There were happy tears at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo on Wednesday, when Asian Highlands keepers celebrated the long-awaited arrival of two V.I.C.s – very important cubs. It has been nearly 20 years since Amur leopard cubs were born at CMZoo. Three days after Mother’s Day, Anya, a 9-year-old critically endangered Amur leopard became a first-time mom.
The little ones are covered in black spots and their favorite activities seem to be snuggling, nursing and wriggling. They look to be about average size for a leopard cub – around 2 pounds. For the first week or so, they’re pretty vulnerable with closed eyes, but they’re in good paws with Anya.
“Imagine nursing your first baby while having contractions for your second,” said Rebecca Zwicker, animal care manager in Asian Highlands. “I think Anya is absolutely incredible. She looks confident and comfortable with the cubs, and we’re elated for her and her babies. I’m so proud of our animal care team and their commitment to Anya and the future of the Amur leopard species.”
Amur leopards are widely known as the rarest big cats on the planet. These cubs are adorable, certainly, but their existence is hope for the future of their species. Only around 100 individuals remain in the wilds of far east Russia and China. CMZoo’s Amur leopards – which doubled in number from two to four on Wednesday – now represent four percent of the wild population.
That’s why CMZoo has been committed to the Amur Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP) and accepted the risky breeding recommendation in 2019
. Dad, 7-year-old Anadyr, will not have an active parenting role for the cubs, as is normal for male Amur leopards. Because both Anya’s and Anydyr’s genetics are underrepresented in both wild and human care populations, these cubs are considered very important within the SSP.
The first weeks and months of a leopard cub’s life are extremely fragile, but Zwicker says leopard fans everywhere have reason to feel optimistic.
“It always amazes me when a first-time mom embraces the role as naturally as Anya has,” said Zwicker. “She’s a patient and attentive mom. She knows where those babies are at all times. There’s a lot of cuddling, grooming, nursing and cleaning going on, and we’re seeing Anya take time to groom and care for herself, which is equally important.”
The two-day-old cubs and Anya are bonding well. The first cub born quickly showed instincts to nurse, which helped Anya’s maternal instincts take over for the second cub’s arrival about two hours later. At first, the second cub seemed less active than the first-born cub, and it took a while for it to get the hang of nursing. Once cub #2 smelled where cub #1 was having its meal, it made a baby beeline for the nipple. After a short sibling squabble, a full-bellied cub #1 moved aside for cub #2 to settle in for its first meal. Since then, both cubs have been nursing regularly and cub #2 is quickly catching up to its sibling’s energy level.
Our team is watching the new family remotely via cameras that were pre-placed in Anya’s den. So far, Anya is the only one to see the cubs in person, and we plan for that to continue, since she’s showing great maternal instincts for a first-time mom. The cubs will mark their first milestones with Anya behind the scenes for at least eight weeks, but we’ll be sure to announce when they’re big enough for guests to visit them in Asian Highlands. The cubs’ sexes haven’t been identified and likely won’t be any time soon. There are no plans for names, in line with Zoo tradition to wait 30 days to name a baby.
These two little cubs are stealing staff hearts already (via camera). The squirmy little ones have no idea how much they have just contributed to their species’ future, but we do, and it proves this longtime commitment to the Amur Leopard SSP has paid off.