I was very impressed with Steve Bircher, the Curator for Mammals/Carnivores at the St Louis Zoo. First of all, his very positive attitude to a totally unknown voice asking for permission to see the cheetah cubs when they were not on display; then his remembering to call me back at the time he said he would.
When we met him at the Zoo, just prior to our being taken to see the cubs, we found a very competent person. He has been with the Zoo, he says, for the past 29 years, during which no less than 30 cheetahs have been bred. The Zoo is very worried about the shrinking gene pool of these animals (cheetahs have much less genetic diversity than the other big cats to begin with) and they have been getting semen samples from cheetahs wherever they can. Recently, the Zoo got two males from Toledo to help with the breeding program. The fact that Lucia and Shanto, the parents of the cubs, are not related, is a big plus for the breeding program.
Without appearing to, he did assess our seriousness. I told him about JLR and the voluntary work I was trying to do, and how the Chief Naturalist, Karthik, had been with WWF for 17 years. He asked the name twice, as if to memorize it. He then mentioned that he had often dealt with Ullas Karanth and would be meeting him shortly, to utilize his expertise with wildlife in India.
Steve has developed a strong relationship with an organization in Tanzania also in the cheetah breeding area and travels there once or twice a year. He recounted an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience in the Serenget in 2000.
He and a friend had gone on safari (two others chose just that day to stay back, they must have been related to me!) and suddenly, just as they were about to turn home for lunch, they saw a female cheetah on a tree, less than 100 yards away. She had made a kill and had dragged the impala up the tree with her, where it hung from a branch. At that point, three Thomson's Gazelles came wandering around and under the tree, browsing without seeing her. The cheetah perked up....and when one of the gazelles moved directly under the tree, the cheetah slowly crept down the trunk of the tree...and ....pounced. Dust flew as the gazelle thrashed about, but soon it was all over. The cat then dragged the gazelle's carcass up the tree as well...only her mouth holding the inert body as her legs clawed the bark of the tree for traction... draped that on another branch, and then resumed her pose, lying along the branch of a tree! Incredible to be able to watch all this!
At the first sign of the gazelles, Steve had taken out his still camera, and he showed us the photographs. I thought of karthik, and every one of my naturalist friends when I saw what was, to me, a real National Geographic sequence (though he didn't think the photos were crisp enough to send to Nat Geo.)
He told us about the King Cheetah, a rare gene variation which brings out irregular spots and three long stripes down the back and tail of the animal. He said the St Louis zoo had one such cat for some time, but now the only Zoo with such an animal was the one at Miami. He showed us pictures of this magnificient, rare animal.
He was very warm when I told him about Arvind Badrinarayan, who is a big cat vet who is currently studying at U of Ill at Urbana Champaign, and who has worked with all the big cats, including the clouded leopard. He said any serious naturalist could contact him for any help they needed.
By this time, we were well past the 12 noon lunch-time that he had talked about, so we reluctantly tore ourselves away and went to have lunch at the same cafeteria where they were heading (called the Painted Giraffe.) I ran back because I had forgotten to ask Steve about someone at the Zoo who would help me with the birding..and ran into someone coming out. It turned out, he was Michael Masek, the curator for birds! He told me that the birds of prey that I had spotted in Forest Park were the Red-Tailed Hawk and the Cooper's Hawk. (I spotted on of the former on our walk home, too.)
We then spent a few more hours at the Zoo, with KM clicking away at the Insectarium Butterfly area, and then going around, too. I will make separate posts of the animals, the plants, the flowers, and the various artificial displays the Zoo has….the St Louis Zoo has won the Best Zoo in America award several times, competing against very large Zoos like the San Diego or the Bronx Zoos….well it is certainly MY favourite place in St Louis, summer or winter!