Conservation and research of felids in captivity

Ex situ research performed in a captive environment can benefit felids both in the wild and in captivity. Studies on felid behavior and reproductive physiology, for example, can provide valuable information that could not be obtained in the wild. Conservationists can use research findings to better understand the species and make informed decisions as to the best way to protect them and their habitat in the wild. In captivity, research findings can be used to improve captive breeding success and to make changes to the animal’s captive environment to promote their well-being.

Just a few of the ex situ research projects supported by the Felid TAG are highlighted below.

Small Cat Reproductive Biology at Cincinnati Zoo

Of the 37 wild cat species in the world, 28 are small in size, weighing less than 50 lbs. Many of these small cats are threatened with extinction in the wild but have received little conservation attention compared to the larger cats. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) has established breeding management programs for several small cat species including the ocelot, fishing cat, Pallas’ cat, black-footed cat, and sand cat. Concerted, collaborative efforts of zoos and other conservation organizations will be necessary if small cats are to survive and thrive in both the wild and captivity.

As a global leader in cat conservation, the Cincinnati Zoo maintains a diverse felid population, including all five of the above-mentioned small cat species. Scientists at the Zoo’s Lindner Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) study the reproductive biology of all five small cat species to optimize captive propagation and develop

assisted reproductive technologies for population management. CREW uses tools such as fecal hormone analysis and semen collection to characterize basal reproductive traits in small cats and improve breeding success. This basic  reproductive knowledge also is applied in developing techniques such as sperm and embryo freezing, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer and artificial insemination to produce viable offspring in ocelots, Pallas’ cats and sand cats.

Cincinnati Zoo scientists performing artificial insemination on a Pallas' cat
Cincinnati Zoo scientists perform an artificial insemination procedure on a Pallas’ cat. (Photo: Shasta Bray)
Dr. William Swanson with Sihil, an ocelot produced by frozen-thawed embryo transfer
Dr. William F. Swanson, CREW’s Director of Animal Research, with Sihil, an ocelot produced by a frozen-thawed embryo transfer

A comparative analysis of reproductive success in the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)

Clouded leopards are known for aggression during breeding introductions and the ability to determine individuals that may have a higher likelihood for success can assist in deciding which individuals to pair for breeding. Results from a study conducted by Jilian Fazio M.Sc., a Graduate Research Fellow pursuing her Ph.D. at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, revealed several behavioral differences between reproductively successful and unsuccessful clouded leopards. Males tend to have higher rates of territorial behaviors, such as patrolling and urine marking and females exhibited higher rates of defensive behaviors, such as flinch and retreat. Specific tests utilizing domestic cat urine and a mirror image stimulation were ideal for eliciting these behaviors in males and females, respectively. In addition, a friendly vocalization termed prusten in both males and females as well as urine marking in males, and retreat in females all act as predictors of reproductive success in this species. The behaviors exhibited by reproductively successful captive clouded leopards seem to correspond well with behaviors that would increase fitness in this species in the wild.

Clouded Leopard
Clouded leopard (Photo: Jillian Fazio)

Assessment of captive management in the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus)

One of the most charismatic small cats, the fishing cat is found throughout Southeast Asia. Recently, this species was elevated from "Vulnerable" to "Endangered" by the IUCN emphasizing the urgent need for successful management of the captive population. Currently, the captive population contains fewer than 40 viable individuals. The challenges facing reproductive success include limited genetic diversity, low founder numbers, and behavioral incompatibility among pairs. Specifically, there is a lack of knowledge pertaining to the framework of successful breeding introductions. 

Fishing Cats
Fishing cats (Photo: Janice Sveda)

A Standardized Ethogram for the Felidae: A Tool for Behavioral ResearchersVery little is known about the fishing cats' sensitivity to environmental change and transfers between institutions and breeding introductions can increase stress and drastically impact reproductive success. An ongoing study conducted by Jillian Fazio M.Sc. aims to monitor the individuals that are transferred between institutions and involved in breeding introductions. Non-invasive fecal hormone analysis is used to monitor adrenal response and reproductive hormones.  Behavioral data and breeding introduction methods from each institution will be compared with hormone data to help pinpoint approaches that may lead to reproductive success. Finally, a keeper-rated temperament and behavioral assessment may help indicate differing temperaments between individual fishing cats, with the goal of pinpointing certain temperaments that may be more reproductively successful.

The concept of creating standardized behavioral definitions for felids was originally proposed by the Behavior/Welfare Working Group during the 2011 Felid TAG Meeting. Felid temperament assessments are becoming increasingly common in the zoological field, and as such, the Behavior/Welfare Working Group would like to develop standardized assessments for felids. The first step in achieving this goal is to construct clear behavioral definitions which can be applied to all felid species. Despite historic evidence that suggests the family Felidae share similar behavioral repertoires, no standardized ethogram providing comprehensive behavioral definitions has been created for exotic cats.

Snow Leopard
Snow leopard (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

In order to achieve this, Lauren Stanton at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore conducted a thorough literature review of published articles containing felid behavioral definitions. A total of 95 articles qualified for inclusion, and each article was systematically evaluated to identify and document the terminology used in each behavioral definition, its applicability to multiple species, and any type of categorization implemented. Careful review of the behavioral definitions confirmed that researchers tend to define cat behavior in similar manners, although some divergence was found between domestic and exotic (non-domestic) cat ethograms. A preference towards certain species was observed, with the domestic cat qualifying as single most common study subject, followed by several “big cat” species. Also, the majority of studies involving exotic cats focused on either enrichment practices or building activity budgets, while research investigating social behaviors was most common in domestic cat studies.

Using information gathered from the articles, a standardized, user-friendly ethogram has been created for future felid behavioral studies. This final ethogram, which is now being prepared for publication, suggests the use of “base behaviors” that can be altered using pre-defined modifiers in order to accommodate the requirements of individual studies while retaining consistent terminology. Several common behavioral categories are also defined, and suggestions of behaviors which qualify in each are presented to further assist researchers when developing their study. It was designed to be user-friendly and coherent to most observers (such as animal keepers, students, and volunteers) in order to increase inter-observer reliability, and ease comparisons of data collected across studies.

In addition to coming a step closer to standardized felid temperament assessments, use of this ethogram can help increase our knowledge of captive felid behavior, resulting in practical management decisions that may improve felid wellness. It may also help facilitate research on poorly studied species, such as members of the “small cats”. While the ethogram may require further refinement over time with use, by treating this document as a solid starting point, there is a strong potential to unify felid research, the benefits of which could be essential to the conservation and welfare of the Felidae.

Complementary copies of the ethogram can be requested by emailing Lauren directly: