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Cat Defender

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Two Pairs of Diminutive but Ferocious Rusty-Spotted Kittens Are Born at a Zoo in Kent

"In their own minds these cats are tigers. They think they are much bigger than they really are. They are quite fearless."
-- Neville Buck

Four Rusty-Spotted kittens were recently born at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent. The first pair entered this world in late April with the second duo following in mid-June.

Native to southern India and Sri Lanka, the cats vie with the Black-Footed Cat (Felis nigripes) of southern Africa for the title of being the world's smallest cats. Fully grown, they vary in length from fourteen to nineteen inches and weigh on the average of only 3.3 pounds.

By contrast, the kittens born at Port Lympne weighed only forty grams (1.41 ounces) at birth which is about one-third of what kittens born to domestic cats weigh. (See photo above of the two-week-old kittens born in June.)

Although they may be small, the cats more than compensate for what they lack in size by their spunkiness. "A female with kittens will defend them without thinking of herself," Neville Buck of Port Lympne told The Times of London on July 9th. (See "Tiny Kittens Born to Wild Cats That Think They Are Tigers.") "They will quite happily attack us."

After conceding that he and his co-workers have to be careful so as not to step on them, he continued, "In their own minds these cats are tigers. They think they are much bigger than they really are. They are quite fearless."

Although it is unclear how many of them have been forcibly uprooted from their natural habitats and imprisoned in zoos around the world, conservationists justify such confinement as necessary in order to protect them from extinction. (See photo below of a mature Rusty-Spotted Cat at Tierpark Berlin.) With only an estimated ten-thousand mature breeding adults remaining in the wild, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the cats as vulnerable.

As is the case with most wild animals, the laundry list of culprits responsible for the cats' decline begins with farmers who are dismantling their habitats at an alarming rate. Motorists, whether through deliberate intent or just plain recklessness, also are running down many of them.

They also are preyed upon by humans, birds, and larger cats for sustenance and by dogs for sport. They in turn subsist upon a diet comprised of rodents, birds, lizards, frogs, insects and, occasionally, domestic fowl.

Genetically related to the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), they have evolved over the years into two distinct subspecies, Prionailurus rubiginosus rubiginosus of India and Prionailurus rubiginosus phillipsi of Sri Lanka. The kittens born at Port Lympne belong to the latter subspecies.

They hunt by night so as to avoid predation by birds and other animals and because of their friendly and playful personalities a few of them reportedly have been domesticated. They also have been known to den and give birth in the ceilings of houses.

Port Lympne and its sister zoo, Howletts in Bekesbourne, have bred and returned to the wild one-hundred gorillas and twenty-four black rhinos as well as an unspecified number of Przewalski horses, Sumatran rhinos, Cape buffaloes, ocelots, and pythons. The zoo's website is, however, conspicuously silent as to how many of these animals have survived the transition.

More to the point, Port Lympne does not disclose if it has attempted to return any Rusty-Spotted Cats to the wild. Generally speaking, the success rate for rewilding mammals is pretty dismal.

That nonetheless has not dissuaded conservationists from undertaking ambitious rewilding initiatives involving Amur Leopards, South China Tigers, and other large cats. (See Cat Defender posts of June 23, 2008 and March 11, 2008 entitled, respectively, "Amur Leopards Continue to Slide Toward Extinction as Conservationists Toy with a Controversial Captive Breeding and Rewilding Initiative" and "South China Tigers Are Being Bred and Trained at a South African Reserve for an Eventual Return to the Wild.")

Since mankind seems to be hellbent upon destroying and polluting all of nature, it could very well be that zoos are the last redoubts for animals. That does not, however, materially alter the fact that imprisoned animals are poor imitations of their cousins in the wild.

More importantly, animals are entitled to their freedom, dignity, and privacy. They were here long before man evolved and are considerably less destructive than the so-called higher beings that rule the roost and these considerations should count for something.

In addition to the paltry success rate of rewilding programs, captive breeding schemes not only diminish the number of endangered and threatened animals currently living in the wild but they also divert precious resources and expertise away from the fight to save habitats. They also constitute a tacit admission that saving habitats is a lost cause.

Port Lympne concedes as much on its website. "It is of course best for animals to live in the wild but until such time that the poaching and cutting down of forests ends, organizations such as ours help secure their survival," the organization declares.

As lofty as those sentiments may be, it is still difficult to comprehend the connection between zoos and habitat protection. Au contraire, it would appear that their very existence serves as a green light for farmers, developers, energy companies, and others to destroy what precious little is left of nature.

There also is the dilemma of procuring new habitats for the animals that are born in captivity. If zookeepers and conservationists are unwilling to preserve their existing habitats, it strains credulity to believe that they are going to establish new ones for them. They may very well be willing to provide them with enclosures instead of cages but that is about the extent of their generosity.

As far as Rusty-Spotted Cats are concerned, the literature is silent as to conservation efforts in India and Sri Lanka. While too much cannot be read into that, it is doubtful that very much, if anything, is being done to save them.

Finally, there is a good deal more at stake here than just saving the animals. Since it is generally acknowledged that as they go so goes man, it is difficult to see how this planet is going to be able to support the escalating needs of humans when it can no longer supply the simple necessities required by the animals.

Photos: The Times of London (Rusty-Spotted kittens) and Lenie Beutler of Wikipedia (Rusty-Spotted Cat at Tierpark Berlin.)