A rare snow leopard cub was born with defects. Here’s how he’s learning how to walk

It was a momentous day at the Sacramento Zoo on May 6 when Misha, a rare snow leopard, gave birth to a tiny, dappled cub.

But joy quickly turned to concern as keepers noticed that the coveted young cat was unable to properly use his hind legs, which splayed to his sides when he tried to stand. He was born with a condition known as “swimmer’s syndrome,” a developmental deformity that forces animals to paddle their legs like turtles when they try to walk.

A small army of veterinary specialists have since designed and implemented a daily physical therapy program tailored to the cub’s special needs. The therapy involves, among other things, slings, ramps and walking and playing regimens.

The protocol seems to be paying off.

“He’s made dramatic improvements,” Erin Dougher, the cub’s primary keeper, said on a recent day as she used small pieces of red meat to encourage the cub to climb onto wooden structures, play with stuffed toys and walk across an outdoor enclosure adjacent to its den where he lives with his mother.

For the past two months or so, the cub, which has yet to be named, has been receiving therapy two or three times a day, supervised by animal specialists at the zoo and veterinarians from the University of California, Davis.

After conducting research and speaking to outside veterinarians about treatment of swimmer’s syndrome, members of the team fashioned cloth slings and special harnesses that they used to lift the kitten’s hips and position his legs beneath him to help him stand and walk. As his legs grew stronger, they placed him on surfaces with high traction, such as rubber flooring, to practice his walking skills. They also devised a wooden chute to support him and help position his legs properly while he walked.

The next step will be introducing the cub to sloping ramps that he can climb to further strengthen and reposition his legs, said UC Davis veterinarian Jenessa Gjeltema, whose specialty is exotic species. Members of the veterinary hospital’s orthopedic department also have consulted on the case, along with ophthalmology specialists who are overseeing care of a defect affecting the cub’s eyes.

Before they could go forward with therapy, the zoo’s staff first had to negotiate with mama Misha, luring her with food into an enclosed area next to her den so that they could gain access to her baby without causing stress or injury.

“Like any protective mother, she was not pleased at first, but she has adapted,” said Gjetelma. Now, she said, Misha seems to welcome short breaks from her active cub.

The pair of cats, along with the cub’s father, Blizzard, are no ordinary zoo animals. They are part of the international Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan. The program, sponsored by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, oversees management of endangered and threatened species at zoos around the world. It works with zoos on breeding programs, veterinary care and public education around animals that are at risk of becoming extinct in their natural habitats.

“The goal is to maintain genetic diversity and to have a healthy population in human care,” but not necessarily to release animals raised in captivity into the wild, said Lara Kirkendall, the zoo’s animal outreach manager.

Snow leopards, whose natural habitat is mostly in mountainous areas of central Asia, last year were removed from the endangered species list, but remain at high risk because of poaching and habitat loss, according to conservationists. The cats are attractive to poachers because of their distinctive appearance, including long tails that help them navigate steep slopes and thick, mottled coats. About 4,000 snow leopards are believed to exist in the wild.

Misha’s cub was the first snow leopard born at the Sacramento Zoo since 2006.

“It’s exciting. Any birth is significant for this population,” said zoo spokeswoman Laurel Vincent.

But the zoo’s attention to the cub’s needs is far from extraordinary at the Land Park institution, Kirkendall said.

“We put this much energy into fish” if necessary, she said. “All of our living collection is valued. We put everything we possibly can into every part of it.”

The snow leopard’s physical therapy sessions may have to end soon. Before long, the cub, which has grown to 10 pounds, will be too large and aggressive to be handled by humans, zoo staff members said.

Until then, veterinary specialists will use as many creative techniques as possible to improve his gait, which remains hampered by a right leg that is less functional than the left. The cub also is missing parts of his eyelids, a condition for which he is receiving regular treatments with ointment. He may need reconstructive eye surgery in the future.

When the time seems right, possibly later this summer, the cub will get a name and an introduction to the public.

The zoo’s keepers typically assign names to their charges, said Vincent.

They have yet to settle on the perfect moniker, she said. “But his father is Blizzard and his grandfather’s nickname is Avalanche. So we’re thinking about something along those lines.”