Wednesday March 31, 2004

Wild Cat Adventure III

Wild Cat Adventure is an educational outreach program covering the San Francisco Bay Area. The program is run by Rob and Barbara Dicely of Leopards, Etc..

The Diceleys are concerned about the fate of the animals on this planet. They believe in preventing extinction through education. Believing it's more difficult for most people to care for something they have never seen, Rob and Barbara bring their "ambassador cats" to approximately 150 invited programs a year, mostly at schools.

Several years ago, they expanded their work to include additional public outreach programs geared to families. They present four of these programs in the Spring and four more in the Fall.

Rich and I attended our third Wild Cat Adventure program on Sunday, March 28. (see WCA I and WCA II for details of past programs). This time, we arrived early enough for front row seats! (Actually, second row seats; the front row is blocked off to prevent anyone from getting too close and startling the cats).


Although Rob and Barbara do 4 programs a week, no cat works more than two days a week. The Diceleys have 12 cats who work in the outreach program, so they bring different cats to alternating "shows", giving the cats who aren't on stage a needed break. This was the third program (and second Spring program) we have attended. This was the first time we were treated to the caracal and the ocelot and I was delighted by both!

Along with Mara the caracal and and Chimane the ocelot, the Diceleys brought Denali, a Canada lynx, Kgosi, a king cheetah, and Umfazi, a golden leopard.


The Canada lynx ranges, in the wild, through Canada and the northern United States, as far south as northern Oregon. The North American lynx, or bobcat, takes over the territory from there and ranges throughout the rest of the United States and down into Mexico. All true lynxes have tufted ears and a bobbed tail. The Canada lynx also has really big feet, the better to chase its food of choice, the snowshoe hare.

In Canada, the number of lynx is considered "adequate"; in the US, the number is considered 'low". The US government has been trapping lynx in Canada and reintroducing them into National parks in an effort to increase the population size.

Denali is a handsome male who came to the Dicelys as a 4-week-old cub. He is now 12 years old and weighs 35 pounds.

When we met Denali at our first Wild Cat Adventure, he didn't seem very anxious to be on stage. This time, he appeared much more relaxed with the idea (except for the rather disgusted look he gave when Rob held him up to show off his huge paws). Unlike most wild cats, Canada lynx are fairly soft to the touch (sadly, the Dicelys don't give demonstrations, so I couldn't pet him :(. Denali was also in the process of shedding for the summer, so there was some fur in the air.

An audience member asked a question I was wondering about. Given that the lynx's natural territory is fairly cold in the winter, how do the Dicelys keep Denali cool? Barbara's answer was that, first of all, Denali lives in a redwood forest (sounds good to me!) so it never gets really hot. Also, in very cold weather, a lynx in the wild develops a thick undercoat; Denali never develops that much undercoat. And, for warm days, the cats are treated to their own pools (children's plastic wading pools. Barbara says Denali likes to sit with his butt on the edge of the pool and his front paws and chest in the water. I found the image most delightful.


Kgosi (pronounced Ko-see) is a male king cheetah, nearly 5 years old. The king cheetah is not a separate species but rather a variation in pattern and fur. King cheetahs have "racing stripes" down their backs and a "mane" of stiff black fur between their shoulder blades. Although all cheetahs are born with this mane, only the king cheetah retains it into adulthood.

The king cheetah is a rare variation. Only 35 king cheetahs have been sighted in the wild.

The cheetah is the fastest land mammal. When he begins to run, Kgosi reaches 45 mph after three steps. In 4 seconds he's moving at 70 mph. Every step he takes covers 20 feet; half of the time, all four of his paws are off the ground.

To make all of this possible, a cheetah's anatomy is optimized for running. Cheetahs have a long, slightly flattened tail that they use as a rudder. Rob held the tail out and waved it back and forth. Kogsi didn't seem to mind; I guess he's used to such minor indignities. (Speaking of which, the cheetah is one of the more dignified and regal looking cats I've seen... except when he's licking all the hair off of Rob's hand for security. :-)

Cheetahs have an enlarged heart, big lungs and flared nostrils. Barbara calls the cheetah the "original airhead" because of his extra large sinus cavity. Cheetahs are built for speed but not endurance; after 30 seconds at 70mph, a cheetah must stop and rest for 20 minutes. If he tries to keep running much longer, he'll run himself to death.

The cheetah is a highly endangered species; humans are killing 1000 cheetahs a year. Organizations such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) are attempting to prevent the extinction of the species. Through education and other programs, the CCF works with farmers in the cheetah's natural territories. They currently recognize 300 acres of cheetah friendly ranches. The CCF has begun marketing "cheetah friendly beef" in the UK and has begun paying people to harvest a thorny bush that endangers the cheetahs who live in the area (the bushes are being converted into salable firewood).

Unlike all other feline species, the cheetah has very poor night vision (but excellent distance vision in the day). To avoid lions (which like to kill cheetahs), the cheetah has evolved to hunt in the daytime, while lions rest. In daylight, a cheetah can track movement three miles away.

Unlike other cats, cheetahs have non-retractable claws which they use like cleats when running. A cheetah also has very short canine teeth and a relatively week jaw. To compensate, cheetahs kill by rearing up on their back legs and lashing the prey with their razor-sharp dew claws (the "thumb" claws). Barbara called this the "Zorro" maneuver.

Cheetahs are definitely cats, though, at least they meet one of my criteria for cathood. Cheetahs hve an incredible purr! Kogsi's purr was especially deep and rumbling. Barbara asked the audience to take a moment and listen; Kogsi's purr filled the auditorium. Barbara also apologized for not bringing the microphone any closer, but said Kogsi tends to whap it with his paw if she tries. Hmmm. That's also definite cat behaviour!


Chimane is a female ocelot, weighing about 17 pounds, but long and lanky and all sinuous muscle. Ocelots range from Texas through Mexico to Central America, but are not found in Chile. For many years, the ocelot was the most hunted cat for the fur trade; today the ocelot is an extremely endangered species.

My first impression of Chimane was "Grandma, what BIG eyes you have!". My second impression was that her coat was beautiful, ripply and stunningly patterned. I also thought it looked much better on her than it ever could on some human!

Ocelots are champion tree climbers. Rob and Barbara set up a heavy branch clamped to the table at the front of the room. Watching Chimane squirrel up that branch was a fascinating experience. It was the one time during the entire presentation that I really wished I had acamera! Ocelots have a specialized wrist bone structure that allows their wrists to rotate further than any other cat. Chimane resembles a spider monkey or lemur as she climbs the branch, underhand. Unlike most cats, ocelots climb up and down head first.

Apparently ocelots were popular as pets in the 1950's and 60's before the practice was outlawed. Barbara commented that the woods must have been full of released ocelots during that time. Apparently ocelots like to bite... everything. And they bite hard. Rob and Barbara call Chimane "the chomper". In addition, ocelot urine is bright orange (and smells bad) and ocelots spray; Chimane was spraying at the age of 4 weeks. Gach!

By the way, Chimane is named after an Indian tribe in Bolivia.


The next cat out was Mara, a caracal. Mara is almost 13 years old and weighs about 22 pounds. Unlike Chimane, Mara was calm, almost sedate, lying on the table and viewing the audience with a regal expression.

Barbara noted that caracals can jump as high as the (much more active) servals. She then said "We've trained her well. Watch. Mara? Jump!". Mara just lay there, serenely surveying the audience.

I would be hardpressed to decide between Mara and Chimane on looks ("Grandma, what big EARS you have!"). However, Mara wins on temperament.

Caracals are native to the hot, arid desert climate of Egypt, Turkey, India, and Kenya. The word caracal means black ears in Turkish. Although the caracal is also called the African desert lynx, they are not a true lynx as the caracal does not have a stubby tail. I think the ears more than make up for that, however; a caracal has ear tips that any lynx might envy!

Caracals are very strong and hunt alone; a 22 pound caracal can bring down a 100 pound antelope or an adult ostrich. Caracals can jump 12 feet into the air, snagging a dozen birds with their paws. Maharajas used to host hunting parties with caracals, feasting afterwards on the birds the cats killed.

Mara's mother, now 19 years old, was the first wild cat the Diceleys got. Although the wild cats tend to live 8 to 12 years in their native habitat, their life span is doubled in captivity. This doubling applies to all of the wild cat species except the cheetah. Apparently, cheetahs just wear out sooner.


The last cat we met was Umfazi, a female leopard. Umfazi is a medium-sized leopard at 70 pounds; adult leopards can weigh anywhere between 50 and 150 pounds (males larger than females). Leopards are often confused with jaguars; however, jaguars are a much bigger cat (between 200 and 300 pounds full grown). Leopards live in Africa and Asia; jaguars live in Mexico and Central America.

Before Umfazi came out, Barbara moved up into the middle of the auditorium, away from the stage, explaining that she is not Umfazi's favorite person. She said that up until 6 years ago, they were friends. Then Barbara took a 7-week trip to Africa, as she does every year. When she returned, apparently Umfazi thought she had been gone too long and was annoyed. They've never really made up. So, Barbara stays out of Umfazi's way.

There are two colors in leopards, the more recognized golden color with black "rosettes" and a black color, commonly called a "black panther". The black cats also have the rosettes, visible in the right light. Umfazi's mother is gold; her father is black.

Pound for pound, leopards are the strongest cat. As is the case with cheetahs, lions like to kill leopards. Leopards evolved their own way of keeping out of the lions' way; leopards are superb climbers. A leopard will kill a 160 pound antelope, carry it 50 feet up a tree, park it in the crotch of a branch, and proceed to eat. Leopards are also superb jumpers; Umfazi can clear a 14 foot fence in one try or leap a 50 foot chasm.

Leopards were put on the endangered species list in 1973. Today there are approximately 600,000 leopards worldwide (and some people suggest they should be removed from endangered status). The leopard is a species that has learned to survive around man. In Africa, on the outskirts of Nairobi, there is a national park with many leopards. At night, the leopards come out of the park and range through the city; in the morning, they are back in the park. Don't let your dog run loose through the night streets of Nairobi.

Last but not Least

At the end of every program, Rob and Barbara bring the cheetah back for an encore. I asked why it was always the cheetah. Apparently all three of the Diceley's cheetahs are very calm in groups of people, content to just sit on a table for an hour while people stand 10 feet away and ask questions.

As I have done at the past two shows, I hung out at the front of the auditorium for the next hour, asking an occasional question, listening to other questions and answers, and basically admiring the cheetah. My hands itched to scratch that fabulous mane between his shoulders, but, of course, that was not to be. On the other hand, even if I can't touch, it's a thrill just being near these magnificent cats.


Wild Cat Adventure III ( in category Nature/Cats ) - posted at Wed, 31 Mar, 12:16 Pacific | «e»