America's Rarely Seen Endangered Cats
Now Appearing in Unique Educational Presentation at Local Zoo

You've probably heard of an ocelot, but chances are you may never have seen one since there are less than 100 in the nation's zoos. Ocelots gained their fame during the height of the fur coat trade, but today more difficult issues like habitat fragmentation and development pose a more challenging threat. Caribbean Gardens: The ZOO in Naples is the most recent place where you can see these endangered felines and is also one of the very few zoos where you can see them in a presentation and learn what can be done to protect this animal so revered for its beauty. The zoo features these rare cats in its premiere educational program: Safari Canyon - a unique presentation combining live animals and video screens to better educate audiences.

The zoo acquired its two ocelots late last year. Following a standard quarantine protocol, the education keepers began slowly introducing the cats to the presentation areas. "Introducing an animal to a new exhibit can take a few days or even a few weeks, but introducing them to a presentation with hundreds of people watching them often requires months," stated David Tetzlaff, the zoo's director. Education keepers first brought out the ocelots into the show areas after the zoo closed so they could explore the new area and get comfortable with it. Once the ocelots got the lay of the land, the keepers brought them out during open hours when zoo guests would be walking by, but not gathered for the show. The ocelots were then gradually brought out before smaller audiences in the zoo's Scales & Tails Show area. Finally, the ocelots made appearances in the large Safari Canyon presentation. "They're ready now," said David. "We're very comfortable that they're comfortable and they'll be a regular feature of the Safari Canyon presentations." Safari Canyon features live animals in a naturalistic rockwork setting exhibiting natural behaviors combined with graphics and video footage displayed on video screens to better illustrate other behaviors or issues that cannot be replicated in a live setting.

And if you ever wondered if all this time and effort is worth it, just ask the zoo's director of education, Tim Tetzlaff. Yes, he's David's brother and he shares David's enthusiasm for the shows. "The impact of seeing a live animal combined with interpretation by a live person cannot be overestimated. Our guests come for a fun time with their family, but they also want a connection to nature and to learn about this wild world. It's hard to get all of that when you're hanging out with your kids and seeing everything around you. Dave and I know that. We both have children and we visit zoos all the time with them. It's hard to read signs and take it all in. But sit everyone down for a show and you all get to relax and focus on what's in front of you. That's when you learn the most. And that's what really helps build the connection you came for."

 

And those connections can be hard to make. Zoo studies show the average zoo guest spends around 20 seconds observing an animal in its exhibit and less than 10% of zoo visitors read any of the educational graphics during a zoo visit and increased conservation interests fade within just a few weeks after a zoo visit. "That's why we focus so strongly on presentations in the zoo," affirms Tim. "The beauty of an ocelot combined with a solid presentation of the conservation issues by a real person followed by an action that people can take right now at the zoo - that can make it happen in a way that the best sign or exhibit in the world can never do. Ocelots are up against it and right here in our country. There are less than 100 in the U.S. And the problem is much harder than getting people to stop wearing fur coats."

Unfortunately, ocelots know what it's like to be up against it. In the 1960s and 70s, ocelots were the spotted cat most heavily exploited. A fur coat made from a leopard or jaguar required killing about six cats. One ocelot coat, however, meant the death of up to 18 ocelots. During the height of the fur coat trade, an estimated 200,000 ocelots were killed each year. In 1982, the ocelot was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. "Without that protection and the change in people's attitudes toward exotic furs, the ocelots would have been gone by now," Tim said. "Even when there are hundreds of thousands or even a few million of a species, you need to be careful. Don't forget that in the early 1800s we had around four to five billion passenger pigeons - and that's billion with 'b.' By 1914, the last of its kind died in a zoo. Gone forever in about a hundred years."

Today, although illegal hunting continues to threaten ocelots, the greater threat comes from development and some difficult political issues. Ocelots depend on dense undergrowth and uninterrupted corridors to live and for their kittens to disperse. Increased efforts by the U.S. Border Patrol to prevent illegal immigration has degraded habitat for ocelots. Brush clearing and fencing eliminate areas for ocelots to live and high-powered lights illuminating the night to spot illegal immigrants disrupt their nocturnal hunting habits.

And even bridges that are being built to support the growing trade with Mexico further reduce the land usable for ocelots along important river habitats. Efforts are being made in Texas to reduce the impact around bridges and reduce road kills. Unfortunately, many of the culverts constructed to help border cats pass under roads are poorly built or not placed at frequently used crossings and have therefore been much less effective than the ones built for Florida panthers.

All of these factors could quickly lead to the complete fragmentation of the Texas population. Much like the Florida panthers, Texas ocelots could become cut off from the genetic flow of South and Central America leading to inbreeding issues like those facing the panther.

"There are tough issues. It's not as simple as just 'don't wear an ocelot coat' was thirty years ago. This isn't directly at the consumer level. That's why we promote and even provide an incentive for our guests to join the National Wildlife Federation. NWF works with landowners, government agencies, and businesses on answers that make sense for both wildlife and for people in ways that an individual alone never could," said David. "We're already partnering with them in their Florida panther efforts because of their commitment and proven ability to work with all groups to create viable solutions. In the meantime, we want our guests to enjoy seeing these extraordinary cats and understand what's happening to them. Most importantly, we want to them to see that even with everything going on, good things are being done and they can get involved to help make it even better."

You can see the ocelots during the zoo's daily Safari Canyon presentations at 11:30 and 3 p.m. The 52-acre Caribbean Gardens: The ZOO in Naples is accredited by the prestigious American Zoo and Aquarium Association. In addition to the historical plantings dating back to 1919, the garden features a variety of animals from apes to zebras including the big cats. A variety of innovative presentations are offered all day. Small troops of monkeys, lemurs, and apes live in natural habitats on the islands visited by the Primate Expedition Cruise. Located in the heart of Naples at 1590 Goodlette-Frank Road across from Coastland Center, the zoo is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more info, call the Caribbean Gardens ZooLine at (239) 262-5409 or click www.NaplesZoo.com.

Education and Conservation
The ocelot is one of the small cats considered as priority species for conservation by American zoos. Ocelots are listed on both the U.S. Endangered Species list and on Appendix I of CITES and are considered threatened with extinction throughout their range in the US, Central and South America. But the two at the zoo are there for education, not breeding. "For one thing, they're siblings - brother and sister," explains David Tetzlaff, the zoo's director. "What's more important, however, is that their genetic line is already well represented in zoos and is not recommended for breeding by the Species Survival Plan®." SSPs oversee the breeding of a species in order to maintain a self-sustaining, genetically diverse population. "Although it's not the most glamorous side of conservation, zoos help certain species by not breeding all individuals rather than having them out being bred in non-accredited zoos and swamping the gene pool with related animals."

If you are a member of the media and would like to receive future releases, please e-mail Tim Tetzlaff at tim@caribbeangardens.com

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