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Vision-impaired snow leopard cubs teach us how to see a better world

Posted by: Dr. Deborah B. Jensen, President and CEO

Mother Nature isn’t always kind. Just as some human babies are born with congenital conditions that throw their parents for a loop, leading them to make extraordinary commitments to their children’s special needs, the same can be true for animals.

As you recall from last year’s stories, our endangered snow leopard cubs, Asha and Shanti, now 15 months old, were born with multiple ocular coloboma. This relatively rare congenital eye anomaly affects both human and non-human animals including Bengal tigers, Florida panthers, snow leopards, horses, and certain breeds of domestic cats and dogs. In Greek, coloboma means “unfinished.” The eye stops growing before it is fully developed. Ultimately, Asha and Shanti would develop functional vision only in their left eyes.

Many of you wrote to us with outpourings of encouragement and hope for the cubs’ struggle, and for the expert staff caring for them. So I’d like to update you since they took their first baby steps in their exhibit a year ago.

See for yourself! A picture is worth a thousand words. Asha and Shanti have been developing into thriving, rambunctious creatures that embrace each day with enviable gusto.

From 10 weeks old to… 

Leaping Leopards!! Several months later, a cub shows off her air-diving prowess just like her wild counterparts, which maneuver steep, rocky mountainsides as they travel to hunt prey.  Photos: (Top) Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo; (Bottom) Ryan Harveland, WPZ member and avid photographer.

In the wild, cubs with serious vision impairment might not survive very long. But at the zoo, because of excellent care from mom Helen, and our dedicated animal management and veterinary teams, these spots of beauty are leading vibrant, high-quality lives. They’ve mastered motor and navigational skills. But for a few small differences, which we monitor closely, they explore, play, leap and rough-and-tumble with the delight and earnestness that any fully sighted snow leopard cubs would. Helen has taught the cubs well how to bask in their glorious snow leopardness.

Let the chase begin! Photo: Annette Fallin, WPZ member and avid photographer

The cubs learn all they can from mom, who has shown both skill, patience and diligence in helping Asha and Shanti develop. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

In turn, they are teaching all of uszoo professionals, zoo members and our many guestshow to envision a better world for animals and people.

Much like the snow leopard’s elusiveness, the etiology of coloboma remains puzzling. Scientists have more research to do to determine whether it is genetics or other factors, including environmental ones such as diet, that lead this eye malformation to develop in the embryo. Currently there is no cure for coloboma, but with continued research and medical collaborations, one may be possible. 

There is heartening news. Using blood samples collected from Asha and Shanti during veterinary exams, researchers at Cornell University and the University of Illinois, who specialize in veterinary ophthalmology, molecular diagnostics, and DNA studies on inherited diseases, have agreed to collaborate with their time and technology to pilot a research study using Asha’s and Shanti’s DNA. They will look for clues to a possible genetic cause of coloboma. If a genetic marker is found, a screening test could be used to evaluate those snow leopards with a high risk of passing on ocular coloboma to their offspring. Adding to the research others have done on this condition will help zoo and conservation efforts to help this species have a healthier, sustainable future. 

By six months, the cubs’ play skills, such as what we human animals might call “hide and seek,” were in full swing. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

As with any endangered species, continuing population decline puts pressure on genetic diversity. Native to the remote, mountainous regions of Central Asia, the wild snow leopard population has diminished precipitously in the last several decades. 

Scientists and zoo veterinarians know that snow leopards are more susceptible to certain health problems, such as pneumonia, hip dysplasia and papillomaviruses among others, than other large cats. Coloboma has been documented in captive snow leopards but not yet in their wild counterparts, as we are just beginning to gain deeper glimpses into the hidden lives of these “mountain ghosts.” Only recently, the first video coverage of snow leopard cubs in a den in the wild was achieved by the Snow Leopard Trust, one of our zoo’s Partners for Wildlife.

What we learn from the ocular coloboma pilot study will contribute to improving the health of the captive population and add to other research being done on this species’ health as a whole. As has long been the case with zoo animals, we anticipate these combined efforts will produce insights and knowledge useful in the conservation of wild populations.

Helen, above, and father Tom (not pictured) did sire two healthy cubs, Gobi and Batu, in May of 2009. Batu, now at Assiniboine Zoo in Manitoba, Canada, gave birth in July to her own cubs. They passed their health tests with flying colors. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Several weeks ago, after close observations to evaluate some discharge in Asha’s and Shanti’s underdeveloped right eyes, Dr. Tom Sullivan, a veterinary ophthalmologist volunteering his expertise to the cubs’ eye care, and Dr. Darin Collins, Director of WPZ Animal Health, decided to remove the deformed eye to prevent infection and future complications. Since returning to their mom and exhibit, the girls are back to their antics and continue to excel.

What’s in store for their future? In the wild, juvenile snow leopards and their mothers typically part at about 18 months of age. Asha and Shanti have been recommended to move to Big Bear Alpine Zoo, in California, by the Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP), a cooperative animal management and breeding program for populations in North American zoos and aquariums. Feisty and playful, there the sisters will continue to thrive together and receive specialized eye care. Although they will not be bred, they will continue to be outstanding conservation ambassadors. 

Showing some “luv” for mom. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Looking into Asha’s and Shanti’s eyes, one’s initial sadness is quickly replaced with wonder and amazement at their zest for life. Every day is a new adventure on their journey to inspire us to learn, care and act to save their counterparts in the wild.  Be sure to visit them here at Woodland Park Zoo before they embark on their California trek this fall.  

Until then, I leave you with a thought often attributed to Helen Keller. While any loss of sight may be challenging, it is far worse to have sight but no vision. See these snow leopard cubs and I guarantee you’ll see the world in a whole new way.

Photo by Annette Fallin, WPZ member and avid photographer.


Anonymous said…
great post. Good luck to Asha and Shanti!
wenfot said…
Bless your hearts for not turning your backs on them. I wish they didn't have to leave; will their mother go through any kind of separation anxiety?
It's natural for young snow leopards to move on from their mothers at the age Asha and Shanti will be going. They are already independent and both they and mom should adjust well to this natural next step. Helen has already raised and sent off two other cubs and is an old pro when it comes to the stages of motherhood.
Anonymous said…
Wonderful article. Best of luck in the future for these amazing girls.
Anonymous said…
will we (WPZ) be getting another male at some point to continue the breeding program?
We will work with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums Species Survival Plan to identify the best breeding matches moving forward. There are no certain decisions just yet, but we'll be looking at pairings that allow us to maximize genetic diversity, a key to keeping the population healthy and thriving.
IvoryCate said…
I love these little ladies. Nothing gives me a bigger thrill than seeing the snow leopards out and about in their enclosure. Going to miss them.
Anonymous said…
We need more posts, like this one, from zoo officials!
Barbara said…
I agree with the post above. More of these posts from zoo officials will help with donations and interest in our wonderful zoo. I, too, am sad to see these babies leave Seattle.
Anonymous said…
The snow leopards are my nephew's favorite zoo animal. He will be sad to see them leave Woodland park even if it's for the best.
Ginger Metcalf said…
Wonderful article. Great to see that they are given freedom to grow and develop. I have a blind cat and you would not recognize it unless I told you. She does almost everything that my sighted cat does.
Anonymous said…
A testament to these little cubs' resilience. Let's all take steps to ensure the wild population can become resilient, too. We are stewards of the planet, not owners.
Anonymous said…
Thank you, Dr. Jensen, for this blog entry and for the openness and ampleness with which you report on the status of these two bundles of beauty and joy. I commend the WPZ, the staff, and above all Dr.'s Sullivan and Collins, for their exemplary work with these cubs. It is a true achievement to see these beautiful animals in the great shape they are in at this time in their life -- both physically and mentally. And such a blessing that their DNA will be at the base of this new study initiated by the two universities. Congratulations to you!

I would like to add that if not for Annette Fallin (one of your photographic contributors here), who extensively photographed Tom and Helen's first two cubs, Batu and Gobi, as well as, from the day they were presented to the public, Asha and Shanti, I would not have been aware of the Snow Leopards' ever-precarious survival status and existing breeding programs. It was through Ms. Fallin's posting of those wonderful shots on a picture-sharing website (Flickr) that I got to know and love them.

As for your closing paragraph, nothing can be profounder or truer than that. I am sure that all, be it in person at the zoo or through the photographs on Flickr, who have seen these two leopard sisters on their first discovery expeditions and then, later, rambunctiously at play, have already been touched by them. I will miss seeing them on a regular basis once they move to California. But I am so very, very thankful that they will remain together for the rest of their life. They are truly special!

Tina Mathis, Houston
Anonymous said…
Great pictures and interesting facts. We humans can learn alot from animals. On a personal note, to our nephew,Ryan Harveland, great pictures.

Anonymous said…
Thank your for not just giving up on them, we have enjoyed watching them grow and hope they will have a long and happy life, but we will miss them.
Anonymous said…
Oh my, what beauties & a truly brilliant story, it made me cry, not just for their suffering of being born visually impaired, the treatment, ops, struggles of such, but that they will live out their days 'together', both having the support of each other & boosting their visual inabilities, as combined they have a pair of seeing share, to fullfil their lives & the wonders of the world, pushing each other along with encouragement :)

You are a truly amazing & awe inspiring group of people, to provide only the best for them (& all the other wonderful creatures at your zoo), giving them the life they 'deserve', despite their issues, the time, care, effort, & of course adequate medical treatment you put in to making their lives as comfortable & natural as possible...AMAZING.

I'm in the UK BTW, I've never been to your zoo or State, but I follow your stories weekly. I have a dear friend that lives in Seattle & loves animals just as much as I do, I'm a REAL sucker for animal vids & photos, animal/nature photography is by far my most passionate subject to photograph & only wish I could get out & about to see more. My friend sends me updates from your site all the time & informs me of all her wonderful visits she has with you, it's our 'daily medicine' & gets us through our day :) Our latest favourites being the giraffe cam, the otter pups (the photo of pappa Guntur carrying them back inside was just too darn adorable, I had it as my screensaver for a while because it made me smile & chuckle soooo much!), & todays favourite being the flamingoes & turtles!! So I have her to thank for giving me such valuable information about our little animal friends, & insight into the fantastic work you all do, but also, THANK YOU for all your hard work, your efforts to preserve rare breeds in the hope of combatting extinction of such creatures & all the wonderful stories & photo updates, you really don't know how much they mean to us.
Kenneth Barn said…
This is truly inspiring. I love what you said in the end; I agree, we humans have neglected what matters most. We should use the Social Media not to promote our expenditures, but to inspire others like what you did here. Thank you so much for introducing us to Asha and Shanti. I hope them well.
Anonymous said…
Saw them today! They are super friendly! (behind the cage) One of them came up to us and rubbed her face against the fence and purred just like a house cat!