Omaha Zoo Scientist On A Mission To Save One Of The World’s Smallest Felines

Labelled “vulnerable”, scientists work to conserve the tiny Black-Footed Cat population

By Justyne Yuen-Lee

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The Black-Footed Cat is one of the world’s smallest felines and its population is decreasing.

 


The Black-Footed Cat is no bigger than your typical house cat and is only found in three countries: Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. These nocturnal and solitary kitties live among short to medium grass plains, scrub desert, and sand plains. They prey on mostly small mammals, small birds and sometimes even invertebrates. Don’t let their small stature fool you; scientists warn that they will fight you. According to legend, the Black-Footed Cat can take down a giraffe! While that’s not true, the tall tale speaks to their tenacious attitudes.

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Credit: Henry Doorly Zoo And Aquarium

One researcher observed: “The male Kubu was located resting in a hollow termite mound. When he became active, he sprayed several times then caught a gerbil. He continued to forage and as a group of bat-eared foxes three times the size of the cat approached, Kubu sat and watched them. When one of the foxes came too close, Kubu slapped him and just walked on.”

Talk about a ferocious feline!


The sad reality of the Black-Footed Cat is that  only 45 cats remain in captivity and their population is declining in the wild.


The greatest threat to the wild Black-Footed Cat population? Humans. According to the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada, human raised livestock overgraze and reduce the cat’s prey base. The cats scavenge the indiscriminately poisoned livestock predators like jackals and are also poisoned.

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Credit: Henry Doorly Zoo And Aquarium

Germany’s Wuppertal Zoo has had a high success rate in breeding the Black-Footed Cat, and the majority of the captive population resides there. The captive population suffered from a high-incidence of kidney disease and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium moved their Black-Footed Cats off-exhibit since they sleep 18 hours a day behind bushes. Dr. John Herrick, a scientist working towards conserving this species says, “…the exhibit might as well be empty.”

Dr. John Herrick is a zoologist who is among a dozen or so scientists working towards protecting these kitties. He traveled to South Africa to join the Black-Footed Cat Working Group that tracks and studies the cats. The team finds cats, anesthetizes them, and fits them with radio collars to track them. Herrick is responsible for collecting male semen for artificial insemination to try to get population numbers up.


Credit: Henry Doorly Zoo And Aquarium

Working closely with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the team is working to develop a method of artificial insemination that will help breed both the wild and captive population to diversify the gene pool.

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Attempts at impregnating two of Omaha’s females were unsuccessful and the current goal is to have at least one successful pregnancy.

The artificial insemination technique Dr. Herrick is modifying with Dr. Bill Swanson and Dr. Lindsey Vansandt at the Cincinnati Zoo is based off a technique that has an 80% success rate in domestic cats. There are only 15 viable female cats in captivity to impregnate and this slows down the fine-tuning process.

A successful pregnancy would give hope for the Black-Footed Cat population and science a new method in breeding cats without having to take them from the wild. We hope these small yet fierce felines will be around for decades to come.