Fishing Cats Get New Lease on Life


I know a lot of people think zoos are all kinds of wrong. After all, what’s natural about putting animals in tiny spaces and letting thousands of people ogle them all day, every day? But even if you’re completely anti-zoo, please consider this: many zoos are helping to preserve and repopulate critically endangered animals — like the Asian fishing cat.

On July 29, three fishing cats, two males and a female, were born at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio.

The fishing cat is native to Southeast Asia. Its range is supposed to extend from Pakistan into the Himalayan foothills in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all the way to the Indonesian island of Java. They inhabit swamps and marshy areas and feed primarily on fish and other aquatic animals.

Unfortunately, the cats’ dependence on wetlands has led to a precipitous decline in their numbers. Southeast Asian marshlands are seeing a steadily increasing human population, which has brought rampant conversion of wetlands for agricultural use, water pollution, clearing of the forests the cats rely on for protection, and over-exploitation of local fish stocks.

As a result, the fishing cat has been rendered almost extinct. In fact, the species is thought to be extirpated (rendered locally extinct) in Afghanistan and may also be gone from Malaysia and China. In the rest of its range, it has become extremely rare.

And here’s where the zoos step in.

Zookeepers are just as interested in preserving wildlife as any other conservationists, and when they can help, they do. Zoo associations throughout the world have initiated captive breeding programs for endangered animals. The birth of the three kittens at the Columbus Zoo, the first litter from a pair of fishing cats that were brought there last year, is one success for a worldwide species survival plan.

In order to minimize stress on the fishing cat family, the kittens and their mother are settled in a secluded area where they can’t be watched by zoo patrons. Once the babies are weaned, they’ll be ranging in a habitat that has been constructed to be as close as possible to their natural environment.

I recently had a chance to visit the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash. This was the first time I’d ever been to a zoo (that’s what I get for growing up in a rural area), and I was amazed and impressed by the care the zoo staff had put into creating environments and providing stimulation for the animals in its care. All the animals looked healthy, with shiny coats and good musculature, and to my admittedly unprofessional eye, they weren’t exhibiting any stress behaviors.

As I got a close-up view of jaguars, gorillas, lions and other creatures from all around the world — animals I’d only seen on TV — I gained a whole new appreciation of the majesty of each of those species. I was totally inspired. How could we let even one of these creatures disappear forever? I asked myself, and made a commitment to do whatever I can to educate people about the need to preserve all our world’s wildlife.

I hope that when the visitors to the Columbus Zoo get to see the Asian fishing cat family, they feel the same way.

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