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In a ground-breaking — and heart-meltingly cute — genetic achievement, scientists at a Louisiana research facility have announced the birth of a pair of rare African black-footed cats.

The two male kittens are the first of their species born as a result of vitro fertilization.

Their father, Ramses, came from the Henry Doorly Zoo Center for Conservation and Research in Omaha, Neb. Researchers gathered the sperm there in 2003, froze it and sent it to the Audubon Center for the Research of Endangered Species in Algiers, La., where researchers combined it with an egg from Zora, a former resident at the facility, to create embryos in March 2005.

In December, the scientists transferred the frozen embryos to Bijou, who came from Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C., and the kittens were born in February.

They spend most of their time contained in a room with their surrogate mother. But on Friday, scientists brought the kittens out of seclusion for only the second time to undergo a physical exam and pose for photographs.

The African black-footed cat is among the worlds smallest felines. Adults weigh only three to four pounds. They live about 14 years.

Although they look like striped domestic kittens, these kittens come from an extremely endangered wild species.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, there may be fewer than 10,000 adult African black-footed cats in the wild, with no more than 1,000 in any single population.

Audubon Center staff said there are about 40 of the cats in captivity worldwide, and 21 of them — counting the kittens — are in U.S. zoo collections.

“Most people never see these cats,” said Betsy Dresser, the founding director of the center. “They’re very small and very rare.”

Dresser said the black-footed cat, native to arid areas of southern African, has seen its habitat decimated by human intervention. Farmers who viewed them as threats often poisoned them, she said.

“They’re in areas where humans are moving,” Dresser said. “That’s the biggest problem for wildlife today.”

Dwindling numbers of the small rodents and ground-nesting birds the cats hunt is also a factor in the decline of the species.

A goal of Audubon’s research is to learn how to use domestic cats as surrogate mothers for small wildcats and then spread the technique to other institutions and zoos. The organization hopes to be able to preserve and rebuild the population of endangered species so that they can be reintroduced to conservation areas.

“[The African black-footed cats] haven’t reproduced well in captivity at all,” Dresser said. “This is really prevention, for the future, keeping species from going extinct.”

“They’re so low in number,” she said. “If we don’t do something, we’re going to lose them.”

We dont know what the future holds for many of these species, she said in a news release Thursday. But we do know that by preserving DNA and working on protocol for creating pregnancies and producing babies through cryo-preservation and surrogate mothers, we are giving these species a shot at survival even when their numbers dip to dangerously low levels.

“They’re so cute, but they’re mean, too,” Dresser said. “They’re wild animals, and we want to keep them that way.”

[Sources: Times-Picayune and Sun-Herald]