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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The elusive Snow Leopard at San Francisco's Zoo

It took four trips to the San Francisco Zoo to finally see their snow leopard. It was definitely worth the wait. The first time I was there it decided to lay right under the viewing window to take a nap so you could barely see it. The second and third time it was MIA in its enclosure. But today she (or possibly he) was not only out but was very active.

Photographing some of the zoo animals is challenging because their entire enclosure is behind wire fencing. This means you have to use the manual focus function on your camera to be able to focus on the animals. If you don't, you end up with a nice picture of the fencing with a blurry leopard behind it.

To get these photos I had to use my strongest zoom lens, a 100-300mm, fully extended, and manually focused. It made the fence disappear as the lens focused on the leopard instead of the foreground. To make things even more challenging my ISO was set at 400 to 800 because the enclosure is in a shaded area in the late afternoon.

I arrived at the zoo at 2:00'ish PM and spent the next two hours until closing time with this magnificent creature. It was very active so I had to wait until it stopped moving to be able to get these images. Once it stopped moving it mostly just sat but I did catch this great yawn.

And here's a portrait with a forepaw included. Their paws are very large and act as snow shoes because there's a lot of snow in the Himalayas where they come from.

Look at the size of that paw!

The only way to photograph the leopard's entire body was to back out on the zoom, which, even with the manual focus, meant the fence became partially visible.

This is the snow leopard enclosure. It's easy to overlook. You'll find it tucked on the east side of the Lion House. See that small shed on the far side? Guess what's in it.

A second leopard has been introduced to the zoo. A zoo employee told me it's a male and there to breed with their female. OMSL. Can you even imagine if there are baby snow leopard pictures in our future?

Every 20 minutes or so the leopard I was photographing, I think it was the female, would approach the enclosure where the new leopard is being housed. It would rear up on its hind legs and bang on the window with its front paws. When this happened the other leopard would spring up and smack the same window from the inside.

Those are leopard paws slamming against the window.

After these interactions the first leopard would act just like our pet cat, rubbing it's face against the wooden platforms it climbs on.

This shot is a fun one. All of a sudden the resting leopard rolled onto its back and stuck out its tongue. LOL

The SF Zoo's snow leopard page on its website says:

"Status In The Wild
Snow leopards are classified as endangered by IUCN (1978), USDI (1980) and on Appendix I of the CITES census which estimated that there are 4,500 – 7,000 in the wild, and about 450 in zoos around the world. Because they are so elusive and blend so well into their environment, it is difficult to determine their exact number. Humans are their only enemy. They are killed for their fur and for bones which are used in Asian medicines."

I've said it before and I still feel the same way that I both appreciate and hate that animals are kept in zoos. I wish San Francisco could afford to upgrade every older exhibit into larger more natural habitats and I'd feel better about things because I know the animals would be more comfortable.

But then I read the news and often feel gutted when I read about how elephant and rhinoceros are literally being driven to extinction by the illegal trade for their tusks and horns and tigers are in jeopardy for their bones. Quite frankly, it pisses me off that Asian cultures in particular are willing to exterminate an entire species because they believe the animal's body parts possess some kind of mystical power. They don't. But even if they did it wouldn't be worth it to drive them to extinction because once they're gone the body part people seek will no longer be available. Then the only animals left will be in zoos.

Because of this I support zoos but hope that more of them will be able to afford to create larger and more natural habitat enclosure for the animals they keep. It may be the only way to save them.

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