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Omaha zoo scientist works to save the black-footed cat, one of the world's smallest felines
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Omaha zoo scientist works to save the black-footed cat, one of the world's smallest felines

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An Omaha zoo scientist is among a dozen or so in the world striving to protect one of Earth’s smallest cats.

You won’t find these scrappy, 4-pound kitties emblazoning conservation posters, like an elephant or a lion. You won’t even see them on display — the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium moved the species from its home near Red Barn Park to an off-exhibit space in the Desert Dome years ago.

Only about 45 of these cats are in American zoos, and only 15 females are considered quality candidates for breeding. The captive population has suffered from a high incidence of kidney disease, and the wild population is declining, now classified as “vulnerable,” one step closer to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “endangered” designation.

In the fight against extinction, the black-footed cat goes relatively unnoticed. But Dr. Jason Herrick, the first-year director of reproductive sciences at the zoo, is looking out for these little creatures.

“They’re really cool cats, and people don’t even know they exist,” Herrick said. “Unfortunately, they don’t make great exhibit animals. It’s a 4-pound cat and, like most cats, they sleep 18 hours a day. If it’s asleep behind a tiny little bush, the exhibit might as well be empty.”

Herrick traveled to South Africa last year to join a team of scientists tracking and studying black-footed cats, also known as the small-spotted cat.

He’s working closely with a team at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden to develop a method of artificial insemination that can help both wild and captive populations thrive by diversifying the gene pool. That prevents the need to take animals from the wild or move them to different zoos in order to breed.

In South Africa, he is part of the Black-Footed Cat Working Group, the only team of scientists studying the species, he says. He’s responsible for collecting semen from male cats.

In November, Herrick and the team tracked down cats at night with spotlights, canvassing the wild in a specially equipped pickup truck funded in part by Omaha’s zoo. They chased cats into bushes or dens, anesthetized them, fitted them with radio collars and took samples critical to understanding the lesser-known species.

Following collection, the semen was frozen and will be imported to the U.S. It will be stored in liquid nitrogen at Omaha’s zoo, where it should stay viable for the indefinite future. Someday, the sperm from those wild males may be used in attempts to breed captive cats.

Herrick is working with Dr. Bill Swanson and Dr. Lindsey Vansandt at the Cincinnati Zoo, modifying an artificial insemination technique that has about an 80 percent success rate in domestic cats. Fine-tuning the insemination process has been slow because there are few ready-to-breed black-footed cats in captivity.

“We may get three chances at it a year,” Herrick said. “If you don’t get any pregnancies, you don’t want to overhaul your procedure completely after only three unsuccessful attempts.”

This August, Herrick and Vansandt attempted to impregnate both of Omaha’s females through artificial insemination, but were unsuccessful. They’ve tried on several animals, but still haven’t had a pregnancy.

This year, the zoo is contributing $40,000 toward the cost of a new vehicle Herrick’s team uses to search for wild cats in South Africa. And they’re helping him travel to other zoos to fine-tune his breeding process.

The team is hoping to have its first kitten soon, but may have to inseminate all 15 or so viable candidates to get just one female pregnant.

“I think the home run would be to produce even a single kitten with that frozen South African sperm,” Swanson said. “Nobody has really been able to bring frozen semen from the wild and create offspring in zoos.”

That first successful pregnancy won’t just be a relief, Herrick said. It will also serve as a beacon for the lesser-known species, a light guiding the way to breeding cats without taking them from the wild.

Or, as the scientist put it: “Those kittens would be hugely valuable for the population.”

chris.peters@owh.com, 402-444-1734, twitter.com/_ChrisPeters

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