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April 21, 2023

Happy Birthday, Amur Leopards Anya and Irina!

On Friday, April 21, 2023, Amur leopards Anya and Irina turned one year old! Carnivore Keeper Jackie McGarrahan dives into their first year in the blog!

Author: Saint Louis Zoo Carnivore Keeper Jackie McGarrahan

Amur Leopard, happy birthday blog

Before April 21, 2022, it had been about 12 years since the Saint Louis Zoo welcomed Amur leopard cubs. Anya and Irina changed that in the best way! They were born to Dorothy, or “Dot” as we call her, and were sired by the male, Samson.

I will never forget the day they were born. It was late in the afternoon (3:51 p.m. to be exact) when excited whispers began making their way through the Carnivore Unit. We had installed cameras in Dot’s den space so we could monitor her from a distance. We all checked on them frequently in the days leading up to her birth window. At that exact time, I was walking through the Zoo, with no access to see what was going on, when I was alerted that baby number one had made an appearance! Luckily, our team is incredible, and we kept in constant communication for the remainder of the day. I finished up my closing tasks and ran back to the computer. I was able to log on and watch as baby number two was born at 4:31 p.m. I remember thinking how crazy it was to head home for the day when something this exciting was happening on the other side of the Zoo. I was ecstatic to be their keeper the next day! For the first few weeks, while we were in a critical stage for them, we altered our day to day schedule to make sure that the building was quiet and they wouldn’t be interrupted. We maintained this as our normal routine for a few weeks as the girls continued to grow.

Dot, Anya and Irina, blog
Newborn cubs Anya and Irina with Mom Dot. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo.

We watched as these girls hit all of the major milestones, and we celebrated every single one of them. One week after they were born, we saw both of them open their eyes. The next week, we did their first exam, weighed them for the first time, and found out they were both girls. A couple days later, we found an identifier to determine which cub was which. Even at that young age, they had distinguishing markers on their faces that could be used to tell them apart. One of the girls had spots above her eyes that were almost connected, so we called her “Unibrow”.

Amur Leopard, blog
One of the cubs during the checkup! Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Once we could tell them apart, it was time to name them! We knew we wanted to give them a name that represented the Amur region of Russia where wild Amur leopards are found. The whole team was given the opportunity to research names and submit them for consideration. The lists were narrowed down and we took a team vote. The winners were Anya, meaning “grace,” and Irina, meaning “peace.” The perfect names for these girls. Though their faces have changed and their spots have grown apart, we can still tell them apart by those spots above their eyes.

Side by side, Anya and Irina, Blog
Anya (Left) and Irina (Right) in February 2023. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo.

Once we identified which was which, it was much easier to keep track of each individual’s milestones. Irina was the first to venture out of the nest box, about a week before Anya did. Once the girls grew and gained strength they were able to go outside into their habitat for the first time. As they became accustomed to the sights, sounds, and smells, we watched them learn about their surrounding and become quite comfortable out there. We watched them launch themselves on and off the logs and rocks, climb all the trees, wrestle with each other and their mom, and explore anything new they found in their space. To this day, they still do all of those things, although they seem to have gained some knowledge on safety and aren’t as wild as they once were. It helps that they don’t fit in the teeny tiny spaces anymore! The girls continue to pounce and attack each other. They run and jump on the habitat furniture and continue to learn new things.

Amur leopard cubs exploring outdoor habitat, blog
The cubs explored their outdoor habitat for the first time in July 2022. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

The girls have become active participants in our training program, especially over the last few months. We are working to add new behaviors into their repertoire, so that they can participate in their health care. Both will follow a target pole with their nose and will have a couple more training behaviors approved soon. Just like any other animal, they will need their annual vaccines this summer. We are working with both of them to get them ready for voluntary injections when that time comes. They are doing well in their training, but we have some fine tuning to do before we attempt it!

Anya and Irina have really developed their own personalities in the last year. Irina may have been the first to get out of the nest box and the first to adventure outside, but Anya has become the bolder of the two. Irina is more reserved but still isn’t afraid to tell you what she wants. Spoiler alert: its food. They are eating machines! As of a few weeks ago, their diet is identical to Dot’s, and they all finish every scrap. They get a rotation of whole prey, bones, meat and some other special treats on occasion. Their first weight was right around 2.5 pounds, and they are now each over 60 pounds! They are getting closer to Dot’s size, but still have some catching up to do.

Anya and Irina about one year old, blog
Amur leopards Anya and Irina each weigh about 62 pounds. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo.

Anya and Irina continue to be ambassadors for all amur leopards. Amur leopards are the most critically endangered of all cats, with a wild population of less than 100 individuals. The Species Survival Plan population is about 75 individuals. This means that every single birth is important to the survival of this species. We are so fortunate to get to care for two little ones that will help keep the amur leopard population going.

To be able to watch this story unfold from the very beginning has been an honor and has been the highlight of my career. From Dot’s arrival, then Samson’s; to introducing the two of them and waiting for breeding behavior; to confirming pregnancy, then separating them as we got close to 100 days’ gestation; to watching Dot give birth, watching the cubs open their eyes, and watching them gain strength to move around; to seeing them go outside and taking care of them through every hurdle; this has been an adventure that we are all very excited to be a part of!

Happy First Birthday to Anya and Irina!

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