Wild Cat Behaviour
Cats in Captivity
For thousands of years man has caged and enclosed many of the wild cat species. To varying degrees cats have been seen as status symbols to the rich, caged exhibits of 'dangerous' exotic animals or reluctant performers in circus extravaganzas - today their place in captivity has a whole different meaning - survival.
Zoos in history
Throughout history man has caged wild animals. At the height of the Roman empire, Lions played the dubious role of entertainer in public spectacles in which they displayed, often to the detriment of many early Christians, their 'savagery' and power. Later, menageries were established by the Royal Courts of Europe in which numerous species from around the newly explored globe were housed. It was not until the late 1700's that the public were first admitted to these private collections and soon their popularity and ever increasing size led to the establishment of the first Zoological Gardens. The role of the Zoo in its two hundred year history has changed considerably - at first just a place where the public came to view unknown and exotic species. Today they have now become centres for zoological, veterinary and biological study as well as all important educational resources were the public can learn about the animals themselves as well as their plight in the ever decreasing natural environment. The style of the modern zoo has also changed - wherever funds and space is available more and more zoos are transforming the captive environment of the animals into open enclosures and creating natural spaces in which the animals live.
Maintaining the Species
In common with many species which are under threat in their natural environment, cats are bred by zoos as sustainable stock - it is very rare that animals from the wild are bought into zoos, unless it is needed to enrich the gene pool by establishing new lines of breeding. The captive management of wild cats both big and small is now a sophisticated, world wide effort - with some sub species of cats such as the Snow leopard, Amur tiger, South China tiger, Amur and Persian leopards it may provide one of the animals last chances of survival if conservation efforts for the cats in their natural environment fails to stop their demise.
The control of breeding cats within zoos is of prime importance - to assist in maintaining genetic diversity within the relatively small captive populations, zoos in the 1980's acted internationally to establish breeding programs. Aided with data from zoos individual breeding programs, international 'stud books' are kept for many of the species, enabling zoos to set up exchange programs for suitable animals on a world-wide basis. With the data available to zoos today, it will hopefully be possible to maintain healthy and genetically viable populations of pure-bred sub species for many years to come. However the task is not an easy one - in the 1980's the number of captive Asian lions was well in excess of those in the wild. It was discovered however, that all of the 200 captive Asian lions stemmed from just seven 'founder' animals and through genetic analysis it was established these were not of pure Asian origin - the majority of the captive population turned out to be African/Asian hybrids.
For many years it was held that certain species of cat, for example the cheetah and clouded leopard, were difficult to breed successfully in captivity. However modern methods of captive management have produced a high breeding success in certain zoos. More is now known of the requirements of specific species - prospective partners who fail to mate are often substituted with animals from neighbouring zoos, with often greater success - the timing of the introduction of male and female has been found with some species to be critical and data found in the stud books can provide important clues. The environment in which the cats are kept has also changed - when the young are born special 'cubbing dens' are provided by many zoos to enable seclusion for mother and young, thus keeping contact between cat and human to the minimum.
Where zoos were once looked upon critically, many are now considered an important part of the conservation process. Much new research is needed to establish links between failing wild populations and the species specific breeding programs in captivity. Many of the small wild cat species such as sand cat, pampas cat , palas cat and tiger cat are not covered by extensive captive breeding programs and until important research is carried out to their true status in the wild, this is likely to remain the case. Today zoos and cat conservationist groups are beginning to combine resources to provided much needed information on such issues as natural population status, genetic integrity of specific species and many more important issues which will help the continued survival of the wild cat species.
The Cat as Predator - It has often been said of the 'Big Cats' - and of many of the smaller wild cats too - that they are the perfect predator, a killing machine, designed with every part specially tuned for the art of hunting and catching prey.
Fur and Markings - The fur of the cat serves two distinct purposes - firstly it protects the animal against the extremes of its environment and secondly serves as camouflage to make the cat less easy to spot against the background of its habitat.
The Range of the cat - In terms of the wild cat, the word 'range, can have two distinct meanings. Firstly the range of a wild cat species can be interpreted as its distribution or geographical spread across a large area - 'ranging' across countries or contents. Secondly the 'home range' of an individual wild cat is broadly its 'neighbourhood' - the area in which it lives.
The Social Cat - It is said that cats in the wild are solitary animals - whilst this is true for the majority of the wild cat species for most of the time - there are times when the cat can become a 'social' animal, sharing its daily life with others of its species.
A Matter of Breeding - One of the most important factors leading to a strong species population is that of genetic diversity - some small populations within the cat family however are not only under attack from the pressures of hunting and habitat loss, but also from inbreeding and hybridisation.
Cats in Captivity - For thousands of years man has caged and enclosed many of the wild cat species. To varying degrees cats have been seen as status symbols to the rich, caged exhibits of 'dangerous' exotic animals or reluctant performers in circus extravaganzas - today their place in captivity has a whole different meaning - survival.