Great Cats

By Virginia Dondro

This article originally ran in the March 1971 issue of Zoo View, the quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.

Lion of Africa sports famous mane. Males have been called easy-going loafers, gentlemen who let the ladies do all the work.

Feline fanciers think all cats are great. Men of science however, list only four Felidae family members as “great cats” or roaring cats, distinguished for the loud reverberating vocalization they achieve through an elastic ligament which gives flexibility to the hyoid bones supporting the larynx.

The Big Four—lion, leopard, tiger and jaguar—are the Panthera, great cats, and the only cats which really roar. All the others, regardless of size, must be content with a purr. Or, if discontented, with a snarl, growl, yowl or angry coughing protest.

Other large cats, often linked with the Panthera clan although they fall into separate taxonomical classifications, are the mountain lion, this Zoo View cover star; the cheetah, snow leopard, and clouded leopard. All are worthy of special attention for their size, prowess, great beauty and increasing rarity.

Cats may differ markedly in external pattern, in size, color, and length of leg or tail, but internally they are similar and share some readily recognizable characteristics. Their skulls are similar, producing relatively round, short heads. They possess cutting rather than crushing teeth and the surface of the tongue is covered with sharp papillae which serve as an aid in grooming and as a handy device for scraping flesh from bone.

Cats have muscular, supple bodies and great agility. Their strong, sharp, curved claws are retractile (with the exception of the cheetah, whose claws only partly retract) and perfectly adapted to capturing and securing prey.

Naked foot pads surrounded by heavy hair lend silence to stalking maneuvers. Most cats are nocturnal and all have keen sight and hearing. The young are born helpless and blind and remain with their mother until they have learned all the necessary hunting techniques.

These techniques may differ slightly from species to species—the cheetah will chase its prey over the ground at speeds up to 65 miles per hour, while the leopard prefers a surprise pounce from an overhead branch—but all are effective. Cats are the world’s most efficient hunters with an almost worldwide range.

Also to the cat’s advantage in the game of survival is a willingness to incorporate in its diet just about anything it can overtake and overcome. And with all they have going for them, that includes a lot.

Since early times when their histories began coinciding, man has reacted to the larger cats with awe, terror, admiration, greed, religious fervor, fight, or speedy retreat. The score remained relatively even, with the cats able to assure their own survival, until the advent of prolific modern man with firearms and a penchant for turning forest land into farmland and savannah into city site. Now the outcome is somewhat in doubt as each year additional species of Felidae seem destined for inclusion in the I.U.C.N. Red Data Book—the international list of endangered species in need of immediate protection to insure their survival.

Tigers are the largest of the living cats with a weight up to 600 pounds and a length of more than 12 feet from nose to twitching tail tip. All seven races, or subspecies, of tiger are now included in the I.U.C.N. Red Data Book.

Unusual coat pattern and the longest canine teeth of any living cat its size, distinguish the clouded leopard. Not much is known of its habits in the remote, secret Asian jungles it haunts. In captivity it can become quite tame.

Two subspecies are exhibited at the Los Angeles Zoo. They are the Bengal tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, which originates in India, and the Siberian, Panthera longipilus, from cold, remote forests of eastern Russia and Manchuria.

Siberian tigers are generally larger than their southern cousins, with thicker, lighter colored coats. They are especially fond of water, are good swimmers and climb well, although their weight as adults tends to limit this activity.

Unlike the gregarious lions, tigers are basically solitary hunters who like a varied diet and have been known to eat leopards, other tigers and even insects in the lean seasons. Like all the other large cats, tigers can’t resist the temptation of such easy, handy prey as man’s domestic stock, leading to a strong conflict of interests wherever the two paths cross.

Conflict arises, also, from man’s persistent belief that tigers’ bones, blood, flesh, hide, and sundry innards contain magical medicinal qualities that can cure everything from impotency to the trauma of childbirth.

Although the Zoo’s three Siberian tigers have not bred yet, a pair of Bengals, Henry and Hilda, produced three litters of cubs last year. A female born in March, a male in August, and two males and one female in December, were successfully raised in nursery incubators on a formula of Esbilac.

The handsome Siberian tigers are the largest members of the family. They are generally lighter in color, have thicker coats and are heavier than their southern cousin, the Bengals.

Lions, Panthera leo, are familiar inhabitants of open grassy plains in Africa. The counterpart in India, Panthera leo persica, is now reduced to a small group living under some protection in the Gir forest on the Kathiawar peninsula. But the desert is advancing on the forest preserve at the rate of one half mile a year, domestic cattle are overgrazing the land, and the Asiatic lion’s future is uncertain.

The African species seems safe for the moment. Lion cubs are born with spots and stripes which fade as they mature. Males begin to grow the famous mane at about 18 months and may weigh 500 pounds as adults. The species is represented in the Zoo by a pair of black-maned lions in the African section.

Jean Pierre Hallet, author of “Congo Kitabu,” calls the African lion “an easygoing loafer—a gentleman who acquires one or more wives, takes his pleasure among them, and lets the ladies do all the work.”

Hallet insists that it is only “young, unmated, demented” lions who become man-eaters and speculates that this dementia may be a result of “broken families and broken homes” among the social lions, the world’s only truly gregarious cats.

Scientist Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey claims that “human odor and taste are highly offensive to great cats” and they take to man0hunting only in-extremis. Actually, among the Panthera, it is only the jaguar who has never been accused of becoming a man-eater—although he has the equipment for it!

The jaguar, Panthera onca, ranges from southwestern United States through tropical and subtropical jungles, swamps, plains and deserts to Argentina. Larger and heavier than the leopard, with a more massive head, he is recorded to reach a weight of more than 300 pounds in the southern part of his range, about 250 in the northern. His coat pattern differs from the leopard’s in having black spots within the black rosettes. Like the tiger, he enjoys water and his diet includes turtles, fish, and reptiles.

Three litters of jaguar cubs, born to two mothers, were successfully raised at the Zoo last year.

The cat who most deserves the title “King of the Jungle” may be the leopard, Panthera pardus, pound for pound the strongest member of the family and the one with the greatest range—most of Africa and Asia. More cunning, wary, silent, swift, and agile than the lion or tiger, he leaps on his prey from overhead branches, can carry an animal that far outweighs him, and after dining, stores the leftovers in trees.

A cinnamon-buff color with black rosettes is the normal leopard pattern, but black or melanistic cubs may be born in any litter. A “black panther” is merely a black leopard and the underlying spots can be seen in the coat on close (!) inspection in a bright light. The Zoo’s adult pair of leopards are both melanistic phases of the Asiatic leopard. Five subspecies are included in current I.U.C.N. listings.

The mountain lion, Felis concolor, is the largest of the non-roaring cats and an impressive animal by any of his many common names—puma, cougar, panther, catamount, tigre. His range, the broadest of any New World mammal, stretches from British Columbia in Canada, to Patagonia in South America. Two subspecies, the Florida cougar and the Eastern panther, are included in the Red Data Book.

Mountain lions vary in size with the male larger than the female, but a hefty specimen may weigh 200 pounds. Adults are yellowish brown with white underparts, but cubs are spotted and have sporty ringed tails.

Listed as “less a danger to man than lions, tigers and leopards,” the mountain lion also has been accused of attacks on humans. One gentleman victim was wearing furs at the time of attack and the cougar’s defenders claimed it was a legitimate case of “mistaken identity.”

Although the main prey is deer, the mountain lion, like its large cousins, will take domestic stock when it has a chance. In recent times, dogs, traps, guns, bounties, and various official control programs have limited his chances.

The Zoo has a pair of mountain lions on exhibit in the North American continental section. Four male cubs and one female were born in 1969.

Despite the remoteness and inaccessibility of its range, 6,000- to 18,000-foot altitudes in the mountains of central Asia, the beautiful snow leopard, Uncia uncia, has been hunted almost to extinction. The few hundred estimated to be left in the wild are now protected.

The snow leopard’s long, soft fur with dark sports and rings on a pale gray or ash background, is so heavy it makes the animal’s head look small in proportion to its 90-pound body. The long tail and feet also are heavily furred. The Los Angeles Zoo has been successful in breeding this rare cat, with litters in 1968, 1969, and 1970. And although the adults have a reputation for great ferocity, the kittens have been docile and affectionate during their stay in the Children’s Zoo nursery.

Handsome Bengal tiger originates in India. The Zoo's pair, Henry and Hilda, produced three litters last year.

The clouded leopard, Felis nebulosa, is a beautifully patterned cat with varying oval, rosette and circular markings in black on a pale gray or tawny coat. Long-bodied and short-legged, it has unusually long upper canine teeth. Little is known of its habits for it is nocturnal, arboreal and secretive in the native forests of Nepal and China, south to the Malay States and Indonesia. Average weight for an adult male is about 50 pounds. The cry is reported to resemble “the wind over the mouth of an empty jar.” In Sarawak the teeth are prized as ear ornaments. The Formosan subspecies is listed as endangered.

More is known about the cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, whose broad range formerly encompassed open country from India to Africa. The Asiatic cheetah is listed as an endangered species.

The world’s swiftest mammal, the cheetah hunts by sight, chasing its prey with great bursts of speed. Light weight and long legs add to the cheetah’s speed, up to 65 miles per hour, and the blunt, not fully retractile claws give traction during hot pursuit. Least “catlike” member of the family, it has a reputation for amiability.

In India cheetahs were trained to hunt in a sport akin to falconry, and the speedy cats were tamed by Egyptian royalty as far back as 1500 B.C.

Average weight for the cheetah is about 130 pounds, 4 to 5 feet in length, with a tail half again as long. Prominent “tear streaks,” black lines running from the corner of the eye to the mouth, and small black spots on a tawny coat distinguish the cheetah. Agile as it is, however, the cheetah is not a great climber, and is easily confined in zoos behind lightweight fencing.

There are few records of cheetahs breeding in captivity but the Zoo maintains three females and two males in luxuriant outdoor splendor and leisure.

Hope springs eternal in the zoo-man’s breast.

Often called the least catlike member of the family, the cheetah is built for speed. Blunt claws and tough foot pads give traction, a deep chest improves breathing, and the long tail aids in balancing during a chase. The World's swiftest mammal, cheetahs have been clocked at about 65 m.p.h.
Fierce for its size, 90 pounds, the snow leopard hunts in high, remote mountains of central Asia. Its heavy coat affords protection against the cold and thickly-haired feet act as "snowshoes" to provide traction. Three litters of snow leopard kittens have been raised successfully at the Zoo.

This article originally ran in the March 1971 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership.