Shad admires the clouded leopards

I heard a rumour on the cat grapevine about some 8 week old clouded leopard cubs going on display to the public for the first time in an animal park that has a proven track record in conservation.  And by conservation I mean active involvement in ensuring that wild animals live free in healthy habitats and stay protected from all forms of hunting and poaching.  I was particularly excited about these cubs because the clouded leopard with its rapidly declining numbers is shrouded in mystery.  Native to the Himalayan foothills through mainland Southeast Asia and into China, this charismatic spotted cat is among the most secretive and least understood cat species in the world.  So I was curious to meet them and hoping to get a few tips on ideal napping locations and effective food acquisition techniques.  So John and I took a trip to visit these clouded leopard cubs and their mum far from home in her wooded enclosure.


I surveyed her compound searching high and low for this elusive creature and wondered whether she would be happy to see a kindred spirit, albeit a smaller domesticated one.  But her reputation for blending into the background was spot-on and in her natural environment the cloud-like smudges on her coat provide the ultimate camouflage in the dappled light of the forest.  I remembered that she is arboreal meaning that she is adapted to living in the trees so I scanned the boughs of the foliage in her pen and there I saw a pair of eyes watching me inquisitively through a gap in the twigs.  They belonged to a plump joyful clouded-leopard cub that climbed upside down along the branch it was on and descended head first like a squirrel to the ground.  Another precious bundle of fluff came creeping along behind, a little more shy I thought, closely followed by the broad paws of mum looking out for her offspring.  It was charming to watch the two youngsters wrestling with each other, leaping clumsily over each other and practising their vocalisations which sounded like squeaky growls and snorts.  It reminded me of the innocence of my childhood before I was wise to the ways of the world and I hoped that these two would grow up strong and happy and able to contribute to the survival of this extraordinary species.


The health of clouded leopards in captivity has historically been poor due to inadequate housing, exposure to zoo visitors and proximity to resident large predators.  But clouded leopard research and conservation projects have led to a better understanding of their needs and decent zoos now provide more spacious enclosures with multiple nest boxes at a variety of heights to reduce stress.  While the clouded leopard cubs cavorted around, their mum showed me how she sleeps on thick branches on her belly with her paws dangling over the sides in what she calls the ‘downward dog’ position.  The trick is to keep your body straight which allows for balance and ensures you don’t fall off.  She also recommended food based enrichment activities which she said were fun and helped her young develop their hunting skills.  So I vowed to be more cooperative next time John got my biscuit ball out or put some of my dinner on the puzzle feeder.  It was soon time to depart and the zoo was keen to limit the amount of time these guys spend around humans so I wished her all the luck in the world.  Perhaps these little fledglings will one day form part of a reintroduction into the wild where they can live without threat from wildlife traffickers and the exotic animal trade.

Shad does the Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare

“Hurry up” yelled John as I feverishly flicked my litter all over the room, “Its 9.30 already and the sun is shining so the world and his dog will be on the roads”.  He knows I need to go to the bathroom before a trip in the car so I glanced curtly in his direction before trotting to the hallway mirror to check my fur.  My whiskers needed a quick lick before springing proudly outwards and I was ready for our day out at the Raystede Centre in Ringmer (East Sussex).  The Centre started caring for animals 60 years ago and provides sanctuary to a whole host of creatures including goats, horses, turkeys, ducks, geese, tortoises and terrapins.


I was looking forward to seeing the donkeys because of their delightfully large ears and characteristic ‘eee-awe’ which can apparently be heard up to 2 miles away.  I have a lot of respect for donkeys who have been used as working animals by humans for thousands of years, often being abused and neglected while they carry heavy loads for people across the world.  Lizzy and Dolly are 18 and 12 years old respectively and were living in a field near Brighton when their owner died and they had no one left to care for them.  The keepers told me that donkeys are bright animals and take time to assess what they are being asked to do before agreeing to it which has unfairly led to them being labelled as stubborn.  They form strong bonds with their human and equine companions and (like horses) should be kept in pairs or herds, never alone.  They are not waterproof and need adequate shelter to protect them from the elements as well a visit from the farrier on a regular basis.


The alpacas live in the fields with the horses during the day and are cleverly left to roam the secured sanctuary at night to protect the birds and wildlife from foxes by braying as an alarm call, kicking and even spitting at any potential predators.   They looked rather hoity-toity and wouldn’t stay still for the camera so John and I moved swiftly on to the waterfowl haven.  We knew where it was before we got there due to the great cacophony of noise that was coming from the flocks of ducks and geese honking and quacking around the lake.  As we strolled along the footpath near the water’s edge, a greylag goose walked past that was taller than me.  For some reason John thought the sight of my behind swaying as I swaggered alongside a goose waddling was quite amusing.  The cheek!


There were no cats visible in the cat pens even though they were occupied and I expect the moggies were not in the mood to be gawped at.  You know how particular pussy-cats can be!  But I did see a picture of a fluffy black and white called Branson with a fetching beauty spot on his nose.  He was found abandoned in a suitcase outside a shop in Eastbourne, traumatised but thankfully unharmed.  With this kind of past, it’s no surprise that cats like Branson can be a bit shy, but given a bit of time and space they blossom into little cherubs.  Unlike this little tyke in the picture, a hyperactive white terrier type schnauzer-cross called Edwina who needs a home with experienced owners to manage her high-energy outlook on life.  Bruno the chocolate Labrador was a handsome boy and much more laid back than the crazy yapper.


We continued around the Centre and came across the rabbit run which included a rather creative demonstration of what a garden for a rabbit should look like.  Next to each other were 2 plots.  One was a boring bare patch of grass with a small hutch at the end where a sad rabbit might live.  The other was called Home Sweet Home and was an interesting space filled with grass and earth, shrubs and leafy plants, bits of wood and a decent sized hutch

Shad visits the otters

Otters are one of my favourite kinds of animals because of their happy disposition and kind-hearted attitudes towards each other.  I defy even the grumpiest of humans to watch them and not smile at their playful antics.  They obviously have their duties to perform such as hunting for food, feeding their young, building dens and protecting their environments, but they also engage in lots of fun behaviours just for the sheer enjoyment.

The Asian Short-Clawed otters (the smallest species of otter) were super sociable, chattering constantly to each other and gobbling up their food with gusto.  Apparently they can vocalise 14 different sounds to communicate with each other and they use their feet to find food under the rocks on the river beds where they live in the wild.  We watched the keepers try to replicate this at feeding time by throwing food in places where the otters had to dig using their sensitive webbed feet and those cheeky rascals didn’t miss a single morsel!  They happily chased each other around their enclosure, playing catch with a pebble and juggling a bit of fruit, squawking at the keepers every time they went by.

Different species will vary in their social structure, and the Eurasian otter is a more solitary animal, like rescue otter Millie.  The keepers have tried to introduce her to a companion on a couple of occasions but Millie prefers to be a singleton, making friends with the keepers instead, so she will remain in her safe permanent home at the Park.  The keepers also care for around 15 to 20 rescue otters every year, often orphaned young, using minimal human intervention and clandestine means to ensure their needs are met so that they can be released back into the wild.

The giant otter lives in family groups and is the most vocal of the otters, keeping in contact with its group through continuous barking and squeaking.  Habitat destruction and hunting for their fur are the major causes of their decline.  We watched Simuni and Akuri charging around their enclosure, posing for the cameras and diving into their water with ease and grace.

The North American River otter is the only river otter found north of Mexico and was at the brink of extinction due to its beautiful coat being used in the 1700-1800s in the fur trade which saw the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of these precious animals.  Thanks to the efforts of conservation and wildlife rehabilitation centres, their numbers are slowly increasing.  River otters are mostly active at night which might be why Hudson and Jasper were sleeping in their shelters when we visited.

Shad does the New Forest Wildlife Park again

This weekend was set to have a dry sunny day (an unusual phenomenon given the seemingly endless rain of recent weeks), so John and Natasha decided to give the New Forest Wildlife Park another whirl.  I woke up on Sunday morning to the fragrant aroma of cream cheese and bacon on bagels.  Mmm!  After a quick nibble on somebody’s breakfast, we packed our equipment and the people donned appropriate outdoor-wear before heading west.  Oh and don’t worry, I normally have a healthy protein-based breakfast but Sundays are special treat days and I’m not one to miss an opportunity!

One of my favourite things about the New Forest conservation park is the environment.  Surrounded by trees and shrubs, it feels like you’re deep in the forest and I half expected one of Robin Hood’s merry men to leap out of the bushes in a pair of tights!  Many of the enclosures are open for the animals to roam freely, such as the sika deer, the rabbits and the wallabies.  When I say open, there are still double gates at the end of each section to ensure the animals don’t stray far.  Of course, the open enclosures are only appropriate for certain creatures, not including the pack of 5 wonderful wolves we saw running around their paddock.  We watched them feed and the keeper gave us a talk, telling us all about how the wolves communicate more by body language than by sound, and how much more active they are than cats (the cheek)!  These beautiful creatures were once found in large numbers in this country but hundreds of years of persecution have exterminated them from our lands, a memory than lingers in the instincts of the wolves we saw making a dash for their food before putting a safe distance between themselves and the humans.

There are so many furry mammals there, like the pole-cats, badgers, water voles, ferrets and the elusive pine-martens who were particularly hard to spot.  I also met some of my most impressive and resourceful cousins, the endangered Scottish wildcats (felis silvestris grampia to give them their Latin name).  They resemble muscular domestic tabby cats, but with thicker coats and bushy black-and-brown ringed tails.  They survived human persecution for five hundred years more than the British wolf did, and over a thousand years more than the British lynx.  They are now only found in Scotland and their intelligence, patience and agility are respected by Highland farmers and gamekeepers who recount tales of the wildcat mother dying to protect her kittens from attack or dipping their paws into shallow water to scoop out fish for dinner.  These misunderstood creatures have been portrayed as ferocious but, like most pussy-cats, they enjoy peace, routine, and personal space, and will only attack if they are hunting for food or feeling cornered.

The distinct whiff of dung hit my nostrils and I caught sight of the long shaggy brown coats of the bison wandering around chewing on the grass.  Even bison have been affected by habitat loss and hunting over the years and are now mostly found on ranches or in areas of conservation.  These particular animals are European bison and they are extinct from the wild.  They might grow to 6 feet tall at the shoulder, 10 feet in length and 1,000 to 2,000 pounds in weight, but their pastimes include rutting and wallowing in mud and they stink.

You have no idea how tempted I was to arch my back, raise my hackles and mock charge sideways towards the little harvest mouse chomping on seeds and grains from a bowl in its glass-fronted pen.  But I am a civilised rational feline who can operate a camera and take part in philosophical debate, so I can certainly exercise restraint over my base urges.  With blunt noses, tiny black eyes and hairy ears, harvest mice are the smallest British rodent, around 5 cm long and weighing a tiny 5 to 10 grams.  They have auburn brown fur with a white underside and their scientific name is micromys minutus (how cute is that!).  They seemed very busy, climbing, building their nests and feeding, so we left them to it, and headed off to see the lynx cat.

I sauntered coyly towards the enclosure that contained the lynx, and my eyes narrowed with envy as I caught sight of her elegant tufty ears and thick fluffy ruff that framed her face.  This Eurasian lynx is called Munchkin and she has a stimulating enclosure on a slope filled with trees, wooden climbing frames and sheltered areas.  We gave each other the obligatory eye contact and subtle ear twitches communicated our understanding of each other’s situations.  This solitary and secretive cat allowed us to watch her for a while before bounding up on to one of her ledges in a tree and surveying us from on high.  The Eurasian lynx was an original native of the British Isles but disappeared from Western Europe due to habitat destruction and human persecution.

Next time I’ll tell you about some creatures I met who made me laugh so much.  They live with their families, have whiskers and offspring called pups, and enjoying romping playfully.

Shad does the Isle of Wight Zoo

A huge roaring tiger was leaping off the roof towards us.  Of course it never actually reached us because it was made of plastic!  It’s the first thing I saw as we pulled up to the Isle of Wight Zoo on this sunny clear winter day.  I was chomping at the bit to go inside because, although the zoo has a variety of animals, it specialises in tigers and lemurs, both beautiful and intriguing creatures that a sassy cat like me can relate to.  It’s a family-run zoo built within the ruins of a Victorian Fort constructed to guard Sandown’s coast and its fundamental goals revolve around care, conservation and education.

We wandered in and caught sight of the black and white ruffed lemurs with their paws spread out and their bellies on display, laying on a rock in a sunny spot of their enclosure.  They lifted their heads lazily and watched me go by as if I was impudent for disturbing their sunbathing.  There were some lively ring-tailed lemurs, black lemurs and red ruffed lemurs, and the slightly more timid grey mouse lemur and white-fronted brown lemurs.  I had no idea there were so many types of lemur!  The mongoose lemur (named McLovin) was originally taken from the wild by illegal traders and sold as a pet to a Polish sailor.  I’m so glad he ended up here at the Isle of Wight Zoo where the keepers care deeply for this lost little soul and make every effort to encourage his natural behaviour and enrich his environment.

Like McLovin, many of the animals at this zoo have their stories.  Some have been rejected by their prides or family units, others rescued from circuses or animal performance groups, or liberated from lives of stress and misery.  Natasha has visited this zoo before and is friendly with the keepers, so she gave us the inside scoop on the histories of me of the big cats.  Rajiv the tiger (an Indian/Siberian cross) was bred by a circus organisation in the UK and sent to the USA to be a ‘celebrity animal’, posing with people and opening hotels.  I can only speculate as to what unkind means his owners used to keep him pacified during the times he was on show.  He was apparently kept in a concrete pen and suffered chemical burns to his elbows because his owners would hose-out the pen with him in it.  His life at the zoo is a thousand times better than the life he had before.

Zena the white tiger suffered with eye problems for many years due to the inbreeding history of these animals and had her right eye removed due to glaucoma in 2006, which is why breeding white tigers is not ethical practise.   When we saw her, she was parading up and down her enclosure with a muddy wet tummy, having splashed around in the puddles and got that fluffy white coat of hers all dirty!  She is amazingly 17 years old and enjoying her retirement with her sister Zia who you can see in the photograph flopped out on a rock.

Casper is the white lion you see in this iconic pose as he stands on top of the rocky hillock in his enclosure surveying the surrounding terrain.  Lions are under threat all over Africa as they lose habitat and compete with humans and Casper has played an active role in helping to raise awareness of their plight by taking part in a project for Lionaid.  What a star!  He had quite the entourage as we looked up at him in awe and he went all alpha-male on us, puffing out his chest, shaking his magnificent mane and grunting.  We were doing a bit of grunting ourselves after holding awkward positions for ages waiting to get some good shots of Casper so we decided to go to the café for some lunch.  As we sat comparing images, my cat instincts kicked in and I felt eyes on me.  I looked around to discover we weren’t alone in the café as a pen full of degus was checking me out.  I gave them a flick of the tail and a shimmy-wiggle as I trotted out of the door.  Well, you’ve gotta give ‘em something!!

My brazen swagger was nothing compared to the bold strides being taken by Tequila the jaguar.  This striking beast had black spots and rosette-shaped patterns across her coat, a muscular body, robust head and powerful jaw.  She arrived at the zoo in 1999 with some behavioural problems thanks to her less-than-happy experience with an animal entertainment troupe.  However, she now displays natural and healthy behaviour as a result of the care she receives at the zoo.  The jaguar is the third largest feline after the lion and tiger and populations are in rapid decline.  As their habitats decrease in size and richness of wildlife, these poor things are being forced to venture too close to human populations in their desperate search for food and are being killed by farmers and ranchers for attacking the livestock.  So much damage has been done through poaching and deforestation that the road ahead is a tough one and the future of these exceptional cats is bleak, but organisations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society are making efforts to protect jaguar populations and we can only hope that this help has come in time.

I liked this zoo’s ethos and their willingness to take on animals that other zoos may not want because of their age or history.  The keepers know the characteristics and requirements of each individual big cat in their care, down to disposition, sociability, allergy status, food preferences and even the noises they make.  You can read more about the animals on the website.  Meantime, one small domestic short-haired cat, two adult humans and one child made their weary way back to the car with exhausted smiles on their faces for the journey home.

Shad does the franco-english Marwell tour

Have you seen a ‘hippopotame pygmée’ or a ‘singe’ recently?  You would have, if you’d been with John and I at Marwell Wildlife Park this weekend.  Two of John’s friends were visiting from across the Channel and we decided to give them a guided tour of the wonders of the natural world at Marwell.  They came from Marseille which is the second largest city in France after Paris.  Marseille is an urban area with a large population and a rugged rocky coastal landscape, a far cry from the wooded hills and rolling countryside of Winchester where Marwell is situated.  There were 5 of us altogether, including 2 people who spoke both English and French and were able to translate, and one person who spoke French only.  John speaks a little German but that didn’t really help, and I speak cat which I consider a universal language, but that didn’t help much either!!

Have you worked out those French words yet?  The first one is pygmy hippopotamus, and we were lucky enough to get a clear view of a mother with her little female calf who was born on 13th December 2013.  The baby is part of the European Endangered Breeding Programme and is called Gloria, a name chosen by patrons of the zoo and members of the public following an online vote.  ‘Singe’ (pronounced ‘sairnge’) is French for monkey, and there was plenty of monkeying around as we watched the Colobus monkeys strike a pose for the camera and swing across the branches with their long arms and tails.

There was much guffawing at the giraffe area because these tall elegant creatures with big beautiful eyes looked so demure, but when they munched on their dinners, the prolonged chewing action combined with large elf-like ears made an amusing sight.  I held my tail high as a friendly greeting and made chirrup noises to communicate my appreciation of their awesomeness, but I’m small compared to them and I don’t think they saw me.

Unlike the big cats, which spotted me instantly, may be because they smelt me coming.  Not that I have some sort of body odour problem I hasten to add, but more due to the feline ability to convey identity and mood through scent.  Marwell has taken in a new male Amur tiger called Bagai who is 17 months old and is settling into his new environment before being introduced to Milla, a female Amur tiger.  It is hoped that they will produce offspring to help save this highly endangered species which is on the brink of extinction.  Shockingly, the evil poachers continue to trap and kill these magnificent beasts along with many other animals who now struggle to survive in their native environments.  My thanks go to the conservationists across the world and animal welfare groups such as PETA, IFAW and the WSPCA for their efforts in promoting the wellbeing of animals and giving them a voice.

2013 was a busy year for the keepers at Marwell who also welcomed a giant anteater baby born in November.  Little Rojo seemed content and was fully occupied when we saw him in his enclosure with his mum,  digging at a branch with his long fore-claws, looking for insects.  These curious looking creatures are listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the wild and have thick necks and a tubular snout which ends in a tiny mouth opening and nostrils.  They apparently have poor eyesight but a sense of smell 40 times more sensitive than that of humans.

John’s French friends were visibly impressed at how well the animals were cared for and how keen the Brits are to keep animals as happy and healthy as possible.  They went home with lots of photos and good memories from their trip to the zoo, and I improved my language skills and did my bit for anglo-french relations.  So au revoir, c’est la vie and bon voyage!

Shad does the New Forest Wildlife Park

John took me on a forest adventure this weekend to a wildlife park near Ashurst in Southampton.  It’s part of the New Forest, an ecologically rich area of grassland, heathland and woodland in the south-east of England which provides habitats for all kinds of rare and unusual plants, insects, birds and mammals.  The wildlife park is set deep in the forest and surrounded by tall trees that looked to me like giant fortresses topped with emerald-green and nut-brown foliage.  I could feel the eyes of the multitude of shy forest creatures that were hiding in the trees watching me as I trotted along next to John.

We followed the moss-veiled trails that led to some animals that I don’t often get the chance to photograph.  Like the big beefy bison that was lazily munching on some grass.  He appeared peaceful and unconcerned but I had no doubt that one insolent flick of my tail might cause him to lower his solid horned head and charge towards us.  I was pleased to see the lynx, with its short tail and tufts of black hair on its ear-tips, it had large paws and all the characteristics of a finely-tuned stealth survivor.  Then there were the gregarious and industrious giant otters, highly sociable animals who live in extended family groups.  They were most entertaining, sleeping happily together in huddles and playing noisily, barking, snorting and whistling at each other with enthusiasm.

All of these animals are highly endangered, struggling to adapt to habitat loss and fighting for their lives when they are hunted, the bison for their meat and skins, the otters for their velvety pelts and the lynx for their fluffy patterned fur coats.  Despite the humans that are willing to inflict suffering and even wipe out an entire species for the sake of fashion or status, there are many more humans willing to protect what nature has provided us and teach others to do the same.  The New Forest Wildlife Park actively promotes the conservation of animals through rescue work as well as participation in breeding programmes to protect the future of many endangered species, from our native orphaned and injured otters, owls and deer, to the European bison, the little harvest mouse and the rarely seen Scottish wildcat.

This natural forest environment was the perfect area for us to spot much local indigenous wildlife and, when I stopped to listen, I could hear the occasional drumming woodpecker or the scurrying of a squirrel crunching twigs and rustling leaves as it busied itself looking for its next meal.  Also looking for meals were the birds, like the bold robin who landed right in front of us hoping for a bit of John’s sandwich.  Don’t worry, regular readers know I like birds and I’m well in control of my hunting instincts, so the birds are safe with me (although John keeps an eye on me as a precaution)!