which is a national symbol called the Quetzal. It has a beautiful long tail and to the Guatemalans it represents freedom. They told me that no Quetzal has ever survived in captivity and therefore there is no way for the bird to be owned or kept and that is why it represents freedom to them. Perhaps the same is true of many or all other animals if you consider their survival over a long period of time. It is very sad indeed. What is the meaning of the word hope in a hopeless world – are we just keeping hope alive. Hope sometimes just seems like a depressing word to me, a desperate one which exists in the face of total failure. Sorry to be such a moaner. I’m not a big pessimist but by gosh its hard sometimes. Maybe there is some other meaning here like that the world is simply changing and with change comes loss and gain. That sounds a bit optimistic when you can only feel terrible loss and little or no gain though.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Thanx for mentioning that I discovered the news story link. You have a knack for uncovering issues in stories like this one and I’m glad you created this post.

    I feel much as you do and while I like animal sanctuaries, I abhor the idea of zoos.

    Yeah, animals stuck in small places behind bars, inbreeding, human gawking. Yucky situation for the animals and very upsetting for me.

    Goofing around with breeding isn’t the proper solution. Cleaning up the mess we’ve made of the environment and not hogging the resources as well as the space on the planet is a good start in the right direction.

    I’m with you.

    =^..^= Hairless Cat Girl =^..^=

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