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 hangs out with the chimps

These chimpanzees are residents at Whipsnade in Bedfordshire, a zoo and safari park owned by the Zoological Society of London, a charity dedicated to the conservation of wildlife across the planet.  At the beginning of the 20th century there was estimated to be a global population of one to two million chimps.  Sadly there are now fewer than 300,000 living in the wild which is why these chaps are living out the rest of their days in captivity.  Although they will never know the wild where they belong, they are expertly cared for by the staff at the zoo and they play a vital role in educating people about the plight of these little rascals.  The diminishing number of monkeys in the wild is due mainly to habitat loss, human/wildlife conflict and the wildlife trade.  There are some bizarre humans out there who think that keeping a wild animal in their conservatory or a cage in the back yard is a good idea.  So if these primates go extinct in the wild, the animals in this zoo could end up keeping the species alive.

If this bunch of groovy reprobates were to re-populate their species, there might be an extra dollop of crazy in their DNA!  At one point, they were all sitting around quietly hugging and grooming each other when one of the youngsters got bored and darted across the enclosure on all fours like a bucking bronco!  He reminded me of how a cat looks when it does that silly galloping see-saw run at another cat before shooting off in another direction.  So this monkey stops to make sure that someone is looking before he continues to entertain his audience by rolling around on the floor and doing cartwheels.

I was captivated by this little fella whose expressions and behaviour reminded me my little niece and nephew when they come over with my auntie to look after me when John is at work.  It is well documented that chimps and humans share as much as 98% of their DNA which makes chimp DNA closer to a human’s than to a gorilla’s.  The young chimp caught me staring at him and scurried towards his climbing frame so I decided to join in the fun and I ran along the edge of the enclosure in the same direction.  He scrambled to the top of the frame as though he wanted to be higher than me so I scampered back the other way and hid behind John’s camera bag.  The monkey started flicking his head from side to side, ducking it down as though looking for me and making funny exaggerated movements with his lips without making a sound.  I reappeared from behind the bag and the other monkeys started laughing and the little one got all embarrassed and hurried back to the group to hide behind his mum.  Then we saw the keeper arrive with a box of fruit and leaves and we knew it was snack time.  Unfortunately there was nothing for me in the box but I had a sneaking suspicion that John had a few of my special protein biscuits hidden somewhere and I was determined to get my cheeky chops on them!

Shad does the Wingham Wildlife Park

Dry feet are very important to a pussy cat.  We like our paws to be shipshape, our whiskers to float free and our bellies to feel full!  But this day my fur glistened with moisture from the endless drizzly rain that fell from the sky.  It’s not uncommon to see doggies wearing a waterproof overcoat or a tartan jumper, but cats mostly don’t tolerate costumes or too much bling.  And this cat certainly isn’t prissy enough to pull-off a leopard-print mackintosh.  So I went ‘á la nature’, in reverence to my unadorned big cat cousins residing at the Wingham Wildlife Park in Kent.  John, Natasha (the other photographer in John’s family) and I had driven all the way over to Canterbury to catch a glimpse of Poppy the baby jaguar and it was worth every lick of my coat required later to get myself clean and dry.


Having never seen a jaguar in real life before, I switched from happy-go-lucky ‘human mode’ (which employs the skills I have perfected to communicate with humans in their visual / auditory way) to ‘untamed feline mode’ (which involves using body language and scent to connect with other cats).  My whiskers stood proud and bristled with excitement as I flicked a few happy pheromones in the direction of Poppy’s mum whose name is Luna.  I wanted her to know I was there to admire her baby so there was no need for her to fret.  You can imagine my surprise when I strode purposefully to the fence and found that Poppy looked just like me – sleek, black, handsome and proud.  The only difference I could see (apart from the size perhaps) was that Poppy had big blue eyes and mine are yellow.  Poppy is the first big cat to the born at the park and she takes after her black mum Luna more than her yellow-spotted dad Loki.  She was born in July 2014 and has recently gone on show to the public now the zookeepers are satisfied that her protective mother is comfortable with the idea.


Another new sight for me was the pardine genet.  This debonair exotic creature is very shy in the wild and as such there is not much known about its natural mating, courtship and hunting behaviours.  This mysterious cat-like mammal is similar to a civet, a fossa or a mongoose and has a vast range from Canada down to the Andes.  It’s a protected species throughout most of its range except for a few areas including Ecuador and El Salvador, yet they are hunted in many parts of Canada and the United States.  Seems like a contradiction to me but I’ve never understood the killing for sport thing.


There are far too many animals at the park to mention them all but some of the striking ones in these photos are the Puma (also known as a cougar or a mountain cat), the noble lion and magnificent tiger, curious meerkats and the dignified red panda, as well as quirky perky penguins.  There was also a monkey with a teddy who made me laugh because I have a teddy at home, but don’t go telling everybody that!

Shad does Dudley Zoo

The West Midlands was our destination, Dudley Zoo the organisation, 2 or 3 hours was the travel duration to visit Daseep the Sumatran tiger was our expectation.  She is a special feline relation because of her work in conservation; hopefully she’ll exert a lot of persuasion to ensure the future of her generation.


Don’t know what came over me just then, I went all Oscar Wilde!  Alright, I know, my poetry is more comparable to Pam Ayres than a great literary artist like Oscar Wilde.  Although I’m not disrespecting the lovely Pam, she is a talented and entertaining lady.  Anyway, I digress!  Daseep was chosen this year as the face of an international conservation campaign that supported Global Tiger Day held on 29th July to raise awareness of the shocking reality of the world’s tiger populations.  According to a Dudley Zoo spokesperson, there are now just 3,500 tigers left in the wild, of which there are fewer than 140 surviving Sumatrans.  Three year old Daseep and two year old male Joao are paired as part of an international project to safeguard one of the world’s most critically endangered species.  Check out the whiskers on these beautiful animals, and the facial markings so bold and striking.  I’m not jealous!


Dudley Zoo (in the Black Country region of the West Midlands) looks as though it is built on platforms in a circular pattern that surrounds Dudley Castle on top of a hill.  It has over 1,000 animals representing over 200 different species like these Chilean flamingos that seem to enjoy standing on one leg and the otters and sea lions that started yawning every time I got my camera out.  Some of the animals were struggling to keep cool in the recent hot weather so the zoo splashed out on cold showers for the Asiatic black bear and cooling fans for the meerkats.  The monkeys and apes were treated to fruit-filled lollies and staff have been applying suncream to the sensitive skins of creatures who are normally hidden from direct sun by the South American jungle.


One of the big attractions at the zoo right now is a trio of special new arrivals born to four year old mum Daisy the lynx (Carpathian lynx to be precise).  They are the first of their species to be born at Dudley and have recently started to explore their outdoor enclosure.  Born in May this year, the cubs appear to be developing nicely and Daisy is doing a grand job as a first-time mum alongside three year old dad Dave.  Then there’s the orangutans who are partial to a drink of squash and had a unique way of drilling straight through me with their eyes, like they knew what I was thinking.  This cheeky orangutan was called Jarong and had the biggest cheek chops I have ever seen!  I saw the giraffes whose pace of life is slow to very slow and they were so relaxed that they let the keeper rub their tummies.


The highlight for me had to be meeting the snow leopard cub Makalu who was born on 17th April.  He is making excellent progress, bonding with his mum, gaining weight and chasing anything that moves.  He was named after one of the world’s highest mountain ranges within the Himalayan region bordering Nepal and China were his species apparently originates.  What a privilege to witness these exotic and rare wild animals share their experiences of family life with us.  Roar!!!

Shad’s big cousins on the Isle of Wight

Regular readers will know that John and I have visited the Isle of Wight Zoo before and enjoyed taking some fab pictures of the big cats that live there.  Remember Casper the white lion and Zena the one-eyed white tiger?  Don’t get me started about the unethical practice that surrounds the breeding of white tigers!  Anyway, the Zoo on Sandown’s chalky coast is well known for its lemurs and rescued big cats, some of which come from circus and entertainment backgrounds, having been rejected by the industry once they served their purpose.
This trip was a Really Wild Photography Workshop that is offered by the Zoo and hosted by professional wildlife photographer Karen-Jane Dudley.  Karen-Jane was excited to see a domestic cat like me in the group and said the big cats would be very curious to see me.  We exchanged tips on the art of wildlife photography and she told me some stories from her experiences in South Africa where she travels every year to capture beautiful images of the animals, like the zebras, leopards and birds of prey.

The workshop included lunch (I had fish pie, one of my favourites) and ‘behind the scenes’ access to a number of specially designed photography stations so that we could view the cats close-up.  As I peered through one of the lens ports, my feline senses tingled as the stunningly striped Aysha came trotting through the water towards me.  She was very inquisitive when she picked up my scent and looked enquiringly at me with her bold black and orange eyes before deciding that the water was far more interesting and splashing off in another direction.   Aysha is a playful 16 year old currently enjoying her retirement at the Zoo along with her brother Diamond, a laid-back boy like me.


Lions are one of the most iconic animals in the world and they are quite sociable in comparison to many of the other big cats that roam the plains of Africa.  I tried to get a few shots of Casper but he was being quite standoffish that day so I turned my attention to Charlie Brown, a tawny lion with a gentle spirit who gazed idly towards me before turning his attention to a noise coming from across the way.  It was Aysha huffing and chuffing with joy as she scampered towards a jet of water flowing from a hosepipe.  The keepers were in the enclosure playing with the tigers who seemed to love the sound and feel of the water being splattered around.  Then it was feeding time and the keepers placed whole pieces of meat tied to various items such as a barrel or a log into the enclosure, making mealtime a bit more of a challenge for these hungry hunters and helping to keep them stimulated.


We also had a special treat when we got the opportunity to actually go inside one of the enclosures.  Not with the tigers though!  Probably not a good idea!  But with the ring-tailed lemurs, a good-natured bunch of primates that come from Southern Madagascar and spend most of their time in trees.  It was quite funny being in the pen and looking out at the on-lookers looking in!  One of the visitors was overheard saying that the lemurs must be a type of monkey and Michelle (one of the alpha females of the group) was not amused.  Apparently lemurs are prosimians, a sub-group of primates that include tarsiers and bushbabies.  They lack the dexterity of monkeys and apes but they do have specially adapted eyes that enhance their night vision.  They certainly considered themselves to be more evolved, but I’m not so sure.  Don’t tell Michelle!

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!