Two new residents of Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo are the Amur leopard cubs born there in January.
Less than 100 Amur leopards remain in the wild in eastern Russia and northern China, near the Korean peninsula. They are considered critically endangered, meaning they could soon become extinct in the wild.
“They are the most endangered large cat on the planet,” said Beardsley Zoo director Gregg Dancho, noting about 200 Amur leopards are now under human care worldwide.
One of the Beardsley Zoo’s cubs is melanistic, a rare condition where the body produces an excess of black pigment, the opposite of albinism.
The zoo’s adult male and female Amur leopards produced the cubs as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP).
On a recent school vacation day, dozens of families lined up to look at the adult Amur leopards. The cubs, named Kallisto and Orion, will be available for viewing soon.
Spring is a busy time at the zoo, as it prepares for the warm-weather season while pursuing multiple projects to expand and modernize its offerings.
The nonprofit zoo in Bridgeport has more than 300 animals on 33 acres, and attracts about 260,000 visitors a year. It specializes in South and North American species but also is known for its Amur tigers, Amur leopards and red pandas.
Amur tigers, also called Siberian tigers, come from eastern Asia and are critically endangered. Red pandas live in the Himalayan Mountain region of Asia and are classified as endangered. The zoo features many endangered and threatened species.
Some other animals at the zoo include ocelots, Andean condors, red wolves, giant anteaters, golden lion tamarins, howler monkeys, pygmy marmosets, rheas, alligators, bison, and unique birds and snakes.
A new spider monkey habitat is now under construction and is expected to open in June. The zoo expects to house up to four spider monkeys at first, with the potential to begin a breeding colony to produce multiple offspring.
The new habitat will cost about $800,000 with one big expense being the high-quality, thin metal mesh used for the large outside area. Visitors also will be able to observe the spider monkeys in their inside space through a large viewing window.
“We try to make it so the animals can display their natural abilities and guests can appreciate that,” Dancho said.
He’s particularly excited about bringing back spider monkeys, which were last at the zoo about 25 years ago. “They are fun, intelligent and very active,” Dancho said. “They will greet you in the morning. I have an affinity for them.”
Spider monkeys live in Central and South American tropical forests, and some species are critically endangered. They can grow up to three feet tall.
To mark the spider monkey habitat’s opening, the zoo hopes to set a Guinness World Record for having the most people simultaneously link arms. It’s working with local Scout troops on the record-breaking attempt.
The zoo is also in the middle of updating its New England Farmyard, which houses child-friendly species such as cows, goats, chickens, ducks and miniature horses. A new program area will enable staff to conduct more activities for schools and other groups.
Work on a new $2.5 million Andean bear habitat could begin in the fall, and the zoo has plans to update and enlarge the tiger exhibit in the near future.
The Amur tigers are perhaps the most popular animals at the zoo. Two tiger cubs were born at the zoo about a year ago and now weigh more than 200 pounds each. They weighed about 15 pounds when first seen in public.
“People are always asking me, ‘Where are the cubs?’” Dancho said. “And I tell them, ‘You’re looking at them.’”
People often don’t comprehend how quickly some animal species grow up, he said. And despite being larger, the young Amur tigers “still act like kittens and are very playful.” Dancho said.
The cubs’ mother also is at the zoo and can be seen by the public.
A red panda habitat opened last fall and houses a male and female, also part of the SSP program. Visitors can view the pair in both the inside and outside parts of the exhibit. “Wherever they are, guests can see them,” Dancho said.
People who can’t make it to the zoo can observe a few of the more popular animals on the Internet. The zoo’s website has leopard and red panda cams.
While the zoo will always be a fun place to visit, it’s also a venue for educational programs, environmental activities and conservation efforts. In addition to its South American Rainforest Building and other animal habitats, the zoo has a carousel, greenhouse and cafe. Dancho said the zoo’s goal is “to continue to grow.” Other activities planned for this summer are a mobile scavenger hunt featuring trivia and other challenges, and Kids Week from July 15 to 21 with fun activities, workshops and live performances.
Beardsley Zoo will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2022. It opened after Barnum & Bailey Circus, based in the city at the time, and local residents donated animals.
For more information, visit www.beardsleyzoo.org.