SEATTLE ‒ A veterinary ophthalmologist has performed eyelid surgery on two of the rare snow leopard cubs born last month at Woodland Park Zoo, but the third cub, a male, was euthanized because he had been born with multiple severe heart defects and was declining in health.
The two surviving cubs, both females, had their six-week exam yesterday. “The overall prognosis for the two cubs remains good at this time and staff will continue to watch them carefully,” said Dr. Darin Collins, Woodland Park Zoo’s Director of Animal Health.
“The death of the cub is very heartbreaking for our staff, particularly the zookeepers and veterinary team who have been monitoring the cubs and performing exams,” said Dr. Jennifer Pramuk, a curator at the zoo. “So much love and dedication have been poured out to the new family of snow leopards.”
The three snow leopards were born May 2 to 7-year-old mother Helen and 6-year-old father Tom. The surviving siblings remain off public exhibit with the mother in a maternal den to ensure continued bonding and feeding. The cubs currently weigh 4½ pounds.
A cardiac ultrasound on the male cub by the zoo’s consulting veterinary cardiologist, Dr. Jerry Woodfield of Northwest Cardiology Consultants in Seattle, identified multiple heart defects that were causing early heart failure.
According to Collins, it is very rare to encounter disease concerns in the zoo’s newborn animals that are too severe for modern medicine to overcome, but in this case, there are no surgical or drug treatment options. “The fragile cub faced a very poor prognosis. Our decision to euthanize him was truly in the best interest of the cub and the most humane option.”
A necropsy (animal autopsy) will be performed, which is routine for all animal deaths at the zoo. A final cause of death is pending complete results of histology and other diagnostic testing.
Collins noted that all three cubs were born with eyelid defects, also known as colobomas, a malformation in which a portion of the structure of the eye is lacking.
Dr. Tom Sullivan, the zoo’s volunteer veterinary ophthalmologist with the Animal Eye Clinic (Seattle), has performed the first of multiple minor procedures to the eyelids, which involved tightening the loose and folding eyelid tissue with sutures. The congenital defect has left one of the cubs with only one functioning eye.
The father was born with colobomas but his first litter of two cubs with the same mother was born healthy and normal. The condition has been seen in snow leopards at other zoos.
Since snow leopards are solitary animals in the wild, the father has been separated and is on public view in the snow leopard exhibit adjacent to Australasia.
The snow leopard, an endangered species, is a moderately large cat native to the high mountain ranges of Central Asia and Russia, including in Afghanistan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan. Snow leopard scientists estimate as few as 3,500 remain in the wild.
As part of Woodland Park Zoo’s partnership with 36 field conservation projects in the Pacific Northwest and around the world, the zoo partners with the Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust. The Trust was created in 1981 by the late Woodland Park Zoo staff member Helen Freeman, the namesake of the mother of the newborn cubs. Through innovative programs, effective partnerships, and the latest science, the SLT is saving these endangered cats and improving the lives of people who live in the snow leopard countries of Central Asia. Visit http://www.snowleopard.org/ for information about the SLT.
As more footage and images are made available, snow leopard fans can keep tabs on the cubs by checking out the zoo’s blog at www.zoo.org and YouTube.
For more information about Woodland Park Zoo and its conservation programs, visit www.zoo.org.