Oakhurst kids go ape over exotic wild cubs

Three-month-old leopard cub Jet Black with a few of his toys. However, he was more curious about all the youngsters. If you look close enough, you can spot the barely distinguishable dark rosettes (rose-like markings) on Jet, common to all leopards.
Three-month-old leopard cub Jet Black with a few of his toys. However, he was more curious about all the youngsters. If you look close enough, you can spot the barely distinguishable dark rosettes (rose-like markings) on Jet, common to all leopards. Sierra Star

No one whispered “Here kitty, kitty,” during last week’s Summer Reading Program event, where a couple of cats put in a special appearance, courtesy of Project Survival’s Cat Haven - cats that can jump the height of a basketball hoop to catch a bird mid-flight, or track rodents underground using exceptional hearing.

Much to the delight of the 78 young attendees sitting cross-legged and motionless in anticipation, Cat Haven staff introduced Zuri, a 1-year-old serval and Jet Black, a 3-month-old leopard cub. Both cats were acquired from zoos.

Zuri has been with Cat Haven since he was six weeks old. Servals, native to the African grasslands typically found south of the Sahara Desert, have lean bodies and long legs. With the largest ears of any other cat, they also have the best hearing. Their coats with black or dark brown markings help disguise them while hunting in tall grasses. A solitary animal (except during the mating period), servals can live up to 20 years.

Strong with fast reflexes, servals don’t chase their prey like leopards or other cats in the wild. Instead, they listen, wait, and when ready, jump in the air to land on their prey. They have the ability to jump 10-feet vertically, or track a rodent underground, and with a 50% kill rate, servals are considered the best hunters in the cat world.

While Zuri (at 28 pounds) is considered a medium-sized cat, leopard Jet Black falls into the larger cat category. Closely related to lions, tigers and jaguars, leopards are very agile, good swimmers, able to run 36 mph, leap more than 20 feet and jump up to 10 feet. They’re so comfortable in trees that they often haul their prey up into the branches as protection from other predators and scavengers.

With a lifespan of 12-17 years in the wild, these cats can be found throughout most of Africa and Asia. Solitary by nature, females only break their solitude while raising cubs.

It’s easy to differentiate cheetahs from leopards. Cheetahs have evenly distributed spots, while leopards have distinctive dark flower-like markings, known as rosettes. However, because Jet is so black, which is rare, his dark markings are practically indistinguishable from his coat.

Cat Haven

“When I was in the seventh grade - not much older than you - someone brought a mountain lion to my class,” Cat Haven Founder and Executive Director Dale Anderson told the youngsters. “Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by cats and have always wanted a mountain lion.”

Growing up with a strong desire to help cats in the wild and later seeing the need for this type of organization, Anderson founded Project Survival’s Cat Haven in 1993.

Now home to 35 different cats, Cat Haven is a wild animal park in Dunlap, east of Fresno, dedicated to the preservation of threatened and endangered species of wild cats. A variety of species are housed there, including tigers, leopards, and other small cats. Monies raised from presentations - like the one in Oakhurst - go towards the conservation project.

“We’re excited to be able to teach the children in Oakhurst about what is happening to cats in the wild and about exotic cats in general,” Assistant Director Wendy Debbas said. “This fun day with Zuri and Jet may inspire some of these children to become biologists or zoologists in the future, and birth a love to help conserve these beautiful animals for future generations.”

Cat Haven, which offers tours and hands-on learning, is frequented by schools on field trips. Staff also travel with the cats for summer school programs.

And by the way, that wish Anderson made so many decades ago became a recent reality when Cat Haven acquired 8-month-old, Sam - a mountain lion.

Details or to donate: cathaven.com.

Reading program

The summer reading program comes to an end with the finale party, 10 a.m., July 26, at the Oakhurst Community Center.

“I’m more than overjoyed at the attendance and participation with this year’s Summer Reading Program,” Oakhurst Library Manager Dale Rushing said. “We have more children and teens reading throughout the week and turning in their logs than ever before. That means we’re on the right track in encouraging them to read during summer months. Cheers to the families, kids and teens who have discovered the joys of reading. It makes our job well worthwhile.”

NOTE: For more photos and a short video, visit www.sierrastar.com.