Zoological parks around the world contribute to small wild cat conservation, but not nearly as much as they contribute to the conservation of big cats. Whereas zoos may contribute proportionately more money towards seriously underfunded small cat projects, big cats benefit from substantial government and NGO support. Much of the work on small cats is carried out behind-the-scenes through the field work and captive studies zoos facilitate, sponsor or conduct themselves with their own research teams. Unfortunately, the display of small felids for educational purposes is not quite commensurate with the many research activities undertaken by zoos to conserve small cat species. In other words, through research zoos are learning a lot about how to propagate and better care for small cat species, but these carnivores are still not widely displayed in zoo exhibits around the world.
I recently corresponded with Dr. Alex Sliwa Curator of Mammals at the Cologne Zoo, Chair of the European Association of Zoo and Aquariums' Felid Taxon Advisory Group and one of the foremost experts on small cats in the world. He said, "Small cats used to be more commonly exhibited in zoos, but in less-aesthetic and small enclosures. This has changed as more of an investment has been made on improving enclosures for big cats." This leaves the general public largely unaware of many small cat species that are in peril. While zoos like the Cincinnati Zoo administer programs such as the Small Cat Signature Project, which is advancing reproductive knowledge of the ocelot, fishing cat, Pallas's cat, black-footed cat and sand cat for conservation breeding purposes, many zoos worldwide miss opportunities to exhibit these fascinating conservation-sensitive species in favor of showcasing more popular megafauna. Hence, a paucity of small felids is displayed widely in zoos and it is to the detriment of these cats and their future survival.
Through sophisticated assisted reproduction technologies used to optimize captive breeding efforts and by conducting habitat assessments and telemetry work in the field, zoos are helping to save several species of small wild felids. By building an insurance population of small cats with the help of frozen zoos, and by studying wild populations to discern how to best manage cats in situ, zoos are making a big impact on small wild cats. But because the Pallas's cat of Central Asia and the black-footed cat of southern Africa, for example, have historically been of less appeal to the populous, or at least overshadowed by the big cats, small cats continue to be lower priority species for display. It is also hard to capture the attention of zoo visitors when superficially, an animal resembles a domestic cat at a venue full of more exotic looking species.
Space for cats in zoos is largely allocated for the seven species of big cats, representing pantherine and puma lineages. These species draw crowds of zoo goers and large carnivore enthusiasts the world over as they are big and charismatic and many are also conservation-sensitive. The popularity of the big cats confers awareness concerning their plight, which affords them protection, but it also benefits lesser known species, including small cat species that co-occur with them in wild places. But is it important to continue to display the jaguars and cougars, for example, at the expense of species few even know about? The cougar is listed as a species of Least Concern and the jaguar as Near Threatened in the IUCN Redlist assessment. Their space in zoos could be better utilized for the other threatened species in terms of conservation value.
Big cats are both flagship and umbrella species and it makes sense to consider them as priority species for educational display purposes. They help generate revenue as natural history attractions, which in turn can be allocated to zoo conservation programs. The downside is that they require a lot of space and it can be cost prohibitive to manage them in captivity. Dr. Sliwa considers a well-furnished display enclosure of 500 m² for a leopard to be adequate given our current appreciation for the needs of the species in captivity, while 1000 m² is needed for lions and tigers. However, he asserts that more space is required to manage a breeding pair and their offspring and few zoos offer such space or more for their big cats. Furthermore, I assert that it is important for public perception to house big cats in spacious enclosures as much as for optimizing health and husbandry needs. The public expects to see big cats kept in enclosures that they deem adequate enough in size. Big cats in captivity are largely inactive. But according to Dr. Sliwa this is a perception we have of their daytime activity. "At night, " he says, "their activity levels are quite different, and few studies have been conducted on activity levels of big cats or small cats in zoos over 24 hour periods." In fact, a dissertation supervised by Dr. Sliwa demonstrated that small cats exhibit the same activity patterns and distances covered as wild individuals of black-footed cats. So even though captive species of wild felids don't have to chase down prey and patrol territories to ward off intruding conspecifics their activities levels may be significant.
It is a commonly held belief that small wild cats are really much more low maintenance for a zoo in terms of required care. According to Dr. Sliwa, this again is a misperception. He said, "We have been keeping small cats in enclosures that are far too small and poorly enriched. In addition, we expect cats to change their activity patterns to diurnality to make them more attractive and suitable for visitors. They are not like managing domestic cats. Domestic cats do not cover distances averaging 8-30 km per night."
Small wild cats held in zoos are captivating ambassadors for their species and they could benefit immensely from exposure and publicity. Most people can only name a handful of small cat species, but as many as 28 felids weigh less than 50 lbs. and many of them are the size of domestic cats. If we are to save these vanishing small and medium-sized carnivores, we need to emphasize their presence in captivity and allocate more funding to study them in an effort to protect and conserve them.