Hawk Creek was honored to collaborate with the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium to work with an unique species, Sand Cats! The genetics from these cats are vital to the global Sand Cat population since they are unrepresented in the US. Keeping genetics diverse is the best way to preserve species, both captive and wild. Through this project Hawk Creek has made groundbreaking discoveries that challenge the typical manner in which this species is housed. First and foremost, Sand Cats have typically been housed strictly indoors by most institutions. The Center believes that there is an immeasurable benefit to be had from sunshine, fresh air and choice. Even in Buffalo, our Sand Cats have thrived by having the option to go outside when they choose, even in the snow! In managing sand cats in this manner we have never experienced any of the typical health issues that the species is prone to when housed indoors.
More astoundingly, our two female sand cats, Nyala and Sahara, displayed a behavior never observed or recorded in this species in captivity. Throughout the year Nyala, Sahara and Juba, the only male, are housed together and share exhibit space and indoor housing. Typically, after breeding season Juba is separated from the females if one of both begin showing indications of pregnancy. All three live together year-round (even going out in the snow) and breeding can occur throughout the year. Another common practice has been to separate the females prior to either giving birth. Sand cats are a solitary species, and little is known of their mating behaviors because of their elusiveness in the wild and rarity in captivity. Hawk Creek has made many observations since beginning the project and noticed the females often calling to each other while separated and caring for their own litter of kittens. In 2020 we decided to test the theory that the females may do well staying together during the birth process. Sure enough, not only did they live together successfully, but also co-parented! If Sahara needed a break from the kittens, Nyala would babysit and vice versa, developing their own communal care-taking system. Hawk Creek is the first institution in the world to study and record this behavior. This co-parenting produced larger, healthier and more robust cubs from both females. We are always looking for methods of increasing the quality of life for our residents and maintaining a stress-free and pleasant environment to live and thrive, which these cats certainly did with incredible reproductive success! This trio produced more than 20 cubs that have since gone across the country to represent their species.
This project accomplished a lot for Sand Cat conservation in just a few short years. In 2021, Columbus Zoo experienced changes in management that lead to the zoo recalling all of their animals that were on loan to other institutions. We said goodbye to Sahara, Nyala and Juba but you can still visit Dune & Ra, offspring of the trio, at the Center where they continue to educate guests about this amazing desert wildcat.