The cats are out of the bag. For the first time at the National Zoo, fishing cats, an endangered species vanishing from riverbanks in their native India and Southeast Asia, have successfully bred and produced young. On May 18, seven-year-old Electra delivered two kittens between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. in her den. But the steps leading up to their births were not simple—of the 32 fishing cats in the North America Species Survival Plan, a program that aids in the survival of endangered species in zoos and aquariums, only 27 of them are considered reproductively viable.
“Many months of behavior watch, introductions and research allowed us to get to this point,” said Zoo Director Dennis Kelly according to a National Zoo press release. “It’s very rewarding that our efforts have paid off. The future of their wild cousins hangs in the balance, so it’s imperative that we do all we can to ensure their survival.”
Only one other facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has successfully bred fishing cats since 2009 and the National Zoo hopes that its kittens will help crack the breeding code for the swiftly-declining species. Wild populations of the cats have decreased by 50 percent in the past 18 years, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature to change the species’ status from vulnerable to endangered.
The Zoo’s three cats are participating in a multi-institutional study that examines different introduction techniques for a potential breeding pair by looking at stress and reproductive hormones to determine if different strategies or individual personalities spell success or failure. Before, the father, 2-year-old Lek arrived at the Zoo in January 2011, the AZA’s Species Survival Plan for fishing cats planned on pairing Electra with another male using a set of criteria for breeding compatibility. But despite meeting these requirements based on the genetic makeup and social needs of the individuals, the other male and Electra weren’t interested in each other. When keepers introduced Lek to Electra, however, the cats seemed to hit it off, showing “signs of affection;” in fishing cats, that includes grooming and nuzzling. Their kittens will become valuable breeders because their genes are not well represented in the captive population.
But don’t worry, all of this media coverage won’t interfere with the family’s bonding time—the keepers are monitoring the mother and her offspring through a closed-circuit camera. Though the kittens will not make their public debut until later this summer, Zoo visitors can see their father Lek on the Asia Trail just in time for his first Father’s Day on June 17.
Get get enough of the cute? Check out more images of the National Zoo’s fishing cat kittens on Flickr.