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Sand Cat Kitten (Felis margarita) born at Zoo Brno

Sand Cat Kitten (Felis margarita) born at Zoo Brno

We all know that cats have mastered internet popularity. Whether through adorable antics on Youtube, elaborate pun-filled digital images, or just general grumpy demeanor, the felids have demonstrated an unparalleled ability to thrive in today’s new media environment. Therefore, to please the cat-loving legions of netizens, I am dedicating today’s post to sand cats (Felis margarita), which are small cats which live in the deep deserts of North Africa, the Middle East, and southwest/central Asia. Also a trio of sand cat kittens was just born in Zoo Brno in the Czech Republic, so expect this post to get super cute!

 

A sand cat hunkering down in the deserts of Saudi Arabia

A sand cat hunkering down in the deserts of Saudi Arabia

With short legs, a stout body, and a long tail, sand cats are among the tiniest of cats. Full-grown adults weigh only 1.35 to 3.2 kg (3.0 to 7.1 lb). Sand cats live in discontiguous ranges—so they are separated into several subspecies which are evolving in different ways. The tough little cats thrive in the deepest hottest deserts—the Sahara, the Rub’ al Khali, the Lut—where they live without water by surviving on the moisture in their prey. Like all cats, they are formidable predators, but their hearing is superior even to other felids: sand cats have huge highly-refined ears which are capable of hearing tiny burrowing animals moving deep beneath the sand. They survive on rodents such as jerboas, gerbils, and spiny mice, but they also hunt small birds and reptiles (and they are known as a particularly adept killer of snakes). Sand cats have heavy fur on the pads of their paws so they can run across burning desert sands. They co-opt the abandoned burrows of other desert creatures as their own to hide from the scorching daytime heat.

 

A sand cat with a snake

A sand cat with a snake

Sand cat populations are diminishing in the wild as human development encroaches on the edge of their habitat–but the true depths of their hellish deserts are places where humans are unlikely to build condominiums, so sand cats are merely listed as near-threatened. Until recently sand cats did not do well in zoos, and they are a somewhat unfamiliar animal. Because they are used to profoundly arid climate, they would die of respiratory infections when brought into humid locations. Today zookeepers know to keep their sand cats in dry arid enclosures—which mean the creatures are beginning to do much better in captivity. In 2012, the first captive sand cat kittens were born in a zoo in Israel, and this year three kittens were born in the Czech Republic. Look at how adorable they are (well, assuming you are not some timid burrowing desert creature).

Sand cat kittens at Zoo Brno (credit: Zoo Brno)

Sand cat kittens at Zoo Brno (credit: Zoo Brno)

Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The magnificent American Bison (Bison bison) was very nearly exterminated by hunters, soldiers, and politicians, but the bison did not come nearly as close to extinction as its closest relative, the wisent (Bison bonasus).  Wisents are the largest native land animal in Europe today; an average wisent measures 1.8 to 2.2 m (6 to 7 ft) tall, and weighs up to 1000 kg (more than a ton). Although similar to American bison, the wisent is slightly smaller with larger horns and a hairier tail.  Whereas bison graze grass, wisents browse the forest–and the two animals therefore have different postures and necks. Wisents once roamed Eurasia from England to far eastwards of the Volga River where they were hunted by Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.  The wisent herds also ranged north as far as northern Sweden and south to Italy.

Cave painting of a Wisent (from Altamira, Spain, from the Palaeolithic Age ca. 21,000 BC to 13,000 BC)

In prehistoric times, wisents were a mainstay of European megafauna and beautiful cave paintings (among the first known artistic achievements of humankind) often portray the mighty creatures, but, as humanity burgeoned in Europe, the wisent declined.  Starting in Gaul in the 8th century, whole populations of the shaggy giants gradually disappeared.  The creature vanished from northern Sweden in the 11th century, and then from England in the 12th. Tiny herds survived in the Ardennes forest and the Vosges Mountains until Frenchmen finished off these remnants in the 15th century.

A Wisent Hunt Depicted on a Hungarian Stamp

The wisents’ best friends turned out to be the kings of Poland, devoted big game hunters who proclaimed a death sentence on anyone poaching the mighty ruminants within the kingdom. Sadly though, the Polish Crown suffered…setbacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although the Russian tsars (who seized the Eastern forests of Poland) tried to keep the last herds of wisent alive, by the twentieth century, the animals survived only in zoos, the remote Caucasus, and in the primeval depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest.  The ancient trees of Białowieża (and the animals living under them) remained largely untouched until World War I, when the region was captured by Germans, who built a railroad and timber mills there.  Within four years the remaining herd of 600 wisents was slaughtered.  When the Germans left only 9 of the beasts remained and the last of this tiny herd was killed in 1919 (probably by Soviet poachers).  The last wild wisent was slaughtered less than a decade later in the Western Caucasus, where a few hardy individuals had somehow managed to survive.

In the late twenties only about 50 wisents remained alive, all of which lived in various zoos. Fortunately an early pioneer of wildlife conservation stepped in to save the dying species.  Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich Zoo, established the first studbook for non-domestic animals and organized a groundbreaking breeding program to bring the wisent back from the brink (Heck was a determined and far-sighted man who also tried to personally resurrect several species of extinct megafauna—but we’ll deal with that quixotic quest another time).  Thanks to Heck’s ongoing efforts, captured populations of wisents started to grow and the animals were reintroduced into Białowieża in 1951.  The reintroduced wisents burgeoned and the forest is now home to more than 800 European bison. Wisents have also been reintroduced to protected parks in Russia (including the western Caucasus) and herds can now be found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Spain.  Germany and the Netherlands hope to reintroduce the animal in the near future—perhaps someday the wisent will find its way back to Scandinavia, France, and even Great Britain.

Wisent herd in Caucasian mountains (Photo by Sergej Trepet)

The list of presidential pets is many and astonishing. Each executive stands revealed by his choice of companion animal.  Additionally the animals’ remarkable names reflect different eras of American history.  George Washington, the father of the nation, started the trend magnificently with a gigantic donkey named Royal Gift and a pack of three American staghounds called Sweet Lips, Scentwell, and Vulcan. Thomas Jefferson owned a mockingbird named Dick.  Andrew Jackson kept fighting cocks (names unknown) whereas Martin Van Buren favored tiger cubs–at least until they stopped being cuddly. During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln kept goats in the white house yard as well as Jack, a pet tom turkey. Benjamin Harrison had a pair of gentleman opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. Naturally, Teddy Roosevelt kept a veritable menagerie of terriers, hunting dogs, cats, and farm animals, however his bristling nature stands most revealed by his free-ranging pet badger, Josiah, and his beloved garter snake, Emily Spinach.

John Quincy Adams, who swam nude in the Potomac every morning, kept an American Alligator in the guest bathroom of the White House!

Enjoy your stay at the Executive Mansion....

For the moment, I’m going to ignore the larger ramifications of that crazy list and simply use it as the lead-in to a biography of one particular presidential pet.  Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, was a small government conservative from New England known for his taciturn silence.  But Coolidge loved animals.  In addition to more familiar housepets, Coolidge’s collection included a wallaby, a miniature antelope, a black bear, canaries, a donkey, a raccoon, a bobcat, and a pair of lions.  In 1927, Silent Cal came into possession of one of the most remarkable animal figures in American history, a pygmy hippopotamus named William Johnson Hippopotamus, (1920s – October 11, 1955) AKA “Billy”.  The rubber baron Harvey Firestone presented Billy to Coolidge after workers on one of Firestone’s giant latex plantations in Liberia captured the 6 foot long 600 pound pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis or Hexaprotodon liberiensis—there is a taxonomical controversy surrounding the correct name).  Since the White House had limited space for the large semi-aquatic artiodactyls, Billy quickly found himself at the National Zoo–today called the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (although the attentive Coolidge visited him there frequently).

An adult pygmy hippopotamus (I couldn't find one of Billy, but I'll keep looking)

Billy’s life and times straddled a great dividing point for wild animals in captivity.  In the beginning of the twentieth century, zoos were more or less for entertainment purposes only.  Creatures were captured and exhibited for profit in circuses or for status in menageries.  When the animals died of stress, disease, or malnutrition, new specimens were obtained.  The National Zoo and the Bronx Zoo were both feeling their way towards nobler scientific and conservation ends, however there was still a whiff of the nobleman’s menagerie about them.  Good animal husbandry was frequently unknown or subsumed for larger aesthetic or cultural reasons.

Billy was a very “frisky” hippo and a mate named Hannah, was acquired by the zoo on September 4, 1929. Unfortunately Billy and Hannah’s first three offspring met hasty ends.  Although the Washington Post quickly concluded that “inability to survive the neglect of an errant mother was the cause given for baby Hippo’s demise,” it seems that human ignorance was more to blame. The pygmy hippos were initially kept in the lion house (a stressful environment for pregnant pygmy hippos!). When the pair was moved to their own lion-free facilities, their offspring did fine. Pygmy hippos became one of the first great success stories of the zoo.  Billy had many offspring and his celebrity continued to grow.  He attended the World’s Fair in 1939, and then acquired an additional mate in 1940 (when the zoo director ignored geopolitical rumblings to personally visit Liberia and capture a new pygmy hippo female).   Billy died on October 11, 1955 having outlived Coolidge by 23 years.  His last offspring, Gumdrop XVIII was born five months later.

Baby Pygmy Hippo!

Billy left a tremendous legacy.  The majority of pygmy hippos in America’s zoos are his direct descendants, and, as zoos improve their conservation programs (and their international ties), his progeny are spreading around the planet.  Additionally, thanks to his fecundity, his longevity, and his highly placed political and business connections (and even his simple hippo joie de vivre) Billy helped popularize a new conception of zoos.  Zoological parks are no longer a novelty or a diversion but a critical tool to understanding wildlife.  They are also a conservation measure of last resort in a dangerous world of ever diminishing wilderness habitat.

An orphaned baby pygmy hippo taken in by the London Zoo last year

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