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Love (Making) at the Zoo

Zoo Boise's new efforts toward more on-site animal breeding

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When Tashi met Kabita, he was in the midst of an identity crisis. Tashi came to Zoo Boise from the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Mich., at the end of 2007. Hand-raised by zoo staff, Tashi didn't know if he was a snow leopard or if he should be more attached to humans.

When Kabita walked into his life in 2009--rather flew into his life on a Delta Airlines jet from Kansas--he didn't know what to do.

Unlike her male counterpart, however, Kabita knew exactly what she needed.

"When we got Kabita, we were very excited that [Tashi] was going to have a chance to breed with her," said Zoo Boise Director Steve Burns. "Except when we put them together for the first time, he was scared to death of her."

It was up to Kabita to make the first moves, and make them she did: She rolled around on the ground seductively, let out yowls heard across the zoo and dragged her hips along the floor of her exhibit, attempting to get close to Tashi. Whenever she got near, though, he'd run away.

The tale of unrequited love lasted through Kabita's first year at Zoo Boise and into a second.

The zookeepers knew they had one more shot to get the pair to breed. Kabita has valuable genetics and if Tashi couldn't figure out what he needed to do, she would be pulled from the exhibit and sent to another zoo where she would have a better chance to have cubs.

Cupid's arrow came in the form of mild sedatives, which the zoo's vet gave Tashi to calm him down. After that, he didn't scamper away so quickly when Kabita came near.

"And then, I kid you not, on Valentine's Day two years ago, we had some visitors tell us that they saw some snow leopard action," Burns said. "It was sad because he lost all dignity after that. He followed her around like he was a little puppy dog. She would go into her den to eat, and he would sit outside and just wait. It was sad to see. It was just... it was over for him."

The matchmaking worked, and Kabita gave birth to two cubs named Marty and Ace in May 2013. One went to the Buffalo Zoo in New York and the other was set to the Roosevelt Zoo in North Dakota.

The successful mating of Tashi and Kabita marked something bigger than a love story. Snow leopards are an endangered species. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, only about 6,000 snow leopards are left in the wild, so increasing the captive population helps ensure the continued existence of the species.

That's something Zoo Boise is getting ready to do a lot more of.