There are only 60 reported wild Amur Leopards left in the world. That’s a pretty drab number, however, the good news is that three of these beautiful, rare and critically endangered animals are living happy, stress free, non-threatened lives right here in Connecticut, at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport.
Freya, a six-year-old Amur Leopard, who was born in captivity, gave birth in January to three cubs, two survived; a male named Orion and a female named Kallisto who is melanistic, which is an extremely rare black color variant of the Amur Leopard species.
The threesome is defying odds every day, acting as animal ambassadors and doing very well living in their New England home. This is something that Zoo Director Gregg Dancho, who has been working at Beardsley Zoo for the past 43 years, is extremely proud of.
“Our mission as a zoo is really education, conservation, recreation and research,” said Dancho who thinks of zoos more as arks and lifeboats that are saving endangered species, gaining knowledge and helping to keep rare species of endangered animals alive and prospering.
“The natural habitat of the Amur Leopard and the rare Amur Tigers is in North Korea, Russia and China, which is really the worst place to possibly be for a spotted or striped cat, that’s why it is so important and critical that we help to save them,” explained Dancho.
Poached and hunted, both species of rare cats have little chance of making it on their own without some human intervention, which is where the Species Survival Plan or SSP and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or AZA come in to lend a helping hand. Breeding of these cats has to be approved by both organizations.
The Amur Leopard cubs are six months old and Dancho said they love to play and love to sleep. Kallisto is a bit shyer and her brother Orion is a bit more regal. Representing a species that few are lucky enough to ever see, these siblings can be viewed daily at the zoo along with the two Amur Tiger cubs, Reka and Zeya who are now one and a half years old and were also born at the zoo. Their mother also calls Beardsley Zoo home, and occupies the habit next to her babies.
But big cats aren’t all you’ll find behind the veil of the zoo’s entrance. First up, most guests are welcomed by the pair of gigantic Andean Condors that have taken up residence in a premier spot right across from the historic greenhouse. These impressively large birds. with wingspans that can be as big as 12 feet, have large black onyx bodies and almost bald heads, with what looks like snow-white fur stole around their necks. Very active, the pair gives quite a show as they fly from branch to branch ruffling their feathers.
Another key attraction is the rainforest room complete with several brilliantly colored Poison Dart frogs. Fun fact; the frogs are not born with their poison, instead, it comes from ingesting a specific ant species that eats trees in the rainforest. Eating these ants enables the frogs to build up potent alkaloid poisons for defense. Without ingesting the ants, the frogs have no poison. Isn’t nature amazing!
Moving along a crowd favorite exhibit is the hill of Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs. Speckled with large holes, dug by the cute furry occupants, the hill is covered with prairie dogs darting about, in and out of their burrows, nibbling quickly on blades of grass and hay and taking cover down below when a hawk or other large bird threatens from above. Able to get up close and personal with these little guys, the habitat has been specially equipped with viewing tubes, which allow kids and adults to pop their heads up through, not only to see the prairie dogs closer, but also to get a feel for what it may be like to actually be one.
Over to the zoo’s newest residents, a pair of Black-Handed Spider Monkeys who joined the Beardsley Zoo family just a few weeks ago in late June. The came from the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska. Gilligan, the male, was born in 2014 and TT, the female, was born in 2000.
Their spacious habitat, complete with an indoor/outdoor viewing area is state of the art and can easily house up to seven or eight spider monkeys so, the hope is to expand the family soon. The habitat features a landscaped outdoor yard with multiple opportunities for climbing and engaging in social behaviors and its mesh sides allow these adorable, social and very entertaining monkeys to have free choice as to where they want to climb to next.
As they are swinging and climbing around, if you look closely, you will see that Black-Handed Spider Moneys do not have thumbs. They have four hooked fingers allowing them excellent gripping for swinging through tree branches, which is their chosen mode of transportation in the wild.
It’s pretty amazing that visitors to the Beardsley Zoo can travel through parts of North America, South America, Asia and beyond just by walking through the entrance of the zoo. There are usual animals like goats and sheep, on display at the newly renovated barnyard area, that will be open again soon and exotic, endangered species like the leopards and tigers that you may never have the chance to see again. Take an afternoon to travel the world, on a walking tour right in your own backyard and go to the Beardsley Zoo. There is always something new and exciting to see and learn!