A High-Stakes Feline Affair

A High-Stakes Feline Affair

It’s a classic Brooklyn love story. Culver is from Kansas City; Olivia is from Omaha. He moves into a one bedroom near Prospect Park, and she lives in the unit next door. Through thin walls, she can hear him moving around his place. She can even smell him. Everyone knows it’s only a matter of time before they’re destined to meet.

When that night comes, Olivia will start yowling loudly in her one-bedroom. That’s when the team of crack researchers who have been carefully watching them for months will know that it’s time for boy to meet girl.

Culver and Olivia are no normal mid-western transplants. They are two rare African black footed cats that were hand selected for one another by way of cutting edge genetic research. It took ten years and the work of cat experts from San Diego to Omaha to bring them both to Prospect Park. If Culver and Olivia mate, their kittens will be one more step toward the survival for their rapidly disappearing species.

Culver plays in his exhibit at the Prospect Park Zoo.
Photo courtesy of Julie Larson)

There are fewer than 10,000 mature black footed cats who are capable of breeding left in the grasslands of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, according to the Union of Nature Conservation. Like many other grassland species, the destruction of their habitat is an issue, but the most dangerous threat to black footed cats arises from their small numbers. Because there are so few breeding cats left, the gene pool is small. Experts are constantly analyzing the family trees of their animals to avoid inbreeding, and the spread of genetic diseases that can threaten the whole stock.

But with three distinct family trees in North America and only 45 breeders, finding cats that aren’t related to one another is a puzzle that puts the skills of most biologists to the test.

The road to Brooklyn  

Ten years ago Denise McClean, the facility director of the Prospect Park Zoo, reached out to the American Association of Zoo and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan—an initiative to ensure that endangered species continue to breed in captivity. She wanted to exhibit and breed these rare wild cats in Brooklyn, but needed to find the right match. “When you’re moving animals around zoos around the world you need someone to coordinate that,” said McClean. “Someone has to go all the way back to ensure that we’re not breeding an animal with a sibling, parent, whatever. This ensures that they have the best chance for survival and reproduction.”

The person charged with maintaining that diversity is Barbara Palmer, the coordinator of the black footed cat Species Survival Plan and the animal keeper at the Denver Zoo. Once she heard from the team at Prospect Park she began the match making process by consulting the North American Studbook—an electronic database containing complete family histories for the black footed cats living in American zoos.

Culver is one of the two African cats at the Prospect Park Zoo who have been hand selected for one another by researchers. | Photo courtesy of Julie Larson

“It’s like a puzzle,” Palmer said. “Our goal is to avoid inbreeding, and to maximize the genetic pairings. It’s amazingly complicated. The process was much longer for the male and much more complicated for the female.”

Palmer identified one potential female living in Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. The Henry Doorly Zoo has the most successful cat breeding program in the country—but it is almost too successful. When Olivia and her sister were born, there wasn’t enough room to accommodate them. They were sent across the country to the San Diego Zoo until Palmer could find each of them a mate.

Meanwhile, Culver was in Kansas City awaiting transport to Europe. He was slated to jumpstart the European black footed cat breeding program. But as his departure date neared, his transport fell through, leaving him mateless. The process began before Palmer was the coordinator, she said, and “He was just waiting in Kansas City, and it took many years to work out a plan to re-include him.”

In November of this year, nearly ten years since the beginning of their matchmaking process, McClean finally got her hands on two genetically distinct black footed cats at the Prospect Park Zoo.

But her work had just begun. McClean is now charged with the delicate act of kindling a cat romance.When Culver first arrived in Prospect Park, he was kept in quarantine for thirty days to make sure he was healthy and comfortable. Now he’s happily climbing the trees in his exhibit, awaiting the day when McClean will introduce him to Olivia, who is living in “backup holding”—or a room just behind the exhibit. The cats can hear and smell one another, but McClean doesn’t want to rush an introduction.

“We are watching her,” McClean said. “Certainly she will be more receptive to him if she’s ready to breed, so that’s a great opportunity for introduction. It’s less chance of the animals reacting poorly to one another.”

Olivia will turn two in January of this year, so the boy meets girl moment is approaching.

Solving the genetic puzzle

There are 11 zoos throughout North America that are accredited to keep and breed black footed cats. There are only two other zoos worldwide that display them, so management of the North American stock has a large impact on the health of the species. The goal for researchers like Palmer is to create a backup stock of animals with strong genes that would allow them to eventually flourish in the wild.

But with so few breeding cats, just one errant gene can throw the whole future of the species into jeopardy.

Several years ago, zoo technicians across the country started to notice a problem in some of their young black footed cats. Their eyes were milky and glassy. Eventually, some of them went completely blind.

Leslie Lyons, a cat researcher at the University of Missouri, received a call from a few of these zoo technicians at the beginning of her 99 Lives Project, an initiative to genetically sequence all types of cats to discover genes that could lessen their chances of survival.

Lyons and her team conducted genetic tests on several strains of cats—those who were bred in zoos, and some cats still living in the wild. They were searching for something different in the cat’s genes, something that would help them figure out why some cats were going blind, and others weren’t.

“The biggest challenge was getting the samples from wild felids,” Lyons says. “You can’t just hold them and get a blood sample, you have to wait for their annual exams.”

After waiting for the annual exams, Lyons was able to find her smoking gun. The cats that were developing blindness were missing two tiny molecules in their DNA—also called a “base-pair deletion”—which can arise randomly as DNA replicates in the body.

This base pair deletion created a new gene in the black footed cat family tree that could be passed on. Even if they weren’t blind themselves, many cats were secretly carrying the gene.  If two carriers were allowed to breed, their kittens would likely go blind, a condition also called Progressive Retinal Atrophy.

The researchers became worried. Some carrier cats had already been allowed to breed with other families. They had to find out how far the genetic mutation had spread. There were almost certainly cats in zoos across America that were carrying a gene for Progressive Retinal Atrophy, but to find them they had to examine the entire black footed cat family tree.

Using the resources from Palmer’s studbook and new methods of genetic testing, Lyons identified seven black footed cats in the North American Studbook that were likely carriers of PRA. They were able to halt the spread of the gene but it had already had some contact with each of the three families of black footed cats.

Forensic genetics: How blindness spread through black footed cats in North America

Video by Emma Betuel, with help from Katherine Brooks. | Data courtesy of Nature

Things like genetic disease make pairing even more complicated for Palmer, but more knowledge about the secrets of the animals’ DNA is helping her to make better matchmaking decisions. “This genetics work is being improved and that’s a huge benefit for us,” Palmer said. “We are right on the edge of being able to make even better pairing decisions.”

This same process of genome sequencing and gene analyzation has already yielded more important findings. Now, the same team in Missouri suspects that genetics may be playing a role in a fatal kidney disease called Amyloidosis.

In the meantime, Palmer is watching the cats closely. She suspects that Amyloidosis is genetically linked. She constantly fights to keep these animals healthy—sometimes her greatest opponent is nature itself.

Small, mighty, overlooked

Palmer and McClean are both passionate educators, caretakers, and advocates for the black footed cat. While these three-pound cats are notoriously fierce and wild animals, they are fighting an uphill battle against their genetics, environmental destruction, and economics.

They aren’t the flashiest of Africa’s creatures, and sometimes this unfortunate lack of pizzaz can leave them under-resourced when it comes to preservation. “It can be hard to find interest because people don’t know them,” said Palmer. “If you can’t create interest, you can’t have a basis for saving a species. It’s a bit scary, but we are really excited that Prospect Park took them.”

The Prospect Park Zoo and the black footed cat are in themselves a perfect match. Prospect Park Zoo specializes in small animals that are usually overlooked in favor of more formidable creatures. They have an entire hall of small animals dedicated to the world’s tinier creatures. McClean is adamant that all animals deserve a chance at survival, no matter how small.

“We like people to know that there are amazing animals in smaller packages, just like the black footed cat, that represent just the diversity of life on this planet,” McClean says.

Now that Culver and Olivia are settled in New York, McClean has gotten the chance to learn their quirks and personalities. Culver is affable and likes to play in the trees of his exhibit. But Olivia is wild at heart—maybe even a bit mean, McClean admits. Everything from their genes to their long and winding paths to Prospect Park represent the diversity of a tiny species with some powerful advocates.

In the future, Culver and Olivia’s grandchildren might be part of an effort to repopulate the grasslands of Africa. Before that, however, they have to go on their first date.

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