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Amur leopard cubs at St. Louis Zoo owe their existence to ‘computerized dating’

The St. Louis Zoo welcomed two Amur leopard cubs last month.
Jackie McGarrahan
St. Louis Zoo
The St. Louis Zoo welcomed two Amur leopard cubs last month.

The St. Louis Zoo recently announced the birth of two critically endangered Amur leopard cubs. Born last month, the twin females are the first Amur leopard cubs born at the zoo since 2010.

It took an elaborate “computerized dating” program from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to bring the twins’ parents, 4-year-old Dot and Samson, together. Fewer than 100 Amur leopards remain in the wild in far eastern Russia. The program is meant to ensure their survival.

“It’s a structured breeding program. We don't just indiscriminately move an animal from St. Louis to San Diego to Chicago to New York,” explained Steve Bircher, the Kevin Beckmann Curator of Carnivores at the St. Louis Zoo. “It's all based on pedigree information — how closely related individuals are to one another. So the individuals that are least related, those are the individuals that we try to put together.”

Steve Bircher, Curator of Carnivores at the St. Louis Zoo
Danny Wicentowski
Steve Bircher, curator of carnivores at the St. Louis Zoo

Despite all of the scientific work that goes into finding appropriate mates, sometimes it just doesn’t work.

“We can't predict the chemistry, so that's the hard part,” Bircher acknowledged.

The two female cubs, Anya and Irinia, are doing well. They will remain in their private, indoor maternity den inside Big Cat Country for the next few months alongside Dot, who was born at the San Diego Zoo and moved to the St. Louis Zoo in 2020.

Father Samson came from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago in 2021. Samson likely won’t interact with the cubs because of the danger many male big cats can pose to their offspring; they could possibly be viewed as competition for food or for mating, Bircher said.

The work of the St. Louis Zoo is critical to the survival of Amur leopards. Bircher said scientists believe the remaining population of the species in the wild isn’t big enough to be viable. Inbreeding and the possibility of an epidemic could have dire consequences.

“Any of those factors could really make that population go extinct very fast. So that's why we need to have this genetic reserve in our zoos today,” Bircher said.

Anya and Irinia aren’t aware of any of that, but the four-week-old cubs are already climbing out of their first “crib” — a 12-inch-tall welding box — and beginning to explore their surroundings. They need to get big enough to navigate obstacles before they’re released to the larger enclosure.

“It's just really fun to watch them not only interact with mom, like they've been doing since the beginning, but now they're starting to play and wrestle with one another,” Bircher said. “That's only going to increase as they get bigger and grow stronger. They're gonna start chasing each other.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.