Stepping Up to Save Black-footed Cats
There are approximately 75 black-footed cats Felis nigripes housed in AZA-accredited zoos or approved facilities in North America. These small felids are managed cooperatively, as a single population by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Black-footed Cat (BFC) Species Survival Plan® (SSP). AZA requires that SSPs develop a comprehensive population Studbook and a Breeding and Transfer Plan which identifies population management goals and recommendations to ensure the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically varied population.
The goal of the SSP is to create a sustainable population—one that maintains 90-percent genetic diversity in the captive population for 100 years. The black-footed cat population is currently at 84-percent but is predicted to drop to 57-percent in the next century.
The only way to improve this species’ genetic diversity is with the introduction of new founder animals into the North American population. There are only a handful of black-footed cats in European zoos and no black-footed cats in the two largest zoos in South Africa. There are captive black-footed cats in the private sector, but the origin and lineage of these are not always known. Wild cats are a potential source population but this creates a conservation dilemma. Fortunately, technology may provide a better alternative.
The Black-footed Cat Working Group (BFCWG) is comprised of five researchers based out of the McGregor Museum in South Africa. This conservation initiative aims to better understand the ecology, genetics, health, and reproductive biology of the black-footed cat in southern Africa. As part of this team, I have been very fortunate to observe this solitary and nocturnal species in its native habitat and to conduct research that may benefit in situ and ex situ populations.
One of my colleagues, Dr. Jason Herrick, is a reproductive biologist with a special interest in small cats. With funding provided by the Morris Animal Foundation and collaborators at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), he characterized the basic reproductive biology of the black-footed cat. Techniques used included fecal hormone analysis and semen collection and evaluation. Semen samples collected from captive cats in zoos also were used to assess different methods for cryopreservation and to develop in vitro fertilization procedures with frozen semen.
Through the BFCWG, Dr. Herrick has collected semen from five wild black-footed cats. Half of each sample collected was donated to the National Zoo’s Wildlife Biological Resource Centre in Pretoria, South Africa. The remaining samples were imported into the U.S.
Artificial insemination (AI) using semen from wild black-footed cats is becoming a viable option to increase genetic diversity in zoos. A new hormone regimen developed by CREW has made an improvement in AI success in domestic cats and ocelots and was recently used to produce the first Pallas’ cat kittens by AI. This procedure was recently performed but was unsuccessful in two black-footed cats, but efforts continue.
Recent advances in conservation science are very encouraging. Hopefully, we will soon be able to use the frozen samples from wild black-footed cats in South Africa for in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer with the captive population. The result would be the production of genetically valuable offspring without removing male cats from their native habitat.
Nadine Lamberski, D.V.M., San Diego Zoo Safari Park Veterinary Services.