Friday, February 29, 2008

Raja's Eye Surgery
Raja is a nine-year-old clouded leopard at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. He is the reason for the inception of the Clouded Leopard Project and is very dear to all of us at the Zoo and the CLP. When Raja was a very young cub he developed cataracts in both eyes and had them surgically removed. This procedure also included the removal of his lenses, therefore leaving him extremely farsighted. (Without the focusing ability of the lenses, his eyes can see things at a distance well, but up-close objects would appear very blurry.) Raja has always functioned well despite this disability, probably attributable to his familiarity with his environment at the zoo as well as his reliance on his other senses. However, recently his vision seemed to be getting worse - he demonstrated greater difficulty locating objects, such as his food pan, put into his enclosure. Last summer, veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Tom Sullivan examined Raja's eyes and determined that he had considerable growth of opaque tissue in his left eye that was severely limiting his vision. On Friday Dr. Sullivan performed surgery to correct this problem. It was a fascinating procedure that I thought might be interesting to share here.

First, Raja was anesthetized and prepped for the procedure.

Prepping Raja
Here he is, all set for surgery. He has the metal gag in his mouth to make sure he doesn't bite down on the intubation tube that is delivering the anesthetic to his lungs.

Ready for surgery
Before starting the procedure, Dr. Sullivan examined Raja's eye again.

Because eye surgery involves intricate handling of very small bits, magnifying tools are critical equipment. Here Dr. Sullivan positions his magnifying scope before getting started.

Surgery is underway

Surgery startsSurgery.
The next shot is not for the squeamish... Here Dr. Sullivan is removing the opaque tissue that was blocking Raja's vision.

Removing capsule
This is the tissue he took out. Dr. Sullivan believes it grew because Raja was so young when his lenses were removed. At that age his lens capsule (the membrane containing the lens) would still be depositing lens material as he grew. Without the lens in place to provide a substrate for the growing tissue, it was laid down abnormally, almost like scar tissue. This fibrous material filled the place of the lens in the capsule.

Removed tissue
It was amazing watching him make the tiny sutures to close the incision in Raja's eye!

After the procedure was complete, Dr. Sullivan administered antibiotic eye drops. Raja will remain on oral antibiotics for 10 days as his eye heals.

Post surgery medsHere's Raja, post surgery - on his way to a life of better vision!

A new Raja
On Saturday Raja was a bit sleepier than usual, but otherwise demonstrated no ill effects from the surgery. Fortunately he isn't rubbing or bothering his eye in any way so he must not be experiencing too much discomfort. It is amazing how resiliant animals are. I know I would be whining like crazy if this happened to me! All of Raja's caretakers would like to give Dr. Sullivan a great deal of thanks for volunteering his time to improve Raja's life. And as always, thanks to the amazing vet staff of the Zoo for the ongoing high quality of Raja's care.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Seizure of Clouded Leopard Skins
PeunPa sends this report of clouded leopard trade activity:

Five skins of the endangered Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) were seized by the Wildlife Division of the West Bengal Forest Department on 25 February 2008 at Jaigaon, on the Indo- Bhutan border. The illegal haul comprised of skins of two adults, one sub-adult and two cubs. According to senior forest department personnel, the accused smuggler is said to be one of the most wanted wildlife traders on the Indo-Bhutan border. He is now in custody and was brought before court today, on 26th February 2008.
Now it's up to Josie
Today was a very exciting (and busy!) day. We undertook our artificial insemination attempt with Raja and Josie.

Both cats were anesthetized for the procedure. Fortunately this is a very low-key experience for them due to their training. Raja walks quietly into a kennel to receive his injection. We hand inject Josie with her medication and then she kennels up as well. Both cats were taken up to our Health Care facility. First, Point Defiance General Curator and reproductive specialist Dr. Karen Goodrowe Beck collected semen from Raja through electroejaculation as seen in the photo below.

Collection went very well. Raja produced a great sample with both high sperm volume and motility (for a clouded leopard, a species notorious for poor quality sperm). If you ever wanted to see clouded leopard semen, here you go:

Meanwhile, Josie was being prepped for surgery. This included intubating her so that she could be given gas anesthesia and cleansing the incision site.

Next, as Raja was safely back in his kennel waking up from anesthesia, Josie was moved into the surgery room, hooked up to the gas and readied for the procedure.

Surgery was fairly quick. Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium veterinarians Dr. Holly Reed and Dr. Kathy Larson performed the surgery while Dr. Allison Case managed Josie's anesthesia. Dr. Holly made a small incision in Josie's abdomen and gently coaxed out one uterine horn and ovary at a time. She inserted a small catheter into the uterus and injected the semen sample. (The uterus can be seen at lower right.)

Dr. Karen evaluated Josie's ovaries and did a happy dance (sorry, I missed that photo) when she saw fresh ovulation sites. That indicates that we achieved our exact objective in timing the ovulation (by administering the hormone on Monday) to coincide with our insemination procedure. In other words, the eggs had already been released from the ovaries and were cruising around the uterus, waiting to meet up with the injected sperm. Here's one of the ovaries (the lumpy bit on top) and a uterine horn:

So now it is a waiting game. We will ultrasound Josie in a month or so as our first step in diagnosing pregnancy. We will also evaluate her fecal hormones, but because gestation is so short (about 85 days) by the time we can accurately assess her hormonal profile she would be nearly due. We will also watch her for behavioral changes. She became extremely affectionate during her last pregnancy so we'll be watching for that. I'll share any information as we get it. Mind you, it is still a long shot that this will work, but so far everything looks favorable. Here's hoping!

A huge thank you to the wonderful team of vet staff, keepers, and especially Dr. Karen Goodrowe Beck for a job well done!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Josie Update 2
Today Josie demonstrated slightly stronger estrus. She was walking in a more "slinky" manner and really soliciting interaction by following us around and crouching down. When we simulated breeding, she flattened down to the ground and vocalized. We also observed some treading of her back feet. Here's what it looked like:

She was so into this interaction that she had absolutely no reaction to her intra-muscular injection of LH we're giving:

Here's Josie after our interaction today. I'm not sure if she is satisfied or just confused!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Josie Update
We are continuing to monitor Josie's receptivity. Both yesterday and today she showed similar behavior as I described before. We were hoping that she would be in very strong estrus by now, but her behavior isn't really intensifying. We don't want to wait too long and miss our chance, so tomorrow we plan to giver her an injection of LH, a hormone that will trigger ovulation. We will then attempt artificial insemination on both Tuesday and Thursday. Check back for updates and photos of the procedure...and keep crossing those fingers!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Waiting for Josie

Today Josie is demonstrating signs that she is entering estrus. She is eager for interaction, assuming the lordosis breeding position when we approach. In the photo you can see how we simulate the motion of breeding to gauge her reaction. We're looking for arching back, tail curving away, treading of back feet, and vocalizing. Afterwards, we watch for rolling and continued crouching or "slinky" walking. Josie isn't quite in strong estrus yet; it is usually a gradual progression with the signs building in intensity over the course of a few days. We are very lucky that Josie is so tractable, enabling us to evaluate her cycle in such a hands on manner. Otherwise, the signs can be quite a bit more subtle. We'll check her again tomorrow....

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Baby Blues

Working with clouded leopards is incredibly rewarding - they are wonderfully charismatic cats, they develop strong bonds with their caretakers, and they have a compelling conservation story to share with zoo visitors. However, they also provide us with frustrations, most notably their obsessive lack of ability to procreate in zoos. The challenge of breeding cloudies is legend among zoo keepers. Primary among the problems is the extreme aggression that sometimes occurs during introductions or breeding that can culminate with a male killing a female.

We have not been immune to this issue with our cats at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Our pair was introduced when they were both very young - usually the key component of developing a successful pairing. However, Raja and Josie never formed the close relationship that can sometimes develop between pairs. Instead, their relationship was rocky from the start and they spent most of their time sparring with an element of seriousness so uncharacteristic of typical cub playtime. When not annoying each other, they would be found resting at opposite ends of their play area. This uneasy relationship may have been largely due to early issues with Raja's vision, a story I'll be sharing at the end of the month.

Despite their clear dislike of one another, they did show interest in breeding when Josie matured. Eventually breeding succeeding and resulted in the birth of cubs in 2003. At the time, we were optimistic that this would be the first of many litters. We welcomed this possibility, especially in light of the fact that Josie was considered the top female from a genetic standpoint in all North American clouded leopards. However, we were disappointed to see the relationship between Raja and Josie continue to deteriorate. Raja began to show extreme aggression toward Josie and ultimately we decided to permanently separate them for her protection.

This move did not kill all hopes of further cubs from Raja and Josie, however. We were excited by the potential to breed them through the use of artificial insemination. Because both cats still live at the zoo, it is straightforward (in theory, at least) to collect semen from Raja and inseminate Josie. We've tried this through several of Josie's estrus periods over that last two years. Because Josie is handleable, we are actually able to insert the semen vaginally through a catheter. To achieve this, three of us play the behavioral role of the male: one grabs Josie's scruff in a simulated nape bite-hold, one inserts the catheter, and the other "tickles" her for stimulation. Josie has been extremely cooperative during this process, thanks to the raging hormones of estrus that make her super affectionate with us at this time.

Unfortunately, all these efforts have proven unsuccessful so far. The key factor for achieving pregnancy is timing the insemination just right so that ovulation occurs as the sperm is racing its way up the reproductive tract. This is fairly tricky with cats as they are generally induced ovulators, meaning they need the stimulation of breeding to release an egg. (Although in true clouded leopard fashion, this isn't always the case so their situation can be more complicated!) So since we weren't really giving Josie the mechanical stimulation of breeding our timing wasn't working out. (We are able to track her cycle through the evaluation of hormones extracted from fecal samples.) So for the last attempt we injected Josie with a hormone to trigger ovulation to coordinate with our insemination. The evaluation of her hormones showed that our timing was good, but still did not result in pregnancy. This may have been due to simply not having enough volume of semen so we plan to add extra fluid (called an extender) for the next attempt.

That brings us to the present. The reason I'm sharing all of this is because Josie appears to be entering estrus again. We plan on an even more aggressive approach to breeding her this time including both vaginal and surgical insemination. I'll update you on the process day-by-day to share our progress. Josie doesn't have that many good reproductive years left (she's ten) so we may be running out of chances. Although it's frustrating and often disappointing, one look at the cub pictured should tell you it is definitely worth the effort! Keep your fingers crossed and make your offerings to the fertility gods...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Clouded Leopard Caught in Chicken Coop

Despite the clouded leopard's rarity and secretive nature, there are occasional reports of sightings. One of the most unusual cases of a clouded leopard coming into contact with people occurred early last month. On January 4, an adult male clouded leopard looking for a meal was found in a chicken coop in Chepor, Malaysia. Wildlife officials from the Perak Department of Wildlife and National Parks captured the cat and brought it to their headquarters. Quoted in a report in Malaysia's The Star newspaper, Parks director Shabrina Mohd Shariff (pictured) said, 'We presume the cat was driven out of its habitat to look for food because of encroachment into its surroundings.' Shabrina said this was the second such cat caught by the department in the last three months. 'The last one we caught in Kampung Sungai Budak, Kuala Dipang, in November, was a female cat which was much smaller. This one weighs about 15kg and measures 1.2m long from head to tail,' she said. The clouded leopard was taken to the Malacca Zoo. This action provoked some controversy in the region from those who preferred seeing the clouded leopard released back into the wild.

Monday, February 11, 2008

We're on our Way!
I thought I should start this blog with a brief explanation and update on the status of the Clouded Leopard Project. Many of you have supported us since we began in 2000 as a grass-roots conservation initiative through the Point Defiance Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK). At that time, we were a small group of staff biologists at the Zoo who were enamored with our latest addition, a tiny hand-raised clouded leopard cub named Raja. Eager to learn more about clouded leopards and support conservation efforts on their behalf, we were frustrated by our nearly-futile attempts to seek information on wild populations. At the time, only one study of wild clouded leopards had been completed, with one more underway.

We were also frustrated by the almost universal naiveté of Zoo visitors who had never even heard of a clouded leopard. To remedy this situation, we (rather impulsively) decided that we would leap in to fill this obvious gap and strive to become the global voice for clouded leopard conservation. We partnered with the Zoo to launch our website and begin our merchandising efforts to raise funds to support field work. Since the beginning, we have been overwhelmed by the generous support we have received from AAZK, the Zoo, the Point Defiance Zoo Society, and our donors. Every year we have welcomed more supporters and sent more funds to field projects.

Now, however, we feel the time has come to take the next big step in the growth of our organization. After serious consideration, we have decided to move out from under the umbrella of AAZK and become our own entity. We have formed a Board of Directors and have registered as a Washington State non-profit corporation. We are extremely grateful for a generous grant given to the Clouded Leopard Project to fund our start-up expenses including equipment purchase and attorney and filing fees. We are currently working on gaining our IRS tax-exempt status - an involved process to ensure that donations to the CLP are fully tax deductible. This process can take many months. We appreciate your ongoing support during this important transition phase.

So what does the change really mean? Most importantly, it will clear up any confusion about the relationship between the CLP, AAZK, and the Zoo. While we will still partner with these other organizations on specific clouded leopard-related projects, we are now completely separate. CLP now maintains its own finances, allowing donations to be deposited directly and not be held by AAZK. We also have plans to accept credit card payments for merchandise and donations - a move that should generate significant revenue increases. As a registered non-profit, we will be eligible to apply for foundation grants and corporate sponsorships. We have lots of planning to do in the coming months and look forward to an exciting future in support of clouded leopard conservation... thanks for coming along!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Thanks for visiting the new Clouded Leopard Project blog. We'll use this space to share with you the latest happenings in the world of clouded leopards. We'll also report on and explore some of the conservation issues facing Southeast Asian wildlife such as the illegal wildlife trade and habitat alteration. You can also expect updates on the conservation projects we're working on and news about field projects we support.

My name is Karen Povey and I'm the President of the Clouded Leopard Project. From time to time we hope to represent other Clouded Leopard Project voices here, but for the most part I'll be serving as chief blogger. I'm looking forward to sharing some of my personal insights into clouded leopards and conservation in Asia. I'll also provide photos, updates, and anecdotes about the cats we work with at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. (If you'd like to know more about me, check out my profile.)

We'd love to hear from you too. If you have ideas for the blog or relevant stories or to share, please let us know I hope you'll bookmark this site and visit frequently for the latest news and comments. Most of all, we encourage you to spread the word about our favorite cat!