Last chance to see Canada Lynx kittens at the Beardsley Zoo

Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo will soon say goodbye to its two Canada Lynx kittens, Ruby and Penny, as they will move in the next several weeks to their permanent home at the Buffalo Zoo. Born on April 26, 2017, the six-month-old kittens are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) program, which is designed to help ensure the survival of selected species, most of which are threatened or endangered in the wild.

The Zoo announced the birth of the kittens on Endangered Species Day to emphasize the critical role of today’s accredited zoos in conservation programs. There is an SSP program in place for each family of animals through oversight by a group called the Taxon Advisory Group (TAG). The Felid (or Cat Family) Taxon Advisory Group makes breeding recommendations for big cats in zoos across the country, based on genetics, age and health of animals, and need for more of the species to protect future populations.

Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo’s Deputy Director, Don Goff, is the chairman of the National Felid TAG group. He leads a committee of AZA-accredited Zoo members whose goal is to save declining species through carefully researched breeding recommendations.

“As sad as we are to say goodbye to Ruby and Penny, the kittens will be leaving us sometime this fall — as soon as their new home is ready,” said Goff. “The planned transfer of animals to other member zoos ensures the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically varied AZA population.”

“Wildlife conservation is one of our most pressing environmental concerns,” added Goff. “The Lynx, like other forest hunters, plays an important role as a carnivore. In the wild, they hunt smaller prey species that reproduce quickly, making their presence as a predator important to forest ecology. Our breeding program supports their continued existence in healthy habitats.”

“We invite you to come see the kittens before they go,” he said.

Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo has had repeated success in breeding endangered species, a testament to the Zoo’s animal care team and the high quality of animal care. Over the past decade, the Zoo has been the birthplace of tiger and wolf cubs, otter pups, piglets, and more. The Lynx kittens’ parents will remain at the Zoo.

About the Canada Lynx

Lynx are light brown to gray in color, similar in appearance to a Bobcat but larger, with longer legs. The tip of their tail is black, and they have long black ear tufts, giving them their distinctive appearance. Lynx lead a solitary life except during breeding season and when mothers travel with their young. Females give birth to between one-five young after a 60-74 day gestation period. Called either cubs or kittens, the young are weaned in two-five months. Lynx kittens learn to actively hunt snowshoe hares, red squirrels, and grouse by the time they are eight months old. Adult lynx are exceptional stalkers, silently ambushing prey once in striking distance.

Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is discounted for the season until March 1, 2018: Adult admission (ages 12 & older) is $12, children (ages 3-11) is $9, senior admission (62 and older) is $8, and children under 3 years old are free. Zoo members also are admitted free. Parking at the Zoo is free of charge.

Don Goff with lynx kitten. —Photo by Shannon Calvert

Don Goff with lynx kitten. —Photo by Shannon Calvert

Strategy behind zoo animal transfers

A visit to a zoo to see the big cats, and small — tigers, lions, leopards and ocelots, among others —can be a thrilling moment for many families. What’s invisible to the public is the careful genetic strategy that ensures that endangered species will be around for a future we can’t yet foresee. Sadly, poaching, climate change and habitat destruction has caused the decline of a number of cat species in the wild. A science-based breeding program overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and their Species Survival Plan (SSP) is the lifeline for many species in zoo collections.

The Species Survival Plan was designed in 1981 to oversee population management of select species in AZA-member zoos, and to enhance conservation of those species in the wild. Each of those programs, in turn, is overseen by a Taxon Advisory Group (TAG). There are 46 TAGs, each dedicated to a specific family of animals, from amphibians to wild pigs.  A lifetime devoted to caring for the cats has put Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo Deputy Director Don Goff in the Felid TAG catbird seat. He’s co-chaired the AZA’s Felid (cat species) TAG for the past five years.

“When an AZA-accredited zoo has an animal birth, like the Canada lynx kittens born at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo last spring, it’s hardly ever accidental. As delightful as zoo babies are to our guests, zoo births only occur when the SSP group for that species has determined that a member zoo has an opening for that animal, and the genetic line would benefit from more young animals to propagate the species,” explained Goff.

Goff was honored at the annual AZA meeting held last month in Indianapolis, where he received a Certificate of Recognition and Appreciation for his five years of leadership and commitment to excellence in the field of animal care and conservation as the Chair for the Felid Taxon
Advisory Group. Before becoming TAG chair, he has served as SSP Chair for the Canada Lynx, as Vice Coordinator for the Tiger SSP/generic tigers (tigers with untraceable or mixed bloodlines), and is currently Vice Chair for the Canid (canine) TAG.

The TAGs are responsible for a Regional Collection Plan, which analyzes what species will be part of the group and placed in member zoos, oversees research on declining populations, produces educational materials and training courses for zookeepers on animal husbandry, including safety, exhibit design, nutrition, and reproduction, and oversees the management of SSPs. A typical TAG includes advisors dedicated specifically to issues such as science, population management, reproduction, medical concerns, and permits (dealing with the import/export of live animals across state and national lines.)
“We transfer cats (and other animals) for breeding purposes,” said Goff, “or for exhibit purposes — for instance, the Buffalo Zoo is a new institution for the Canada lynx SSP and they have no lynx in their collection, which is why our lynx kittens are going there.”

“We may move cats if a zoo is doing away with an exhibit, or if a move is needed temporarily due to a renovation,” he continued. “Or you can have cats that don’t get along—two sisters, or two brothers, for instance. It happens more frequently with single sex pairs.”

It is extremely rare for a zoo to acquire felids from the wild, Goff said. “We may move captive-bred cats to or from other zoos, or even other regions like Europe or Asia if we have a population that is declining, or growing beyond our capacity. You want to have a pyramid of animals, with fewer older cats at the top, and a strong base of young, healthy cats to ensure the sustainability of the species.”

Goff brings a lifetime of experience to the field. He was first employed at Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia, where he began as a keeper by cleaning the elephant and rhino exhibits. He rose in the ranks to a curator, overseeing the entire collection, including 30 lions and nine tigers; he then moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was curator of mammals. For the past 23 years, he has made his home at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo. He’s a fascinating storyteller, with information to share on current research on Snow Leopards with low sperm counts, assisted reproduction in threatened species, and how to check for hormone levels in big cats (it’s present in fecal matter.) Most of his days, however, are spent overseeing the quality of life for the 300 animals in Bridgeport. The Beardsley Zoo animals aren’t aware of the level of science that goes into their daily care, but they don’t need to be. Goff has that covered.   
Goff currently lives in Milford with his wife, Janet, a vet tech and experienced exotic cat handler, three dogs, and two cats (the house cat variety).

Canada Lynx kitten —Photo by Shannon Calvert

Lynx kitten at 6-months-old. Photo by Zookeeper Bethany Thatcher

Lynx kitten at 6-months-old. —Photo by Zookeeper Bethany Thatcher

Don Goff —Photo by Shannon Calvert

Don Goff —Photo by Shannon Calvert

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