*[email protected]* Breeding large cats for private ownership

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Breeding large cats for
private ownership
General concept and conservation aspects
Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Private ownership – motives and obstacles
3. Safety concept
a. Main causes of violent behavior
b. Differences between species
c. Proper upbringing and training
d. Extensive training for the new owners
4. Conservation aspects
5. Financial aspects
6. Species selection
7. Responsible private ownership
a. Enclosure size and design
b. Safety for visitors and the public
c. Husbandry training and protocols
d. Training on proper handling
8. Operational concept
a. Project start – research & development
b. Animal encounters
c. Sales to private owners
d. Volunteer program
e. Facility evolution program
9. Conclusion
With the numbers of endangered cats in the wild dwindling, captive conservation becomes
more important than ever before. Due to shrinking habitats and continued poaching, many
species of felids are on the brink of extinction. As the pressure on the populations in the wild
increases and they increasingly face problems such as inbreeding and reproductive isolation,
their future is uncertain. The only way to give these species a definite chance of survival is to
maintain a sizeable and genetically viable population in captivity.
Traditionally, public zoos have taken on this task by keeping endangered animals, as well as
coordinating breeding efforts via programs such as SSP and EEP in order to maintain genetic
diversity in the captive population. However, all of these programs face a fundamental
challenge: space. Since they are mostly run by public zoos, the only way to fund these
programs is by displaying the animals to paying visitors. While one or several large cats of
one species might increase the attractiveness of the zoo to visitors enough to make up for
the keeping expenses, keeping a large number of them does not make sense from an
economic point of view. This limits the usual number of animals of one species per zoo. And
of course, the number of zoos that have the means to keep such animals is also limited.
Together, these factors limit the number of animals of a given species per breeding program
to at most a few hundred. This is simply not enough to maintain a permanently viable
captive population that could potentially be usable for repopulation in the future.
At the same time, there is a huge potential for captive conservation by private owners. The
number of individuals who are ready and able to provide an adequate and permanent
habitat for endangered felines is much higher than the number of public zoos able to do the
same. Contrary to public zoos, private owners usually use their private funds to care for the
animals and do not need to recover these costs. This often leads to situations where a
private owner keeps more large cats than the average zoo. Combined with the much higher
number of current and potential private owners, this creates the potential for a captive
conservation capacity many times larger than the total capacity of public zoos.
Additionally, private owners can directly benefit captive conservation efforts by zoos in
several ways. We will discuss these possibilities in the “conservation aspects” section.
It is important to note that a private owner can benefit captive conservation efforts
regardless of his motives for keeping a large cat. Firstly, the private ownership facilitation
program can be designed in a way that guarantees benefits for captive conservation
regardless of the individual motives of the participants. Secondly, many private owners who
start with one animal that they keep for personal reasons expand their collection of animals
later and engage in breeding efforts, or begin to do educational outreach work with their
Private ownership – motives and obstacles
In order to effectively involve private owners into captive conservation efforts, it is
important to know why they own or desire to own an exotic or even large cat. The optimal
way to implement a private captive conservation program depends not only on the motives
and interests of the target group, but also on their situation and the challenges they face.
For the most part, private owners of exotic cats can be subdivided into three categories:
Private “exotic pet” type ownership
This group of people keeps exotic cats purely for personal motives, e. g.
companionship or love of animals. The animals are not exhibited to the public,
although friends are sometimes allowed to interact with them. Keeping the animals
serves no commercial purpose.
Private ownership for commercial purposes
These private owners use their animals for some kind of commercial purpose. This
can include animal ambassador and educational outreach work, training the cats for
use as animal actors, or displaying the cats in a small zoo-type facility. Very often,
such people work full-time with their animals and are professionals in their field.
Private zoos and breeding centers
In this type of captive situation, the animals are kept as part of a larger animal
collection or for breeding and transfer to other individuals and facilities. These
facilities may be closed to the public, opened only by appointment, or open to the
public much like regular zoos. Depending on the purpose of the facility, it may or may
not take part in coordinated breeding programs.
The primary purpose of this project is to facilitate the first type of private ownership –
ownership for personal reasons. While “exotic pets” are a very controversial topic, this group
of current and potential owners has the greatest potential for captive conservation. Firstly,
there are many times more people who want to keep an exotic cat as a “pet” than people
who dream to become animal trainers or educational outreach workers, or to run a private
zoo. Secondly, “exotic pet” owners have the potential to become involved in captive
conservation efforts even further. A considerable number of commercial and professional
exotic cat owners started with animals owned as “pets”, and even some private breeding
centers evolved from just one or a few privately kept exotic cats. Thus, owning an exotic cat
for personal reasons is the easiest and most common way to become involved in captive
conservation and offers considerable potential to recruit new people for more professional
and larger-scale feline husbandry. Of course, there are certain problems than can occur with
exotic cats kept as “pets”. However, they are not inherent to private ownership and depend
on the implementation. We will discuss ways to avoid them further below.
A very important characteristic of exotic cats owned for personal reasons is that most people
who dream of owning such an animal expect to be able to have at least some degree of
contact with it. Additionally, large cats are especially fascinating and most people who desire
to own an exotic cat specifically want to keep a large felid. Combined with the desire to have
contact with the animal, this presents considerable challenges to the safety concept of this
project. Fortunately, there are ways to maintain high safety standards for private owners of
large cats, while allowing them to have close contact with the animal. These ways will be
described in the “Safety concept” section.
Another distinctive trait of “exotic pet”-type captive situations is that most private owners
do not have a vocational or professional background in the field. Sometimes, the only
knowledge about proper husbandry and handling they have when acquiring their first animal
is some basic care information provided by the breeder. Obviously, lack of knowledge and
experience is very disadvantageous to both the welfare of the animal and the safety of the
handler. In order to address this issue, a special husbandry course and hands-on training
program for aspiring private owners will be part of this project. Particularly the practical
training programs will be crucial for ensuring proper qualification and safety. Firstly, there
are very few practical training opportunities for aspiring private owners, let alone programs
that include hands-on interaction. Secondly, hands-on training will allow the future owner to
establish rapport with his future animal under the supervision of professionals, further
increasing his safety.
Last but not least, many people who seriously consider acquiring an exotic feline erroneously
dismiss the idea as impossible, illegal or harmful to conservation efforts. The only way to
counteract this is to maintain an extensive advertising and social media program in order to
reach those who privately dream of owning an exotic cat, but don’t consider it doable.
Safety concept
Since this project aims to cater to private owners who wish to have contact with their exotic,
a comprehensive safety concept is paramount – all the more, as we will focus on large cats
due to their special fascination and high demand in the private sector. Contrary to popular
belief, most large cats are not primarily dangerous to humans due to predatory instincts, but
due to other factors, which are far easier to deal with. We will discuss these factors below.
Main causes of violent behavior (and ways to deal with them)
Fear or territoriality: A large cat may be afraid of people or view them as intruders,
which might cause the animal to become aggressive and even attack. This behavior is
rather predictable, as it occurs only in specific situations – namely when the cat is
approached by strangers (or zoo personnel at facilities with hands-off protocols).
Very often, the animal displays an extensive repertoire of defensively-aggressive
behavior before attempting to attack. This allows handlers (when working in direct
contact) to recognize the threat early and retreat in time. This cause of aggression
can often be dealt with rather easily by employing certain behavioral techniques. For
animals raised in facilities with hands-on protocols, socialization can reduce the risk
of the animal becoming hostile to strangers as it becomes mature.
Aggression over food, items or in frightening situations: Many exotic cats, small or
large, can become aggressive over food, possessive of items such as toys or become
violent when frightened by certain stimuli (e. g. loud noises). As with fear or
territoriality, this behavior can be observed and tested for easily, as it occurs only in
certain situations. It can usually be mitigated with conditioning and desensitization
techniques. Additionally, food aggression can be dealt with by feeding strictly in a
protected, hands-off situation even when hands-on interaction is the norm.
Generic aggression and predatory behavior: This cause of aggression is the most
dangerous and most difficult to deal with. Since the animal intends to hurt or even
kill its victim, the attack is often highly ferocious and carries a high potential for
injuries. This kind of attack is also rather unpredictable. The best way to prevent
these attacks is to work with a species that is rather non-aggressive by nature and
does not naturally view humans as legitimate prey. Additionally, generic aggression is
often visible in day-to-day interactions. Individual animals that display this trait can
and should be held back and not be given into private hands.
Rough play, play aggression: Many large cats tend to play rough when interacting
with each other, which often includes the use of teeth and claws. Since humans are
far more fragile than felids and don’t have fur for protection, a large cat playing with
a human the same way as with other cats can seriously injure its handler. It is
important to point out that a cat that plays rough with a human does not mean any
harm – it just doesn’t know its own strength and how fragile humans are compared
to cats. This means that this kind of behavior can be easily dealt with by proper
upbringing and conditioning, as it is done with feline outreach ambassadors.
Differences between species
Not all species of exotic and large cats are equally dangerous to humans. The usual
personality, behavior and aggression potential of a large cat depends on the species. These
differences in character have a very large impact on how dangerous a large feline is when
interacting with humans.
Of course, there also are enormous differences in size. The larger and stronger a large cat is,
the easier it is for the animals to seriously injure a human even without intending to. Thus,
the first species than can be eliminated from the list of potentially suitable species are lions
and tigers. Due to their size and strength, even very mild forms of rough interaction such as
“love-bites” or paw swipes with retracted claws can critically injure a human. In addition to
this, neither species is known to be particularly docile when sexually mature. Generally,
feline species that on average weigh significantly more than the average human are
unsuitable for private ownership with direct contact. The standards one would need to apply
to such an animal’s behavior and peacefulness would be so high that reaching them would
be mostly impossible even with extremely careful upbringing and training.
From the large cats with a more manageable size, leopards and jaguars are known to have a
rather aggressive personality and to be difficult to train. In addition to this, the aggression
they exhibit towards humans is genuine and may include predatory behavior. As we
discussed earlier, this type of aggression is very difficult to deal with and highly dangerous.
Thus, leopards and jaguars are not suitable for private ownership either.
This leaves us with a selection of four species potentially suitable for this project – pumas,
snow leopards, cheetahs and clouded leopards. All of these species are known to be rather
non-aggressive and often highly affectionate towards humans. They still might exhibit
aggressive behaviors, but this is usually either due to fear, or simply rough play. As we
discussed earlier, these causes of aggression can be dealt with easily and effectively.
It should be noted that while the clouded leopard is technically not large enough to qualify
as a large cat (by size, it is comparable to certain species of lynx), there are other factors that
make it an interesting option for this project. We will discuss these factors and narrow down
the list of suitable species in the following sections.
Proper upbringing and training
Even if one works with feline species that tend to be suitable for human contact, proper
training of each individual animal is still paramount to ensure human safety. Training and
conditioning has the best chances of success when done early on. Thus, we will focus on
methods that are designed for work with young cubs. Please note that pulling a cub from its
mother for hand-raising is not essential for most techniques. Interaction and quality time is
all that matters. When the mother herself is sufficiently tame, interaction with the cubs
should be possible without permanent separation from the mother.
Generally, most training techniques are widely known and already employed in the
professional sector, e. g. for film animal training or ambassador animal programs. For this
reason, we will not go into detail with the techniques themselves. Instead, we will outline
requirements, training goals and general guidelines for the successful training of animals
intended for human contact.
Affection and rapport: A very important requirement for a privately owned feline is
that the animal should enjoy and seek human affection and companionship. For the
most part, all species that come into question for this project (pumas, cheetahs,
snow leopards and clouded leopards) are known to remain affectionate as adults if
they had sufficient hands-on interaction when young. However, if this natural
tendency is insufficient in an individual animal, it can be additionally reinforced by
rewarding positive interactions with handlers. During all hands-on interactions it is
important to treat the animal with respect and to react to the cat’s mood and
desires. Affection should never be forced on a feline against its will, as this will
inevitably act as negative reinforcement against human contact.
Respect and appropriate behaviors: As we described earlier, a large cat can easily
injure a human without intending to. It is thus very important to teach the feline to
treat humans with care and respect and never to tolerate dangerous or otherwise
inappropriate behaviors. For example, certain behaviors such as swatting or playful
biting may be viewed as “cute” when the feline is still a cub, but are not appropriate
from an adult cat. Thus, the animal has to be taught that these behaviors are not
appropriate right from the beginning.
Handling-related habituation, desensitizing: In addition to proper behavior towards
humans, an exotic cat should be habituated to certain procedures necessary for
handling. This includes crate training and the tolerance to basic veterinary
procedures. For safety reasons, it also makes sense to habituate the cat to regular
nail trimming or filing. Besides this, it is necessary to desensitize the animal to certain
stressful or frightening events that may occur in a private captive situation, such as
loud noises or an unexpected delay in feeding.
Socialization: In order to be able to rehome the animal to the future owner and to
allow safe interaction with strangers (e. g. friends invited by the private owner to
“visit” his exotic cat), it is important to prevent the animal from bonding with just
one person. The usual method for this is to involve several people into the upbringing
of the cat. This may be accomplished by regularly rotating handlers and/or by hosting
carefully controlled animal encounter events.
It is important to note that selling the animals as young cubs is problematic from a safety
perspective. Firstly, it places the entire burden of proper upbringing on the nonprofessional new owner. Secondly, the personality of a large cat often undergoes
significant changes as it grows up. This may result in the animal becoming unmanageable
and even dangerous. Thus, it is highly important to hold the animal at the facility until it
is 1-2 years old. That way, any incident of an animal becoming unmanageable would
happen while still at our facility. Contrary to the average private owner, we will both
have methods to professionally deal with undesirable behavior and alternative
placement possibilities in case these methods fail.
Extensive training for the new owners
Last but not least, it is equally important to train the future owner as it is to train the
animal. Care information or basic husbandry courses are not enough. In order to enable
the owner to read the animal’s body language and cues and to recognize and deal with
dangerous behaviors, an extensive training program is necessary. It has to include
elements from animal psychology and appropriate training methods, as well as felidspecific information on behavior and body language.
In addition to the theoretical program, the aspiring owner should also have the
opportunity to acquire practical experience. We will offer such opportunities directly at
our facility. Not only will this allow future owners to learn exactly the same training
methods that were already used on their future animal, it will also give them the
opportunity to establish a relationship directly with the animal they are going to buy.
This will further minimize the danger for the new owner and also mitigate the rehomingassociated stress for the animal.
Conservation aspects
Private ownership of endangered species is and always has been a controversial topic.
This is not only due to the fact that not all private owners are actually willing and able to
provide the best possible care for their animals, but also due to the fact that some
people believe that private ownership itself is detrimental to captive conservation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Responsible and legal private ownership is
inherently unable to hamper any captive conservation efforts, as zoos and private
owners don’t compete for the same animals or the same sources of funding. Trade with
wild-caught animals of endangered species is banned by CITES and national regulations,
and only zoos may acquire them for use in captive breeding. Also, zoos usually run their
own breeding programs for endangered species that don’t take in animals from external
sources (e. g. private owners) unless the coordinators approve it. Besides this, private
owners usually fund the keeping of their animals with their own money and don’t
compete with zoos for donations or paying visitors. This means that there is no way
lawful private ownership can ever interfere with captive propagation programs in any
unintended way.
Of course, a somewhat valid point is that private ownership in its current form rarely
provides direct benefits for captive conservation. However, this is not an inherent
problem of private ownership, but is usually due to the fact that zoos are rarely willing to
let private owners participate in their coordinated breeding programs. To some extent,
this position is justified, as by far not every private owner is able to provide proper and
permanent care for high-maintenance animals. However, this is exactly what this project
strives to address. There are several ways how responsible private owners can directly
help coordinated breeding programs. The best way depends on several factors, the most
important one being the breeding success of zoos for the particular species.
It is important to point out that none of the approaches we will present relies on, or even
includes, selective breeding for docility or other traits. Selective breeding not only
reduces the conservation value of the animals involved by promoting traits that might be
detrimental in the wild, but also leads to decreased genetic diversity by reducing the
number of animals allowed to breed. In order for this project to have any direct benefits
for conservation, it has to rely on species that are suitable enough in their current form
and do not require selective breeding. Additionally, it is important for the conservation
value of this project to directly cooperate with coordinated, conservation-oriented
breeding programs such as SSP or EEP. This will make sure that the breeding is managed
in a way that does not diminish genetic diversity, and with it conservation value and the
health of the population.
The first type of cooperation is ideal for species that reproduce well in zoos, and where
overall enclosure capacity is the limiting factor. Since coordinated breeding programs like
SSP and EEP aim to achieve maximum genetic diversity, not every animal is bred. Very
often, individual animals (e. g. siblings from the same litter and of the same sex) are
considered genetically redundant and are not used for breeding. Nevertheless, they
occupy an enclosure in a participating facility that could house a more genetically
valuable individual. The obvious solution to this is to take these animals out of the
managed population and to place them with private owners. For our project, this can be
implemented in two ways: either by directly taking in genetically redundant animals from
zoos as cubs and training them, or by holding animals on a breeding loan and putting
only the genetically valuable offspring (e. g. one cub from each litter) back into the
managed population. The rest of the offspring would then be available to be placed with
private owners. In addition to placing genetically redundant animals with us, zoos could
breed more snow leopards than they were able before due to capacity constraints, and
place the excess animals with us. Breeding more animals is beneficial to both the zoo and
to the breeding program it participates in. It brings prestige and attracts additional
visitors, as well as provides the breeding program with a larger variety of animals to
choose from. A good example of a species that would benefit from this approach is the
snow leopard. It is successfully bred in zoos around the world and placement of “surplus”
animals with private owners would significantly improve the genetic diversity in
programs like SSP and EEP.
The second approach is well-suited for exotic cats that do not readily breed in zoos and
could benefit from the specific captive situation and care only a private owner can
provide. A prime example of such a species is the clouded leopard. There are decisive
factors contributing to their reproductive success that are often hard to offer in a zoo
setting, but can easily be provided by private owners:
This species is known to greatly benefit from the comfort provided by human
contact. Even AZA’s SSP guidelines for the clouded leopard recommend
zookeepers to tame and have contact with the clouded leopards in their care. No
such recommendation is made for similarly docile species such as cheetahs.
Private ownership is downright predestined to provide this kind of social and
emotional comfort.
Clouded leopards are known to suffer from severe stress if their enclosure is
placed next to the enclosures of larger predators. This is often the case in zoos,
where certain classes of animals are housed in a common “themed area”. Private
owners, on the other hand, can easily avoid this negative factor.
Studies have shown that contorted enclosures with many climbing opportunities
and hiding spaces are far less stressful for clouded leopards than open enclosures
where the animals are always in plain view. The latter type of enclosure is often
found in zoos in order to enable visitors to observe the animal at all times. Private
owners do not need this and can provide their clouded leopard with an optimal
enclosure design.
Enrichment of any kind – environmental, behavioral or social – is also known to
drastically lower the stress level in captive clouded leopards. Very often,
enrichment is time-consuming and zookeepers do not have the time to provide it
to the necessary degree. This is not the case with private owners, who are able
and willing to spend many hours a day with their animal.
Male clouded leopards are known to frequently kill their mates during mating.
This is often attributed to stress due to being kept in captivity. In addition to the
stress-reducing measures described above, private owners can watch the mates
during mating and intervene if the male becomes too aggressive. Zoo staff often
don’t have the time to do this, while this is usually not an issue for private
As one can see, private ownership has the potential to offer clouded leopards far better
keeping conditions than those provided by most zoos. That way, private owners could
directly participate in captive conservation efforts by breeding these animals within a
coordinated, conservation-oriented program. The best way to utilize this potential is to
directly involve private owners into coordinated breeding efforts. Of course, some of the
policies and protocols usually employed in SSP/EEP, such as the practice of frequently
transferring animals between facilities, would need to be adjusted to the needs and
interests of private owners. A good compromise would be to leave adult breeding pairs
with their owners whenever possible, and to only transfer cubs and sub-adult animals.
This would also be in line with the specific needs of the clouded leopard, as this species
does not adjust well to re-homing anyway.
We will not make any speculations as to what approach would be best for the cheetah as
the third possible species. Cheetahs are known to be very docile and rather easy to keep
and handle, but exceptionally hard to breed in captivity. Wild-caught cheetahs were
commonly kept as pets in many African countries until rather recently, but they almost
never reproduced in captivity. Thus, there is no indication that private owners could
breed them with greater success than zoos, which would be necessary for approach 2 to
be suitable for this species. And since zoos also don’t have great success in breeding the
species, approach 1 would not work either. In order to find out whether there is a way
private owners can help captive conservation efforts in cheetahs, more research is
necessary as to what factors play a role in their reproductive success in captivity.
Last but not least, there is a fourth potentially suitable species: the puma. Discussing
conservation aspects for this species is a moot point, as it is not endangered in the first
place. Besides this, it is perhaps the least docile and most aggressive species of the four
species in question. From a conservation point of view, it does not make sense for this
project to work with pumas.
Financial aspects
Besides the conservation value, a very important part of this project is economic viability.
Since the concept of the project includes very long, elaborate and expensive training of
the animals, it is important to take measures to recover all these costs.
As with the conservation aspects, species selection plays a crucial role here. This project
can only work with species that are not readily available on the private market.
Otherwise, we won’t be able to compete with existing commercial breeders who
typically sell their animals as cubs and thus don’t have the same expenses as our project
will have. In order to cover the high expenses related to long-term and labor-intensive
animal training, we will need to charge rather high buying prices for our animals.
This factor might be somewhat mitigated by the fact that our project aims to cater to
potential private owners who don’t keep an exotic feline yet. The initial expenses for
building the necessary facilities can easily reach $100,000 and more, especially in
densely-populated countries with strict safety regulations like Germany. This is due to
the fact that even if the aspiring private owner already owns a house with a piece of
land, it is often located in a residential area where zoning or other regulations do not
allow the keeping of large predators. Instead, the owner is required to purchase another
piece of land in a more suitable location. If this parcel does not already have a house
erected on it (e. g. a former farmstead) and the owner wishes to live close to his animal,
he will be required to build on-site living quarters there. Thus, the facility construction
costs (which are largely independent of the species of felid in question) are many times
higher than the buying price for even the most expensive exotic feline. Due to this, the
overall cost of acquiring a cheaper exotic feline may be only marginally lower than the
overall cost of purchasing a properly raised animal from us. We can further reinforce this
effect by offering important services for a fee (e. g. enclosure design and husbandry
courses), but with deductions on subsequent animal purchases from us.
Some cost savings can also be achieved by relying on volunteers for certain tasks, e. g.
socialization. Many people dream to work with large cats, especially if this work involves
direct contact. It should not be too difficult to find participants for a volunteer program
or even permanent staff who are willing to work on a voluntary basis. A possible
approach would be to provide on-site quarters for permanent volunteers, so that they
can work on their regular day jobs and care for our cats in their free time without having
to travel to and from our site. For the volunteer, this experience would be very close to
actually owning exotic felines himself, which would make this program very attractive.
In addition to the achievable market price, the species in question should be in rather
high demand by facilities other than private owners. Even with optimal upbringing and
training, a certain percentage of animals will turn out to be unsuitable for exotic pet
ownership due to predispositions in character. It is important to not only keep this
percentage as low as possible, but also to make sure that unsuitable individuals can be
placed somewhere else. Otherwise, our facility would be forced to house and care for
them for the rest of their lifespan. The best way to achieve this is to take part in
programs such as SSP or EEP. Public zoos with hands-off protocols usually don’t mind
their animals to be shy or aggressive to humans. Some zoos even place special emphasis
on the “wild” character of the animals they house and might be very interested in
individuals with “naturally wild” character that are “resistant” to taming efforts.
Cooperation with SSP or EEP will ensure that the animals have a conservation value and
thus are valuable to public zoos.
It is also important to point out that any amount of selective breeding does not make
sense from an economical point of view. Even if one casts all conservation considerations
aside, selective breeding would mean that only part of the animals kept at our facility
could be allowed to breed. This would mean that we would have to keep and care for far
more animals at our facility in relation to the animals we could sell, which would increase
our expenses in relation to the revenue. Besides this, there would also be the question
where to place all the animals that don’t pass the selection criteria. Keeping them at our
facility would not make sense, as these animals couldn’t be allowed to breed. The
demand from private zoos and similar facilities would be covered very quickly, and public
zoos most likely wouldn’t be interested in the animals as selective breeding drastically
reduces their conservation value.
In summary, it can be stated that from a financial point of view, the only species in
question are the ones where almost all individuals are suitable for private ownership,
provided that they are brought up properly. That way, selective breeding will not be
required and the project can be connected to coordinated breeding efforts that breed
for genetic diversity and conservation value.
Species selection
In the previous sections of this text, we have laid out the requirements for species of
felids in order to be suitable for this project. Briefly summarized, these are the following:
Must either be a large feline or have some other special appeal for private owners
Must not be available to private owners already, at least not at a low price
Must be naturally docile and non-aggressive towards humans
Should not have a significant percentage of individuals that turn out to be unsuitable
for keeping as exotic pets even after optimal upbringing and socialization
Should adapt to re-homing and change of handlers reasonably well
Should be endangered and in need of additional keeping capacity in captivity
Earlier, we mentioned the puma as a possible candidate for this project. One can see
immediately that this species does not fulfill several requirements. Pumas are listed by
the IUCN as “Least Concern” and do not require additional space in captivity. They are
widely available in the private sector and their level of aggression towards humans is
barely low enough to make them suitable exotic pets at all, let alone for inexperienced
handlers. All these factors make the puma an unsuitable species for this project.
The remaining three species in question are the cheetah, the clouded leopard and the
snow leopard. Other big cats are too aggressive towards humans to be considered safe
for private ownership, and other small cats are either not endangered enough, already
available in the private sector and/or don’t have any special appeal for potential private
owners who specifically dream of a larger feline.
The cheetah already has a long tradition as an exotic pet. In many African countries,
cheetahs have been caught in the wild and kept as pets or hunting companions for
centuries. This practice only fell into disuse as the wild cheetah population declined to
the point where taking them from the wild for keeping as pets became unsustainable.
Their tameability and peaceful attitude towards humans is beyond debate.
Unfortunately, cheetahs are very hard to breed in captivity. In their century-long history
as exotic pets, cheetahs have almost never reproduced in captivity. Only recently, zoos
and other zoological institutions have been able to breed cheetahs in captive settings
that were not near-natural. For our project, this means that we will face the same
difficulties in reproducing this species, especially in the numbers required for widespread
private ownership. Unlike with clouded leopards, there are no known factors that
enhance the reproductive success of cheetahs and that can be provided by private
owners, but not by zoos. Due to this, we are unable to come up with an approach that
would allow private owners to work together with coordinated breeding programs, so
that privately owned cheetahs would have high conservation value. Obviously, the
difficulty in breeding cheetahs also means that programs like SSP and EEP will rarely, if
ever, have excess animals that they might wish to place outside of zoos.
As we described earlier in the “Conservation aspects” section, things are completely
different for the clouded leopard. Like the cheetah, it is often kept as an exotic pet in
countries where it can be found in the wild. It is also known to be very challenging to
breed in captivity. Unlike with the cheetah, however, there are many factors that benefit
the reproductive success of the clouded leopard in captivity and that are often difficult to
provide in a zoo setting, but can easily be offered by private owners. We already
described those factors in the “Conservation aspects” section. This makes clouded
leopards a suitable species for breeding by private owners within programs like SSP and
EEP. However, one also needs to consider that there are other difficulties in breeding this
species, which our main target group, inexperienced private owners, probably won’t be
able to deal with. This leaves clouded leopards as an interesting choice for a later
expansion of the project once enough experienced private owners are available. At the
moment, however, clouded leopards are not the optimal option for us.
These considerations leave us with one remaining species: the snow leopard. Like
cheetahs and clouded leopards, snow leopards are known to have a docile and laid-back
disposition towards humans, can be tamed very easily, often develop close bonds with
their handlers and are extremely unlikely to attack humans. Unlike the other two
species, however, snow leopards reproduce very well in captivity. Programs like SSP and
EEP are often filled to capacity with snow leopards, and additional space in captivity will
greatly benefit these programs. Even if private owners are not directly involved in
coordinated breeding efforts, simply removing animals with low genetic value from the
SSP or EEP population will free up space for more valuable individuals. We already
described these potential benefits and a possible approach to cooperation in detail in the
“Conservation aspects” section.
In addition, the plentiful availability of snow leopards within coordinated breeding
programs and the good reproductive success in captivity means that enough animals are
available to establish widespread private ownership of this species. Also, snow leopards
are known to be able to live in captivity in a variety of climatic conditions, ranging from
very cold climates to rather hot and arid regions. This makes it possible to offer them to
private owners in many countries regardless of the climate there. Together, all these
factors make snow leopards the optimal choice for our project.
Responsible private ownership
Now, since we defined the requirements for the safety of the owner and for
conservation value, the last important requirement is the welfare of the animals and the
safety of the public. Contrary to the belief of many members of the public and even
some people in the zoo branch, private ownership of exotic felines does not imply
keeping them in the house, feeding them canned cat food or walking them on a leash
around the block. Surely, there are cases of inadequate or even abusive keeping
conditions, but they are the exception and not the norm. Many private owners can attest
that the captive situation of their exotic felines is on par with the conditions in many
zoos. In order to ensure that everyone who acquires an animal from our project keeps it
in optimal conditions, we will outline the requirements that we are going to place on our
aspiring customers and their facilities.
Enclosure size and design
The required enclosure size depends not only on the species, but also on the amount of
enrichment the animal is provided with. Zoos often have quite spacious enclosures, but
the amount of additional stimulation for the animal is usually limited. Conversely, private
owners are able to offer different kinds of enrichment to their animals, ranging from an
enclosure design with lots of climbing opportunities and vantage points to emotional
comfort provided by human contact. This can easily make up for enclosure sizes that are
smaller than the ones found in good zoos.
Generally, the minimum enclosure size for a snow leopard should be an outdoor
enclosure of 100m² or the legal minimum size, whichever is larger. Indoor enclosures are
not essential for this species, but are nevertheless a useful addition. Part of the
enclosure has to be separable from the rest in order to confine the animal there if
necessary. For breeding pairs, two separable compartments (main enclosure not
included) are necessary. This will ensure that if for some reason the animals need to be
separated and one animal occupies one compartment, the other animal can still be
locked away in the other compartment so that the main enclosure can be entered safely.
On the subject of safety, the enclosure needs to have all features necessary for hands-off
handling and care. While direct contact between animal and human is one of the core
aspects of this project, we recognize that situations can occur where it needs to be
avoided. These can range from a personality change of the animal to the need to take in
another animal that isn’t tame. Any exotic feline owner has to be prepared for this kind
of situation.
As we mentioned earlier, sufficient enrichment is at least as important as enclosure size.
Since private owners do not need to exhibit their felines to the public, the enclosure can
and should have several denning and hiding areas, as well as plenty of climbing
opportunities, scratching posts and vantage points. Additionally, permanent playing
opportunities such as an old car tire suspended on a rope can be installed.
Additionally, we would recommend providing an enclosure size of at least 200m² or
twice the legal minimum size, whichever is higher. This kind of enclosure should be
dividable in two or more parts, each of which should be at least 100m² large or meet the
legal size minimum. Such an enclosure design would provide reserve capacity for another
animal if necessary, while giving the feline living in it the advantage of a larger enclosure
in normal times. Each half of the enclosure should have all the features to be operable as
a stand-alone enclosure. While we will not require this enclosure design, we will strongly
recommend it to all aspiring buyers and give preference to those who can provide it.
That way, we will ensure that there is substantial reserve capacity to place any exotic
feline from within our project that is in need of a new home.
Safety for visitors and the public
As we described earlier, the main motivation of private ownership is to build a
relationship with the feline and to have physical contact with it. In order to be able to do
this as often as possible, private owners are tempted to keep exotic felines in the house,
or at least to regularly take them there. This practice is highly problematic, as most
houses have no provisions against animal escapes. Also, they are rarely “exotic-catproof”, which places both the furniture at risk of severe damage and the cat at risk of
A safer solution than letting the feline into the house is to build a “contact room” or
“contact area” within the animal’s enclosure. This area has to be constructed and
secured like a regular indoor or outdoor enclosure, but additionally can be equipped with
suitable furniture in order to enable the owner to spend time there comfortably. The
best choice for this would be outdoor furniture. It is waterproof, and thus can withstand
both urine marking and the required cleaning afterwards. In case of metal furniture, it is
also scratch-proof. Since felines are known to often mark items and places they like,
these are important properties for furniture in large cat enclosures.
If the owner wishes to spend even more time with his feline in the contact room, he can
also equip it with more sensitive items. This equipment needs to either be shielded (e. g.
a TV in an acrylic glass box), locked away (e. g. a folding bed) or the owner has to take it
with him when leaving the enclosure (e. g. a laptop). This way, he will be able to spend as
much time with his exotic feline as he wants and even do some work from inside his
enclosure, all without taking the animal into the house.
In order to ensure total public safety, an additional perimeter fence has to be erected
around the enclosure. It will keep members of the public from having unauthorized
contact with the feline through the enclosure fence, as well as provide an additional line
of defense in case of an escape.
Husbandry training and protocols
Another important part of responsible keeping is that the owner needs to have the
necessary skills and knowledge about husbandry and basic veterinary procedures, as well
as written protocols (i. e. a compilation of instructions and information) about these
topics as a reference.
In order to ensure that the protocols are relevant and that the owners are familiar with
their contents, we will talk all protocols through with them. For the nutritional protocol,
this means that we will discuss where the owners intend to purchase the meat and, if
necessary, vitamin supplements, and put together an individual feeding schedule. For
the veterinary protocol, it means that we will provide aspiring private owners with a list
of relevant veterinary procedures (both prophylaxis and treatment) and require them to
find one or several veterinarians that together can conduct all of them for the species in
question. For all other protocols, it means that their contents will be included in our
husbandry course and relevant for its exam. Additionally, all participants of our
husbandry course will receive copies of relevant written materials at no extra cost.
As is right and proper for exotic feline husbandry, the protocols will also cover
environmental and behavioral enrichment. While interaction with the owner will already
provide a lot of stimulation, additional enrichment (e. g. by novel scents or objects) can
never hurt. We assume that private owners will be very creative about this, so the
protocols will mainly focus on keeping this kind of enrichment safe for the animal. This
includes only using appropriate and robust toys and other objects that cannot be
destroyed and ingested easily.
Training on proper handling
Besides husbandry knowledge, an important part of our concept is to teach aspiring
private owners how to handle their felines properly. Human safety doesn’t come solely
from proper animal training and upbringing – it also depends on the behavior of the
handler. In addition, we want to enable the future owners to raise cubs to the same
standards we do, and deal with behavioral problems of their animals on their own.
In order to enable them to do this, we will teach them the same methods that we will
use for the training and upbringing of our animals. The training will also include
instructions for organizing and supervising animal encounters. Many private owners will
want to show off their large cat to their friends and let them have contact with it. This
kind of encounter should follow the same rules and safety precautions as a commercially
organized animal encounter at a larger facility.
Operational concept
In the previous sections, we defined conditions under which large cats can be established
as common privately-owned animals while maintaining human safety and conservation
value. With these requirements outlined, it is now time to amalgamate them into an
integral operational concept for our project.
Project start – research & development
The most economical way to start this project is to construct a small facility with 1-2
enclosures and on-site living quarters. This will allow the handlers to spend many hours a
day with the animals, which is quite important for taming success. If we receive our first
animals as adults, our initial work will focus on taming them to the point where
interaction with non-professionals becomes possible. If we receive them as cubs, we will
focus on proper upbringing so that they will be safe to have contact with as adults.
Either way, we will meticulously record the methods used and the results achieved.
These records will form the basis for our research on successful taming and upbringing
methods. This research in turn will be used to develop handling and training manuals and
courses for our customers. In addition to helping to keep our course curriculums up-todate, this approach will also ensure that the future owners handle their felines in a way
that is consistent with what the animals are familiar with.
While we are developing our training methodology and materials, we will also make the
necessary preparations for the next stages of our project. More specifically, we will
recruit additional staff and create the necessary technical and legal preconditions for an
animal encounter program. This will include careful evaluation of our animals’
personalities in order to make sure that the felines are tame enough to have contact
with the public.
Animal encounters
Once these preconditions are established, we will launch an animal encounter program.
Compared to existing animal encounter programs offered in some Western facilities, our
program will offer much closer and longer interaction. While most existing big cat
encounter opportunities offer only a few minutes of interaction and a photo-taking
session and the only permitted type of handling is petting, our sessions will last at least
an hour and permit the guests to handle the felines with full physical contact. This will be
made possible due to our rigorous animal training and character evaluation protocols
and the use of relatively small and docile big cats (snow leopards instead of tigers or
lions). We will also put this extended duration to good use by educating guests about
conservation issues. The intensity of our animal encounter sessions will guarantee that
these messages will stick.
Besides the educational role, animal encounters will serve several additional purposes.
Firstly, the revenue from them will help to offset the expenses for keeping the felines at
our facility for the required 1-2 years. Secondly, they will help in finding potential
customers by providing everyone who is interested in private ownership with an
opportunity to see for themselves what contact with a large cat is like. Thirdly, having
the animals have contact with many different people is very important for socialization.
Private owners of exotic felines often invite friends to meet and have contact with their
animal, and it is important that the feline is prepared for this. The exact implementation
of our programs will depend on their specific purpose. Tours for the general public may
be of shorter duration and mainly focus on conservational messages, while animal
encounters for people interested in private ownership may be longer and offer more
insights into captive husbandry.
Sale to private owners
At some point after the start of our encounter program, we will have enough animals
available to place them with private owners and will be confident enough that these
animals are well-trained and socialized for this role. We will then start selling them into
private hands. As we described earlier, or project will cater to people not previously
involved with captive husbandry of exotic felines. In order to ensure animal welfare and
human safety even with inexperienced owners, we will offer a very high level of support
to our customers. Additionally, we will hold them and their facilities to far higher
standards than most existing breeders.
Generally, the sales process will start with a thorough interview and consultation
regarding the potential buyer’s situation and motives for private ownership. During this
interview, we will make it very clear that owning an exotic feline is a life-time
commitment and that the prospective owner must be ready to devote almost his entire
personal life to his exotic feline. We will also discuss the initial and running costs and
make sure that the prospective buyer is able to bear these costs for the foreseeable
future. Last but not least, we will recommend the prospective owner to book several
animal encounters at our facility. That way, we will be able to find out whether his desire
to own an exotic feline is short-lived and can be satisfied by a few animal encounters, or
whether it is in fact a lifetime dream that will not wear off quickly.
Once it becomes clear that the prospect is able and willing to become a responsible
private owner, we will move on to the implementation stage. Based on our assessment
of the prospect’s situation, we will draw up an individual plan which covers all necessary
steps on the prospect’s way to private ownership. These will include the search of a
suitable location, enclosure design and construction, legal questions such as licensing
and zoning requirements and infrastructural issues such as finding a veterinarian who
can treat his exotic feline and a vendor for suitable food at a reasonable price.
Of course, the preparation plan will also include a training schedule. We will offer fulltime husbandry courses that will take about 1-3 weeks. They will be divided in a
“handling, taming and training” part that deals with behavioral and interaction issues
only, and a “husbandry” part that covers everything else. That way, we will able to
account for any previous experience the prospective buyer has. It will also make our
courses attractive for the professional branch of feline captive husbandry. Zoological
facilities that plan to launch an animal ambassador program might be very interested in
the “handling, taming and training” part, while the “husbandry” part might be interesting
for facilities that haven’t kept exotic felines before and want their staff to receive some
specialized training on the matter.
Besides providing aspiring private owners with the necessary training, the courses will
serve additional important roles. Firstly, they will serve as a platform that will allow
prospective buyers to spend an extended period of time with their future felines. That
way, any incompatibilities in character can be detected early. Also, the stress of
rehoming for the animal will be drastically reduced. Secondly, part of the courses’
content will lay the foundation for the aspiring private owners to increase their
involvement in captive conservation later. For example, the handling & training course
will cover the topic of organizing and supervising animal encounters. While primarily
intended to allow private owners to let their friends and relatives have contact with their
feline in a safe and responsible way, the knowledge will also be helpful in case the
private owner decides to start doing animal ambassador work.
Volunteer program
Over time, our facility will grow and we will increasingly need help especially for the
training and socialization of our animals. As we pointed out earlier, working with large
cats is a dream of many people, especially if this work involves direct contact with them.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the most labor-intensive part of our day-to-day work
(and thus the part with the highest need for volunteer labor) will be animal handling and
training. For this task, we will recruit volunteers both locally as long-term staff members
and internationally as part of a program similar to the ones offered by many African
facilities with large cats. Especially the short-term volunteer program will serve as a
valuable intermediate step in animal socialization, between handling by permanent staff
members and animal encounters with the public. It will allow us to have many different
people work with our animals, but at the same time provide these people with far more
training than we could with animal encounter guests. In addition to being mere helpers
in our project, volunteers will serve as important ambassadors for our cause. Having
enjoyed the delight of working free-contact with some of the most docile and
affectionate exotic felines, they will help us to improve the public reputation of private
ownership and to recruit additional supporters for our project. Some of them also might
develop the desire to own a large cat themselves, or spread the idea to others and help
us to find additional potential customers.
Facility evolution program
As we described in the first section of this text, a major reason why private ownership
benefits captive conservation is that a considerable number of people who start as
purely private owners increase their involvement in captive conservation later. This can
occur in many ways: A private owner might start to do outreach ambassador work with
his feline(s), expand his collection to keep a large number of them, breed them or display
them to the public in a privately-run zoo. All these forms of captive husbandry have the
potential to benefit captive conservation, as long as they are implemented correctly.
The goal of facility evolution program will be exactly that. Firstly, we will encourage
private owners to increase their involvement in captive conservation if they have the
means to do so. Secondly, we will offer information, consultation and training on various
forms of involvement and how to implement them in a way that benefits conservation.
Thirdly, we will help private owners who are interested in this to get in touch with
established professionals and organizations as well as coordinated breeding programs
like SSP and EEP. That way, we will make sure that our contribution towards captive
conservation goes beyond the mere creation of additional space in captivity.
With this concept we covered all preliminary aspects of a project that aims to increase
the number of large cats kept in private hands. We described how a project like this can
benefit captive conservation efforts in general and coordinated breeding programs in
particular. We also outlined the requirements for implementing it in a way that ensures
human safety, both of the handlers and of the public, and the well-being of the animals.
While we did our best to include all relevant aspects in this concept, we are aware that
describing the implementation in detail would go beyond the scope of a general concept
and should be covered in separate plans. Also, many details cannot be covered in
preliminary concepts, as they will only become apparent during the realization of the
project. Nevertheless, we hope that we were able to give everyone who read this
concept an accurate idea of our motivation behind the project and of the way we plan to
implement it. We encourage everyone involved in captive husbandry and conservation of
exotic felines to comment on this concept and to communicate their ideas and
suggestions to us.
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