With each passing year, all known felid species are becoming more critically endangered.
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The current trend of attacking and demonizing all forms of private ownership of exotic cats is incredibly irresponsible from a conservation standpoint.
Though wide, sweeping bans on private ownership may be supported by the vast majority of the American public, it will actually serve to hasten the extinction of the species that such legislation was promoted as helping to “conserve”!
With each passing year, all known felid species, are becoming more critically endangered. Indeed, all currently known cat species are threatened or endangered in some way.1 This includes two subspecies of the wildcat, Felis silvestris, from which the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catus, was developed. One of the two endangered subspecies, the African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, is known to be the direct ancestor of today’s domestic cat.2,3
As apex predators, especially in the case of the larger cats, in situ conservation of these species has proven increasingly difficult. Especially when the amount of territory required for each of these animals is taken into consideration. Male Bengal tigers for example, require ranges up to fifty square miles in size, in order to ensure that they have adequate access to prey, water, and breeding females. The ranges required by Siberian tigers, in their much harsher environment, are many times larger.4
In the case of Bengal tigers, even a range requirement of fifty square miles is quite difficult in an area of the world, which also has among the highest human population density, and highest birth rates on the planet. For example the two countries where the majority of wild Bengal tigers are currently found are India and Bangladesh. As of July 2003, India’s human population had reached the staggering figure of 1,049,700,118 people, and an equally large birth rate of 23.28 births/1,000 population. In the case of Bangladesh, as of July 2003, the human population had reached 138,448,210 in a nation roughly the size of Wisconsin. Bangladesh’s birth rate is currently among the highest on earth, at 29.9 births/1,000 population. (All population data taken from the CIA World Factbook, http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook).5
Some prominent ecologists and conservationists have said in recent years that saving wild populations of large cats especially, may now be impossible, at least until such time as human overpopulation is brought under control. Unfortunately, in countries such as India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, such a decrease in population growth is decades from occurring, if at all.
In countries such as these, as well as in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, huge problems with human overpopulation tend to go hand in hand with crushing poverty, and its side effects, all of which have proven devastating to wild felid populations. Even where reserve systems have been created and are heavily patrolled, the desire of the few to conserve wild cats will always suffer where the many are desperately poor. This desperation gives incentive for activities such as poaching, and for blatantly ignoring reserve boundaries. It should not be all that surprising that to the desperate peasant, a tiger reserve does not look like a place were valuable biodiversity is preserved for the good of the planet, and for future generations. Rather, the peasant is frustrated at seeing ‘wasted’ grazing land that he could use for his goats and cattle, as well as trees that he could use for building, and for firewood; and in addition, this ‘unused’ land is filled with dangerous predators that might devour the livestock, which represent what little wealth he has.
When one considers all these factors, it appears pretty much inevitable that captivity is, and will be the only way to conserve these species. Most people would likely agree that captivity is a far from ideal situation for any animal, especially species which are used to roaming over vast distances as part of their natural, wild behavior. In an ideal world, perhaps it would be possible to admire these wondrous animals only from a distance, and only in their natural state.
In the case of people who belong to more extreme “Animal Rights” (AR) organizations, the idea has been put forth that unless wild species can be saved only in their natural territories, and in a completely wild state, it is likely better, and more ethical in the long run to simply let them die off, or as has been said in a popular AR slogan, “Better dead than bred”. 6
Fortunately, most people in both the zoological and the private ownership communities believe differently, realizing that even though captivity is far from an ideal life situation for endangered felids, it still remains the best hope for saving these species. Once this basic tenet of captive propagation is accepted as a truism, then the question is not only how to optimize the care and breeding success of captive animals, but as part of this, how to preserve a healthy amount of genetic diversity. The importance of this cannot ever be overstated, as a captive population with low or limited genetic diversity is just as doomed to eventual extinction through inbreeding pressures. These include steadily increasing incidences of genetic defects and diseases, as well as a precipitous drop in male fertility, as has been seen in wild Florida panthers, and Ngorongoro crater lions.7
There is a fair amount of controversy with regards to what number of healthy, fertile animals constitutes the minimum population size in which genetic diversity can be maintained. In the case of most wild cats held in captivity, with the possible exception of African lions, it is a fairly safe assumption that the numbers of animals housed in all of the public, or government-run (or otherwise “accredited”) zoological parks on Earth is likely not enough. However, when the private sector, (i.e., private owners, so-called “sanctuaries”, and other non-accredited facilities), is added to the equation, in the case of many species of wild cats, the captive populations now represent a large enough population to maintain genetic diversity.
With these factors in mind, it could be said that the current trend of attacking and demonizing all forms of private ownership of exotic cats is incredibly irresponsible from a conservation standpoint. Nevertheless, it has become de rigueur to paint a broad picture of the private ownership of wild cats as being abusive by its very nature, and completely inexcusable, as private ownership is supposedly only done for reasons of human vanity. To top all of this off, AR groups, and their sympathetic elements within government have been wildly successful in creating a trendy 'Moral Panic'* about the “Extreme, and growing public menace” of private ownership of “dangerous, wild, untamable and bloodthirsty” big cats. As part and parcel of this, many, (including scientists who should really know better), have come to believe statements such as, “Privately-owned wild cats are useless for conservation”, and “There is no such thing as responsible private ownership of wild, dangerous cats”, without question.
Not only are ideas such as these highly fallacious, but they are loaded statements as well, as they operate from the assumption that one should already believe that it is wrong to keep wild cats in private hands, and that if you don’t currently believe that, you should. I would also argue that stigmatizing all private owners is dangerous to the overall survival of these species. The reason for this is quite simple. When, (not “if”), private ownership is abolished, not only will captive genetic diversity be reduced, for reasons, which I have already discussed; at the same time these species are likely soon to be extinct in the wild. Hence, though wide, sweeping bans on private ownership may be supported by the vast majority of the American public, it will actually serve to hasten the extinction of the species that such legislation was promoted as helping to “conserve”! As Marx famously said, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions...”
If all this weren’t bad enough, there is another, less well-known factor that is serving to compromise the success of captive conservation, especially at the level of accredited zoos, and this stems from the current practices in the care and husbandry of valuable breeding animals, specifically males.
Some of the current protocols in the assisted reproduction of captive male felids, which are designed to try and maximize captive genetic diversity, and reproductive success may actually be harming, rather than helping captive propagation.
Some of these factors include:
(1) Breaking up mated, proven-breeding pairs in order to ship entire, adult animals to
other facilities. This can lead to lost breeding potential through several factors.
The first is that some cat species, especially cheetahs and snow leopards are
notoriously difficult to naturally breed in a publicly-run zoo, as breeding pairs
need time to be acclimatized to one another. Hence, separating mated pairs, apart
from arguably being cruel and inhumane, could theoretically lead to the loss of a
year or more worth of breeding potential.
(2) Regular use of anesthetics such as Ketamine and Rompun (either singly, or in combination) during
regular physical examinations/semen collections. Recent studies have shown very serious side-effects
associated with use of these drugs, including kidney, liver, and neurological damage.9,10,11,12,13 It is
quite likely that such treatment could very well shorten the lives of valuable males, and thus rob
conservation efforts of years of valuable breeding potential. Many would answer that this is not an
important concern with the technology to freeze semen almost indefinitely, however, there are also
still serious obstacles to universal success in these endeavors.
(3) Treatment of extracted germ plasm. A good example can be found in the work of Roth et. al.,14 with
snow leopards, where Roth et. al., found that electroejaculates from snow leopards show higher sperm
mortality than samples from other felid species. Roth et. al., found that snow leopard sperm is
unusually sensitive to alkaline conditions, and as a result, tends to die quite rapidly when the extenders
and buffers commonly used for other species are applied. Roth et.al., concluded that the problem, and
the concomitant poor freezability, and post-thaw viability of the sperm of many felid species is due to
the extenders commonly used. However, using bovine semen as a model, Cormier et. al.,15 found that
the freezing process itself, almost irrespective of extenders of buffers used causes a great deal of
damage, and loss of viability.
It has been suggested by several researchers that there may also be an additional source of difficulties with
regards to the application of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) in felid species. This arises from the fact that that male felids are conscious ejaculators, (Defined as requiring both physical and psychological stimulation to achieve ejaculation). This is opposed to reflex ejaculators, such as canids, for whom tactile stimulation is more important than psychological stimulation in achieving ejaculatory response.16
What has been suggested is that when felids are subjected to unconscious ejaculation (i.e., electroejaculation), there may be certain biochemical factors missing from the seminal plasma, which are present during normal, conscious ejaculation, which contribute to, or enhance sperm motility and viability. Hence, a manually collected sample subjected to cryopreservation might show greater post-thaw viability than an electroejaculate. And indeed, this has been found in studies on other species, most specifically in cattle.
However, such a study has historically been impossible with cats held in accredited zoological facilities due to the fact that most animals held in these institutions tend to be mother-raised, and familiarity, (and in many cases even contact), with human caretakers is forbidden, or at the very least strongly discouraged. Thus, there has been no real opportunity or desire to do a comparative study between manually-collected and electroejaculated semen samples in wild cats.
I would suggest that such a study is very much possible within the private community, especially when working with hand raised and trained animals. The study of Durrant et. al.,17 where a tame, male cheetah was trained to service an artificial vagina, and collected without incident at least once a week for over thirteen years, until he died of old age at 15.5 years shows that such efforts are indeed possible. Durrant et. al., provided the first truly accurate picture of the fertility of a male cheetah over his entire lifespan. Among the interesting results discussed in this study is that the subject animal seemed to reach his peak fertility (highest ejaculate volume, and viable sperm count) between the ages of 8 and 9 years. Durrant et. al., discuss this, referring to the studbook data available at the time (2001), which stated that few captive cheetahs reached that age (only 16% reaching or exceeding their eleventh year).
Therefore, if similar results were found in other captive cheetahs, i.e., that they are dying long before their full reproductive potential is realized, this shows a serious problem in captive breeding and conservation programs. However, as Durrant herself states, a longitudinal study of this sort would simply not be possible on wild or mother-raised captive cheetahs. In addition, the results of a longitudinal study are not as useful as a latitudinal study involving many animals, as it is possible that the results Durrant et. al., discussed may have been idiosyncratic to the particular subject animal, and not reflective of the species population as a whole.
Thus, the private sector, with a relatively large pool of hand raised, tame animals of many felid species might be in a unique position to cooperate and collaborate with a truly empirical comparative study of feline semen quality, the results of which could be invaluable to aiding and better understanding assisted reproduction in felids.
1. Thapar, V. The Tiger’s Destiny. pg 155-169. 1994, Kyle Cathie, London.
2. Loxton, H. The Noble Cat: Aristocrat of the Animal World. pg 15. 1991, Crescent Books, New York,
3. MacDonald, D. The Velvet Claw: A Natural History of the Carnivores. pg 74-76. 1992, BBC Books,
4. Mountfort, G. Saving The Tiger. pg 37-41. 1981, Viking Books, New York, NY.
5. CIA World Factbook. http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook 23 February, 2004.
6. Various Sources.
7. Packer, C. 1992. Captives in the Wild. National Geographic, 181 4 122-136
8. Wikipedia: The Free Online Encyclopedia. Moral Panic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_panic 24 February
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dogs. Journal of Veterinary Medicine, 50 530-533
10. Becker, A., B. Peters, H. Schroeder, T. Mann, G. Huether, and G. Greksch. 2003. Ketamine-induced changes in rat
behaviour: A possible animal model of schizophrenia. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry.
11. Dillon, P., J. Copeland, and K. Jansen. 2003. Patterns of use and harms associated with non-medical ketamine use. Drug
and Alcohol Dependence, 69 23-28
12. Lorrain, D., C. Baccei, L. Bristow, J. Anderson, and M. Varney. 2003. Effects of Ketamine and N-Methyl-D-Aspartate on
Glutamate and Dopamine Release in the Rat Prefrontal Cortex: Modulation by a Group II Selective Metabotropic
Glutamate Receptor Agonist LY379268. Neuroscience, 117 697-706
13. Kitagawa, H., T. Yamazaki, T. Akiyama, H. Mori, and K. Sunagawa. 2003. Effects of ketamine on exocytotic and non-
exocytotic noradrenaline release. Neurochemistry International, 42 261-267
14. Roth, T., W. Swanson, D. Collins, M. Burton, D. Garell, and D. Wildt. 1996. Snow Leopard (Panthera Uncia) Spermatozoa
Are Sensitive to Alkaline pH, But Motility In Vitro Is Not Influenced by Protein or Energy Supplements. Journal of
Andrology. 17 5 558-566
15. Cormier, N. M. Sirard, and J. Bailey. 1997. Premature Capacitation of Bovine Spermatozoa Is Initiated by
Cryopreservation. Journal of Andrology. 18 4 461-468
16. Johnston, S., M. Root-Kustritz, and P. Olson. Canine and Feline Theirogenology. pg. 508-520. 2001, W.B. Saunders
Company, Toronto, ON.
17. Durrant, B. S. Millard, D. Zimmerman, and D. Lindburg. 2001. Lifetime Semen Production in a Cheetah (Acinonyx
Jubatus). Zoo Biology. 20. 359-366
Many thanks to James Godsmark, B.A., B.Sc for allowing the use of this article on ExoticCatz.com.com in cooperation with the Feline Conservation Federation. This article is copyrighted 2004 by James Godsmark, B.A., B.Sc, and originally appeared in the FCF Newsletter. All rights are reserved. FCF members receive a bi-monthly newsletter containing a wealth of articles like this one, and I highly recommend becoming an FCF member to learn more about exotic felines.