First Breeding in Captivity of Arabian Wildcats (felis sylvestris gordoni)
First Breeding in Captivity of Arabian Wildcats (felis sylvestris gordoni)by Marijcke Jongbloed
The first breeding program of Felis sylvestris gordoni was started in Dubai in May 1986 in private ownership. Christian Gross, at that time working on a survey of mammalian wildlife in the Emirate of Dubai, successfully captured a female Arabian Wildcat on June 23, 1985, in the desert near Al Aweer. This approximately two-year old cat was kept in a large wire cage, where she gradually accepted human presence, although up till now she has never let anyone approach her closer than three feet. She was fed on live quail initially but later also accepted killed quail, defrosted chicken, mutton and minced beef. At first, her behavior was entirely nocturnal, although in the second year she would also accept food and come out to sun herself in mid-morning. Faeces were buried in a litter tray from the very first day.
In February 1986 an old male was found in Dubai Zoo that had been brought there by some locals in 1982-83. Exact place and date of capture were unknown. He was estimated to be 9 to 12 years old.
On February 26, 1986, the female was suspected of being in heat for the first time. This was confirmed on February 27 when she was taken to Dubai Zoo and placed in a cage next to that of the male. The following day they were put together. The female ceased calling immediately, although mating was never observed. On March 31, 1986, the Dubai Zoo released the male cat and he was then kept in a wire cage adjacent to the one the female inhabited in the private garden.
On May 4, 1986, the female gave birth to a litter of three kittens (two male, one female) after a gestation period of 65 days. At approximately five weeks, the kittens began to leave the nest box to play. The old male, who by now was quite toothless, was always very interested and never aggressive. Mother and kittens were separated on July 5, 1986, when the kittens were two months old. The mother was placed together with the male again, and this induced her to come into heat around July 25, 1986. Mating was not observed and she showed no signs of pregnancy until September 28 when her stomach dropped. Before she could be moved to the maternity cage, which had a smaller mesh to prevent the kittens from escaping, she suddenly gave birth to another litter of three, two males and a female.
It was decided to leave her with the male and to shift her only when the kittens began to leave the nest box, as this cage had a larger mesh wire through which the kittens could easily escape. This time came when the kittens were about four weeks old. The three young cats from the first litter were shifted into a new cage, the old one cleaned and the mother transferred into the small-mesh cage, leaving the old male behind. Since the kittens of both litters had been handled on numerous occasions, the opportunity to photograph them was taken that afternoon before putting them back with the mother at 6 pm.
At 7 pm the mother was fed, at 9 pm she was observed feeding the kittens and at midnight mother and kittens were playing outside the nest box. At 6 am the following morning the kittens were found dead, the female having been eaten by the mother. The old male died on January 6, 1987. The female came into heat again on January 17 and called continuously until February 3, 1987. The two young males, however, were still too young to mate.
In June, Christian Gross left Dubai and offered one pair of cats to Dr. Claus Mueller. He selected the mother and her son, since this female was proven to be fertile. The other brother and sister went to Dubai Zoo. Dr. Mueller gave his pair of cats to me, for I had inherited Christianís house (and cat cages).
The first mating of mother and son was not observed, but at the end of August 1987 the female was seen to be pregnant. Remembering that C. Gross had described that on both former occasions the female gave birth immediately after her abdomen dropped, I separated her from the male and gave her a choice of boxes in the maternity cage. This time, however, she did not deliver until September 28, exactly one year after the first litter. We left her undisturbed and did not know how many kittens there were and of what sex, until October 21st. That night an owl settled in the back yard near the maternity cage and called several hours at a stretch. (This barn owl had been hand-raised by C. Gross, and having escaped from her present owner, was obviously hungry and at her old home looking for food.)
The next morning two kittens were observed outside the nest box and one was seen to have wounded thigh. A few hours later, the mother was seen devouring one kitten. Immediately she was separated from the others, and three kittens (one male, two females) were taken out of the nest box. One female had a huge tear in its thigh. This was sutured by the vet immediately. The kittens were bottle fed on Cimicat and stimulated by hand to defecate and urinate. They prospered until the age of five weeks when one, and then the others, fell ill with a high fever and a hip joint ailment. The two females needed two antibiotic shots to recover; the male was less severely ill and needed only one dose.
When they had recovered from this ordeal and were beginning to be too large to be kept inside any longer, they were moved to the small-mesh cage (the mother had been put together with the father again). Immediately there were problems: the kittens, being used to my presence and voice, were frantic to get to me and climbed the wire between the two cages, which then triggered an immediate response with the father. He managed to manage one kittenís eye and another kittenís skin underneath the axilla before we took them out again. We then lined the dividing wire wall with burlap sacks and plugged all the holes with rolled-up chicken wire.
Two days later we tried again and this time it took no longer than 10 minutes for the female with the damaged eye to find a hole we had missed and put her right leg through, which the father grabbed from the other side. The ensuing screams brought us running and saved the kittens from worse damage. The remaining kittens were moved into the house again while the injured kitten was taken to the vet.
The leg looked bad with the flesh gone to lay bare nerves and veins, but miraculously these were not damaged. With little hope of success, the wound was closed as well as was possible and the leg put into a cast. It took several weeks but in the end this injury healed without any remaining problems, which was more than could be said of the eye injury which became infected and proved resistant to all treatment, including temporary occlusion of the eye. In the end, it became covered with an opaque, irregular film of tissue through which, at times, the pupil can be seen reacting to light. After this episode, the garage was converted into a kitten cage.
On February 6, 1988, the mother cat refused food and became very inactive and looked ill. After a 24-hour interval with no change in her condition, we called in the vet and proceeded to catch and anaesthetize her for a complete examination. Besides a mild vaginal discharge, nothing was found. She had no temperature and the blood tests were negative. She was given an antibiotic shot and recovered uneventfully from the anesthetic. The disease, which was probably viral, lingered for over a week and the male in the adjacent cage was off color for a few days as well. But both recovered and were put together again on February 15th.
When the female was examined under anesthetic, her teeth showed that she might be a bit older than we had imagined, probably seven or eight years old at that time. In view of this, we decided to keep the one-eyed female, which by now had earned the name of Calamity Jane, as a second breeding female.
The pair of kittens was offered to various European Zoos and Wuppertal Zoo expressed great interest. It was extremely difficult to obtain the necessary CITES permission, but in the end all the necessary papers were acquired and on May 20, 1988 the first pair of Arabian Wildcats was flown to Frankfurt, courtesy of Lufthansa. Two weeks later we visited them in Wuppertal Zoo where they were safely ensconced in an observation-and-isolation unit. Both cats still recognized me and allowed themselves to be petted.
On May 19th 1988 another litter of kittens was born, two males and two females. There grew up without any problems, until they were separated at the age of eight weeks. I decided to try and tame them, because this makes vaccinations, examinations and traveling so much easier. I kept the four kittens in one of the rooms inside the house for five weeks and spent hours with them without the slightest success. In fact, I hardly ever managed to see them and, in the end, we caught them for vaccination and removed to a newly built cage adjoining the former two cages. Tierpark Berlin in East Berlin expressed interest in having them and all four cats were sent there on 26 October 1988. They have been doing well there but they are still too young to breed.
A week after the kittens were separated from the mother she came into heat again and mated the same day, on July 15th. Exactly 65 days later, on September 19th, 1988, a new litter was born, two males and a female. When they were six weeks old they managed to wriggle through a hole in the wire of their cage but were fortunately noticed by my houseboy and retrieved from various trees and neighboring gardens.
In view of what had happened to the second litter after a short separation from the mother, we decided not to put them back with her. Since two of the kittens had eye infections, I took the chance to treat them. I kept them in the guest toilet, where I could catch and handle them daily. Again, I hoped that the daily contact would tame them but this was not the case. Although this litter of kittens tolerates people better than the two litters that grew up without human contact, they are still a long way from being tame. Unfortunately the female kitten became ill after her vaccination for a.o. feline enteritis and died after a week of this disease.
A last litter was born in February 1989 and grew up without mishap. We had arranged for a pair to go on breeding loan to the International Society for Endangered Cats in the USA but when we checked the genders of the new litter, they turned out to be all males. That left us with no choice except to send Calamity Jane along with one of the males of the September litter. This decision was hard to make for Calamity Jane had become very tame to me and I would dearly have loved to find out if any future kittens of hers would be tamed more easily than the kittens of the wild-caught female.
Two male kittens were given to the Breeding Center of the Sultan of Oman in Muscat. We felt that in this area there was the best chance for another wild female to be caught for the much-needed infusion of new blood in the breeding program.
We decided to send the original breeding pair to the San Diego Zoo where they arrived in June 1989. To our surprise, the pair mated unobserved almost immediately and three kittens were born on August 16th 1989. I find it amazing that these wild animals settled down so quickly after a trip to the other side of the world.
The last two males that I still have are intended for the Al Ahreen Breeding Center in Bahrain with the promise of a female cat as soon as we have offspring from the pair that is on breeding loan to the ISEC.
In the meantime, Dubai Zoo has had offspring of the brother-sister pair that they received in April 1987. The first litter to be born died, however, probably because they were unable to escape the summer heat in their enclosure. The second litter, born in August 1988 has grown up beautifully but consists only of males, unfortunately.
In view of the fact that Felis sylvestris gordoni is threatened with extinction through mating with feral cats and destruction of its habitat, this first successful breeding of these lovely Wildcats in captivity is an exciting accomplishment. With six pairs and seven individuals spread over six zoos and breeding centers in Europe, America and Arabia, we feel that the direct threat of extinction has been averted and that there is a good chance that these animals will survive to delight future generations of cat lovers.
Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan
Served from Molalla, Oregon, United States of America