Ocelots return home to Texas Zoo
June 16, 2011 at 1:16 a.m.
Name: Comes from the Mexican Aztec word tlalocelot, which means field tiger
Nicknames: Also known as dwarf leopard or McKenney's wildcat
Distribution: South Texas, Mexico, Central and South America
Habitat: Humid tropical forests to arid desert habitats
Diet: Rodents, rabbits, young deer, monkeys, javelin, birds, snakes and fish
Length: 48 to 64 inches
Weight: 11.3-15.8 kg The ocelot is considered to be a medium-sized cat.
Longevity: 7-10 years in the wild; 20 years in zoos
Behavior: During the day, ocelots sleep on a branch, in a hollow tree, or in dense vegetation. They are more social than other wild small cats. It hunts at night and swims well. Ocelots can travel 1-5 miles in one night.
Did you know: Ocelots once lives as far east as Louisiana, but their habitat has been reduced by agriculture. Today, only about 100 ocelots live in South Texas. Ocelot populations remain high in Central and South America.
The ocelots return home to the Texas Zoo may not have been as elaborate of a welcome as when Simba from Disney's "The Lion King" returned home to Pride Rock, but it was nonetheless monumental.
Born at the Texas Zoo, the now 6-year-old brother and sister ocelot pair, named Bonnie and Clyde, were lent out to the Capron Park Zoo in Attleboro, Mass. as 10-month-old kittens in November 2005.
They returned to the Texas Zoo on May 11.
"We wanted to have ocelots on exhibit because they are a native Texas animal," said Andrea Blomberg, executive director of the Texas Zoo. "We wanted to bring them home."
Blomberg, who was not employed at the zoo when Bonnie and Clyde left, said the pair was lent out because the Texas Zoo already had two ocelots, Bonnie and Clyde's parents, so there was no need for two more.
"The worse thing is to be a collector of species, just holding animals on the grounds," said Blomberg. "You don't bring in more animals if you don't have the space."
But not long after Bonnie and Clyde were sent away, the zoo became ocelot-less when both of its ocelots were sent off to other zoos as part of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums Species Survival Plan Program.
The program seeks to manage, breed and conserve animals that are threatened or endangered like the ocelots, who have been on the Texas Endangered Species list since 1972.
The siblings' parents died before they could return to the Texas Zoo.
However, Bonnie and Clyde were not brought back to the Texas Zoo sooner because there was no room for them.
Over the years, porcupines, a hawk and lemurs filled the old ocelot exhibit.
Coincidentally, the same program that took Bonnie and Clyde's parents away from the Texas Zoo is the same program that brought their furry, spotted offspring back home.
Blomberg said the AZA informed them that Bonnie had been tagged to possibly breed.
"Getting her here was just step one," said Blomberg. "But there's no guarantee that we can get a male in here to breed with her."
Clyde, who has been neutered, is not eligible for the breeding program.
The siblings, who flew into Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport and were driven the rest of the way to Victoria, were officially put on exhibit on June 14, after being held in quarantine for 33 days.
Since arriving at the zoo, 20-pound Bonnie and 45-pound Clyde have slowly become more comfortable with zoo staff and their new environment.
"She's the one who stays in the background. He's not," Blomberg chuckled. "He's literally growling at you while rubbing his face against the barrier fence. I want to ask, 'Are you really mean, or do you really want to be petted?'"
The siblings' adjustment to actually being on display at the zoo is also going well, as they can often be seen staring out at passersby, climbing tree branches or munching on low-hanging palm trees.
They are housed between the gray foxes and the American badger.
"I've grown quite fond of them. I love all my animals very much," said Nicole Kunefke, the ocelots' animal keeper. "That's part of being a keeper. Taking care of animals and showing affection."
She added, "I look forward to working with them in the future."
New Texas Zoo junior volunteer Sam Salazar also has enjoyed working with Kunefke on the ocelot exhibit.
"I really like it," said Salazar, 13. "It's a really cool job."
Because the ocelots were not handled growing up, zoo staff will not be able to go into the exhibit with them.
Blomberg said she hopes the presence of ocelots at the zoo will help teach visitors more about the importance of the Species Survival Plan Program.
"It's important they realize this animal once wasn't endangered in Texas, and maybe we can teach them why they became endangered and its effect on conservation and the environment," said Blomberg. "When I was growing up, it was about the bald eagles. Now, bald eagles have come back. That's a success story. Now, we can do that with other animals as well."