Peggy the caracal is named 2012 'Mom of the Year'

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First-time mom and three little kittens helped spread zoo's conservation message

The Oregon Zoo has named Peggy the caracal its 2012 Mother of the Year. The first-time mom gave birth to three energetic and playful kittens last June and did an outstanding job of raising them into adult cats, according to zoo staff. No longer dependent on their mother, two of the three young caracals have recently moved to new homes.

"We are very proud of Peggy," said senior Africa keeper Asaba Mukobi. "It was great to see her doing everything she possibly could to care for her kittens. She was very protective, made sure everyone got enough to eat, and set boundaries for them once they started moving around."

Peggy gave birth to her litter June 8 in a behind-the-scenes nest box that keepers had prepared for the occasion. In the days leading up to and immediately following the birth, zoo animal-care staff monitored Peggy around the clock via remote camera. Keepers had volunteered for four-hour watches, sleeping on cots at the zoo between their shifts.

"Our staff was completely dedicated to ensuring the health of Peggy and her kittens," Mukobi said. "Thankfully, she didn't need much help from us. She did a great job on her own."

At birth, the caracals' tufted ears – a distinguishing feature of the small African cats – were flat against their heads, but after a few weeks they stood fully upright. Zoo visitors got their first glimpse of the kittens in September, when the three were given regular access to the caracal habitat.

"The kittens were very active," recalled Asaba Mukobi, senior Africa keeper. "On their first day outside, they would chirp whenever their mom was out of their view, and Peggy would go and get them. She was an excellent mother."

The three siblings were healthy from day one and grew rapidly. Keepers voted to name them Mkuze ("mih-KOO-zee"), Binti and Aziza. Mkuze, the male kitten, is named after an African wildlife reserve. The female kittens' names are Swahili; Binti means "young lady daughter" and Aziza means "gorgeous."

In March, both Binti and Aziza moved down south – Binti going to the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas and Aziza to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. Mkuze remains at the Oregon Zoo for now, but will likely be transferring soon.

"Caracals don't live in family groups like lions, and male caracals don't live in the same space as their offspring," Mukobi said. "After the kittens were born, we alternated which caracals went on exhibit, so Cricket, the father, wouldn't be out at the same time as the kittens. Now that the cats have grown up and no longer need their mother, they are moving on to other zoos, and Cricket and Peggy can share the habitat again."

Peggy came to the zoo in 2009 from a conservation center in Mena, Ark. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which coordinates nationwide breeding programs for many of the species housed by zoos, recommended her for breeding with the kittens' father, Cricket, because the cats are from the same subspecies. Cricket was born at the Lory Park Zoo and Owl Sanctuary in South Africa, and moved to the Oregon Zoo in winter 2011.

The zoo's caracal habitat, which was built with the support of Portland General Electric, is part of the zoo's Predators of the Serengeti exhibit. The caracals have access to a heated den and a spacious landscape dotted with trees, shrubs, heated rocks and grassy knolls, all of which are enriching for the feline residents.

Caracals live in the woodlands and savannas of Africa, Southwest Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. While caracals are listed in the category of "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, hunting and habitat loss pose risks to wild populations. The caracal is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES is an international treaty controlling the trade of threatened and endangered plants and animals.